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traditional Asturian dancers

The traditional music of Galicia and Asturias has Celtic roots, and it has some similarities with the neighbouring areas of Cantabria and northern Portugal. In a similar way to the Balearic Islands, it is characterized by an extensive use of bagpipes.



In recent times, many Galician folk musicians have considered Galician music to be at least partially "Celtic" in origin, and whether or not this is the case much modern commercial Galician folk and folk-rock is strongly influenced by Irish and Scottish traditions. Certainly, Galicia is nowadays a strong player on the international Celtic folk scene. As a result, elements of the pre-industrial Galician tradition have become integrated into the modern Celtic folk repertoire and style. Many, however, claim that the "Celtic" appellation is merely a marketing tag, such as bagpipe player Susana Seivane, who said "I think [the 'Celtic' moniker is] a label, in order to sell more. What we make is Galician music". In any case, due to the "Celtic" brand, the Galician music industry is the only non Castilian speaking music of Spain that has an audience beyond the country's borders. Some argue that this celtic "boom" was in fact the final death blow delivered to a distinctly Galician musical tradition.

The ancestors of the Celts lived in Spain after about 600 BC. Little is known about the population that existed there before them. During the 1st century, the Roman Empire conquered all of modern Spain and Portugal. The Latin language came to dominate the region and is the ancestor of all the Romance languages of the Iberian Peninsula: Galician, Portuguese, Aragonese, Aranese, Astur-Leonese-Mirandese, Spanish, and Catalan. With the exception of Basque, all the other regional languages died out. The departure of the Romans in the 5th century led to the invasion by the Germanic Suevi people in the northwest, who left little cultural impact.

In VI century, the last celtic migration wave reached Galicia. The Britons arrived and stayed there, founding their own religious settlement, Britonia, while they were escaping from the Anglo-Saxons.

In 810, it was claimed that the remains of Saint James, one of the apostles, had been found in Galicia. The site, which soon became known as Santiago de Compostela, was the premier pilgrimage destination in the European Middle Ages. This had a monumental effect on the folk culture of the area, as the pilgrims brought with them elements, including musical instruments and styles, from as far afield as Scandinavia.

However, little is known about musical traditions from this era. A few manuscripts are known, such as those by the 13th century poet and musician Martín Codax, which indicate that some distinctive elements of modern music, such as the bagpipes or flutes, were common by then. The Cantigas de Santa Maria, a collection of manuscrites written in old galician language, also show illustrations of people playing bagpipes.


The Galician folk revival drew on early 20th century performers like Perfecto Feijoo, a bagpipe and hurdy-gurdy player. The first commercial recording of Galician music had come in 1904, by a corale called Aires d'a Terra from Pontevedra. The middle of the century saw the rise of Ricardo Portela, who inspired many of the revivalist performers, and played in influential bands like Milladoiro.

During the regime of Francisco Franco, honest displays of folk life were replaced with rehearsed spectacles of patriotism, leading to a decline in popularity for traditional styles. The appropriation and sanitization of folk culture for the authorities led to a perception that folk music was unauthentic and old-fashioned. In the late 1970s, recordings of Galician bagpipes flourished, as well as the Festival Internacional do Mundo Celta (1977), which helped establish some Galician bands. Aspiring performers began working with bands like Os Areeiras, Os Rosales, Os Campaneiros and Os Irmáns Garceiras, learning the folk styles; others went to the renowned workshop of Antón Corral at the Universidade Popular de Vigo. Some of these musicians then formed their own bands, like Milladoiro.

In the 1980s and 1990s, some famous performers began to emerge from the Galician and Asturian music scenes. Galician musicians of this period included Uxía, a singer originally with the band Na Lúa, whose 1995 album Estou vivindo no ceo and a subsequent collaboration with Sudanese singer Rasha, gained her an international following. The appearance of Fía na Roca, (that means "Spin in the spinning wheel") was undoubtedly one of the key events of the Galician musical scene in the 90's. Fía na Roca was also the name of their debut album released in 1993. Its mixture of tradition and modernity led BBC to choose the music of this album as the soundtrack of the TV program that broadcasted the Galician image to Europe in the 1993 Xacobeo Celebration (Santiago de Compostela's Holy Year).

It was Carlos Nuñez, however, who has done the most to popularize Galician traditions. His 1996 A irmandade das estrelas sold more than 100,000 copies and saw major media buzz, partially due to the collaboration with well-known foreign musicians like La Vieja Trova Santiaguera, The Chieftains and Ry Cooder. His follow-up, Os amores libres, included more fusions with flamenco, Celtic music (especially Breton) and Berber music.

