La Musgaña - Spanish music's colourful Celtic lilt

Article by Tony Montague, published February 2, 2007 in the Globe & Mail

Mention "Spanish folk music" and most people will think of the flamenco guitars, handclaps and castanets of Andalucia. But the tunes played by La Musgaña come mainly from the eastern part of Castille, in the Iberian heartland. And the Madrid-based band features a wealth of woodwinds: bagpipes, flutes, clarinet and the gaita charra y tamboril -- the original one-man band.

"With the right hand, the musician plays a three-holed flute, and with the left hand, he strikes a double-headed drum," explains Jaime Munoz, one of the group's founding members.

"We rearrange and rework the music of this instrument, which has been heard for centuries in the villages, keeping the rhythms and melodies, but adding harmony and other instruments -- some very contemporary, such as the electric bass."

As well, the band draws inspiration from the bagpipes of the Zamora region, whose sound is sweeter and lighter than that of Scottish pipes.

Munoz became fascinated with Celtic music in the seventies, when he and his high-school buddies began playing Irish tunes. "We wondered all the time if we would ever find anything similar in Spain. Then one day my colleague, Quique Almendros, was astonished to turn on his radio and hear this music that sounded at times Arabic, at times Celtic, played on a flute and drum. He found out where the player came from, went to visit him many times and absorbed the music."

La Musgaña was formed 20 years ago to further explore this largely buried Spanish sound. Each member undertook to learn new instruments. Munoz, already a flute player, opted for the clarinet.

"Though there isn't really a tradition for clarinet, a type of oboe called the dulzaina used to be quite common around Castille 100 years ago. It's a loud and piercing instrument, and was perfect for the outdoors."

The music of La Musgaña is exceptionally rich in rhythm, colour and texture. On Temas Profanos, the band's most recent recording, the melodic line is usually carried by a woodwind. Accordion and fiddle are used primarily for accompaniment, sometimes with the nasal buzz of a hurdy-gurdy. Funky bass broadens the sound.

"You need a big spectrum of frequencies to make this music work from a stage," Munoz says. "We are usually a quintet and have a percussion player, though not for this tour of North America. Percussion is very important in the music of all Spanish regions. This is probably an inheritance from the times when most of the country was ruled by the Moors. But also our homegrown folk music is very participatory, and everybody can take a percussion instrument and join in."

Munoz encourages the audience to help recreate the ambience of a Spanish fiesta. "This music was made for enjoyment and celebration -- not to be some aural exhibit in a museum. It was something shared by the community. Now, we present it from a stage, but it's still very important for us to have everyone actively share in its joy and spirit."