Other modern Galician bagpipe players include Xosé Manuel Budiño and Susana Seivane. Seivane is especially notable as the first major female player, paving the way for many more women in a previously male-dominated field. Galicia's most popular singers are also mostly female, including Uxía, Sonia Lebedynski and Mercedes Peón.

A revival of traditional Asturian music also occurred during this period. Artists such as the popular bagpiper Hevia and music groups such as Llan de cubel and Tejedor helped to bring attention to Asturian folk music both within Asturias itself, and in the wider realm of the "celtic" and world music scenes. Musicians from Asturias have become increasingly prominent at events such as the Festival Interceltique de Lorient in France.

As this revival spreads, such famed Asturian Celtic bands as "Brenga Astur" are continually gaining notoriety across the world. [1]

Traditional instruments

Tradicional musicians with pitu and drum in Cantabria.

Traditional instruments in Galicia, Asturias and Cantabria include the well-known gaita, a kind of bagpipe, as well as an array of percussion and wind instruments.


Wind instruments

Folk wind instrument of the area include the pitu, a kind of conical-bored shawm with seven holes in the front and one in the back, which is played in a similar manner to the bagpipe chanter. While it was traditionally made in E-flat, the instrument has been revitalized by Antón Corral, who makes them in D. A transverse flute with six holes is called a requinta; it is similar to the fife. It is usually in G, or sometimes a high C. Other wind instruments include chifre, ocarina and the imported clarinet and accordion. Cantabria has a rich dance repertoire for soprano clarinet, also known as pitu or requinto (not to be confused with the requinta fife).

String instruments

Plucked stringed instruments are common throughout Spain and Portugal, but they were proscribed in Galician or Asturian commercial folk music until recent years. Modern guitarists like Xesús Pimentel often use strong flamenco influences in their sound. The violin has a long tradition in the area, common since the early 20th century, when blind fiddlers traveled to fairs to play traditional and self-composed songs, as well as pieces by composers like Sarasate. The hurdy gurdy (zanfona) has been played in the area for many centuries, but had mostly died out by the middle of the 20th century before being revived by Faustino Santalices, Xosé Lois Rivas and the like. Though the instrument is now more closely associated with French music, the first recordings of the hurdy gurdy were by Galician Perfecto Feijoo in 1904. Harps had been used in the Middle Ages, but were not revived until the 1970s, when Emilio Cao used the instrument to accompany his compositions. Modern harpists have been encouraged by the use of the Celtic harp in Scotland, Ireland and Brittany, and include Quico Comesaña and Rodrigo Romaní.


Percussion instruments include the tamboril, a snare drum that hangs from the player's belt and is played with two sticks. It is small, natural-skinned and features snares made usually of gut. Along with the bombo, a bass drum played with one stick, the tamboril is typically found as accompaniment to bagpipes. The pandeiro (Asturian: panderu) is a double-faced, square frame drum, similar to the Portuguese and Castilian adufe. It usually contains some beans that rattle inside. It is often played alongside the pandeireta, a large tambourine, in small groups or by a single female singer. A pair of vieira shells (cunchas) are rubbed together, and accompany dancing. Tarrañolas (Asturian and Spanish: tejoletas) are strips of wood held between the fingers. Charrasco consists of a pole with a frame on the top adorned with tambourine rattles; it is played by rubbing a string along the pole with a stick. Other percussion instruments are canaveira and carraca.


Though bagpipes are associated to the traditions of Scotland, they are actually found throughout Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and India, including Aragon, Catalonia, León, Majorca, Zamora and Portuguese Minho, Trás-os-Montes and Estremadura. The term gaita may refer to a variety of different pipes, shawms, recorders, flutes and clarinets in different areas of Spain and Portugal.

The instrument was common and popular by the 15th century, followed by a decline until the 19th century renaissance of the instrument. The early 20th century saw another decline. Then, beginning in about the 1970s, a roots revival heralded another rebirth. The folk revival may have peaked in the late 1990s, with the release of acclaimed albums by Galician Carlos Núñez (A Irmandade Das Estrelas) and Asturian Hevia (Tierra De Nadie). Both releases broke records, and Tierra De Nadie sold more than a million copies.

In the 18th century, an important teaching school was opened in Asturias, created by José Remis Vega. Musicians of that era included the legendary Ramón García Tuero, while the 20th century produced performers like Vega's son, José Remis Ovalle and José Antonio García Suárez. The best-known modern Asturian player is Hevia, whose 1998 Tierra De Nadie was a landmark recording that smashes record sales and became the darling of the Spanish music media. Other modern performers and bands include Tejedor and Xuacu Amieva.

Traditional use include both solo performances or with a snare-drum known as tamboril (a wooden natural-skinned drum with gut snares), and the bombo, a bass drum.

Galician bagpipes come in three main varieties, though there are exceptions and unique instruments. These include the tumbal (B-flat), grileira (D) and redonda (C). Asturian bagpipes are usually played along with a tambor (snare drum). Asturian bagpipes usually have only one drone and follow a different fingering pattern.


The player inflates the bag using his mouth through a tube fitted with a non-return valve. Air is driven into the chanter (Galician: punteiro; Asturian: punteru) with the left arm controlling the pressure inside the bag. The chanter has a double reed similar to a shawm or oboe, and a conical bore with seven finger-holes on the front. The bass drone (ronco or roncón) is situated on the player's left shoulder and is pitched two octaves below the key note of the chanter; it has a single reed. Some bagpipes have up to two more drones, including the ronquillo or ronquilla, which sticks out from the bag and plays an octave above the ronco, or the smaller chillón. This two extra drones are placed by the right arm of the player.

The finger-holes include three for the left hand and four for the right, as well as one at the back for the left thumb. The chanter's tonic is played with the top six holes and the thumb hole covered by fingers. Starting at the bottom and (in the Galician fingering pattern) progressively opening holes creates the diatonic scale. Using techniques like cross-fingering and half-holding, the chromatic scale can be created. With extra pressure on the bag, the reed can be played in a second octave, thus giving range of an octave and a half from tonic to top note. It is also possible to close the tone hole with the little finger of the right hand, thus creating a semitone below the tonic.


Tunes using the gaita are usually songs, with the voice either accompanying the instrumentation or taking turns with it.

The most common type is the muiñeira, found in both Asturias and Galicia, a sprightly 6/8 rhythm. Other 6/8 Galician tunes use different steps; they include the carballesa, ribeirana, redonda, chouteira and contrapaso.

The asturian alborada usually-instrumental tune, most often in 2/4, though sometimes 3/4, and is characterized by a series of descending turning phrases. It is used to begin a day's celebrations, and is played at sunrise. Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov included three asturian movements (two Alboradas and one Fandango Asturiano) in his famous orchestral work Capriccio espagnol, Op. 34, written in 1887.

The foliada is a joyful 3/4 jota-type song, often played at romerías (community gatherings at a local shrine).


The oldest and best-known form of Galician music is the alalá, a form of chanting that has been associated with Galician nationalism. They share characteristics with Celtic nations as well as Castilian, German, Arab and other Mediterranean-area peoples. Their origin is shrouded in mystery, with some scholars asserting Gregorian chants as a major source, while others fancily point to Greek or Phoenician rowing songs called alelohuías.

Alalás are arhythmic, and based on a single, short theme that repeats the melody, separated by instrumental bagpipes or a cappella interludes. Melodies are based on a continuous drone and are almost always diatonic. Over time, alalas have adapted to include choral polyphony which has added harmony and rhythms (most typically in 2/4 or 3/4 time) to the tradition. A distinct feature of alalas is that the first cadence is also the last. They end in an enlarged coda that fades into a sustained and undefined sound. In contrast to the typically slow alalá there are also swift songs called pandeirada.

Marching tunes (Galician: ruadas, Asturian: pasucáis, Spanish: pasacalles) are also known, as well as the local variation of jota.

Other Asturian dances include saltón, diana, respingu, pericote, fandango, pasodoble, marcha procesional, rebudixu, corri-corri, baile de los pollos, giraldilla and xiringüelu.


Baile is the term for social dances, though there are also weapon dances like danzas de palillos (stick dances), danzas de espadas (sword dances) and danzas de arcillos (dances with decorated arches) a hallmark of Cantabrian folk tradition. Other popular dance songs in the area include the jota, pasacorredoiras (pasacalles, Asturian: pasucáis), and the imported fandango, mazurka, polka, rumba and pasodoble.


  • Cronshaw, Andrew. "Celtic Iberia". 2001. In Mathieson, Kenny (Ed.), Celtic music, pp. 140-175. Backbeat Books. ISBN 0-87930-623-8
  • Celtic Music Base, large biographical directory of Celtic musicians.


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