Las gaitas: Iberian bagpipes

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by Adam O’Hara

The skirl of the pipes is the most distinctive of Scottish sounds.  However, although bagpipe music is most closely associated with the rich musical traditions of Scotland and Ireland, these Celtic nations are not the only ones to play the pipes.  In recent decades there has been a revival of the Northumbrian pipes, but there are yet other parts of the world where the skirl of the pipes has always been an integral part of musical culture.

Nestling in the north west corner of Spain lie the regions of Galicia and Asturias. Commonly regarded as being ‘the Celtic nations of Spain’, Galicia and Asturias are home to an active and vital native bagpiping tradition of their own.  Bagpipes are also found in other regions of Spain but the tradition is most closely associated with these wind and sea-swept Atlantic regions of the far north west.

Bagpipes are surprisingly widespread.  Native bagpiping traditions have been recorded from a number of European countries.  As well as the Scottish great pipes or pìobaireachd mòr and the Irish uillean pipes, there are Lowland pipes of Scotland which, like the Irish pipes, are fed by air from bellows.  England has its own bagpipes in the Northumbrian pipes, which are typically smaller and higher pitched than the Scottish great pipes.  Bagpipes are also found in certain central and eastern European countries such as Hungary and the Ukraine.

The Galician and Asturian bagpipes, called gaitas in Spanish, differ somewhat from their better known Scottish cousin being smaller and higher pitched.  The name gaitas is believed to derive from the language of the ancient Gothic rulers of Spain, gait means ‘goat’ and refers to the goatskin which was traditionally used to manufacture the bagpipes’ bag.  The name of the bagpipes in some other languages, such as Hungarian, also appears to derive from this Gothic word and it is thought that the Goths played an important role in spreading the use of the instrument across Europe as they crossed the continent raiding and settling in the aftermath of the fall of the Roman Empire.

The early history of the bagpipes is obscure.  In previous historical eras musicians were regarded as having a social status rather similar to that of prostitutes or beggars and the activities of musicians and their instruments were not generally recorded by respectable writers.  As bagpipes were made out of perishable materials, such as skin and wood, examples rarely survive in the archaeological record, which makes it all the harder to trace the history and development of the instrument.

Another factor which makes bagpipe history more obscure is that the instrument never became established as part of the classical orchestra, and so bagpipes and the music played on them were regarded as a peasant instrument fit only for playing peasant music.  Being associated with low and rough classes of people they were not of interest to the sophisticated readership of Mediaeval and Renaissance writers.

Such a lack of hard information has led to all sorts of speculation about the origins and history of bagpipes.  There are brief mentions in the writings of Roman and Greek authors which hint that they knew of some type of bagpipe-like instrument, and some Biblical passages have also been interpreted as referring to bagpipes.  The oldest known certain depiction of a bagpipe-like instrument is a small terracotta statue which is now in the Staatliche Museum in Berlin in Germany.  This little statue was discovered in Alexandria in Egypt the 19th century and is believed to have been made sometime around 100 years or so before the time of Christ.  At the time Alexandria was a predominantly Greek-speaking city under Roman rule.  The Romans are usually given the credit for spreading the use of the bagpipes throughout their Empire.

However, it is not until the Middle Ages in Europe that we begin to see clear depictions of bagpipes in illustrations in manuscripts and clear mentions of what would become the modern instrument.  One of the earliest of these is from a Spanish document called Las Cantigas de Santa Maria ‘the Canticles of Holy Maria’, which dates to the reign of King Alfonso X El Sabio ‘the Wise’ and was composed sometime between the years 1221 and 1284.  Bagpipes were well known in Spain during this period.  Interestingly enough, this is considerably earlier than any definite evidence of bagpipes being used in Scotland.  Asturian and Galician bagpipers like to claim that it was the Iberian Celts who introduced bagpipes to their cousins in Scotland and Ireland, and perhaps there is a grain of truth in this idea.

The Asturian and Galician bagpipes are the best known in Spain, but there are, in fact, a number of other regions of the country where traditional music was played on a type of bagpipe.  Aragón, Catalunya and the Balearic Island of Mallorca also have an indigenous tradition of bagpiping.  The Catalan bagpipes are called sacs de gemecs which can be literally translated as the charming sounding ‘fart bags’.  The Mallorcan bagpipes are called the xeremia and are of great interest to historians of music as they are an especially primitive type of bagpipe which is not too far removed from what must have been the original form of the instrument.  Another version of the bagpipes, called the gaita de boto or ‘wineskin bagpipes’ is found in the province of Aragón. These received their name from the fact that they were originally made out of goatskins which had previously been used for storing wine.  The Basques, too, seem to have had their own bagpipes, called the xaranbel, although the use of this instrument seems to have died out during the 19th century.   

The Asturian and Galician bagpipes differ slightly from one another.  Both are considerably smaller in size than the Scottish great-pipes, but the Asturian pipes are slightly larger than the Galician ones and are claimed to produce a wider range and depth of tones.  Traditionally these pipes are made by highly-skilled artisans from specially- selected locally grown boxwood.  The manufacture of the pipes is a lengthy and time consuming process, as the wood must be allowed to cure naturally in order for the pipes to have an acceptable timbre.  Other woods are also used, such as ebony, which was the wood of choice for the manufacture of the Scottish bagpipes.  

During the 1980s there was a great revival of interest in traditional Asturian and Galician music and culture and the gaitas enjoyed something of a renaissance.  The first Asturian pipe bands were formed in the early 1980s and played with great success throughout the province, later winning international recognition at the annual festival of Celtic music held in Lorient in Brittany.  Soon Asturian pipe bands formed, not just in Asturias itself, but all over Spain.  An annual piping championship was established along the same lines as piping competitions in Scotland.  These have brought an awareness an appreciation of bagpipe music to a much wider audience across all of Spain.

Irish and Scottish traditional music has always been surprisingly popular in Spain, in no small measure due to the tradtional Celtic identity of Asturias and Galicia.   International music festivals and tours have brought Scottish, Irish, Asturian and Galician musicians together, and their traditions have now started to influence one another so we find Spanish bagpipers playing Scottish music and Scottish bagpipers playing Asturian tunes.

The Galician musician Carlos Núñez is considered one of the best bagpipers, of any tradition, in the world.  Núñez famously collaborated with the internationally renowned Irish band the Chieftains with such success that he has sometimes been called ‘the seventh Chieftain’.  Perhaps more than any other recording artist, Núñez was responsible for bringing the Celtic musical traditions of the Iberian peninsula back into the international spotlight.  His first solo CD, A Irmandade das Estrelas meaning ‘the Brotherhood of the Stars’ in the Galician language, brought about a boom in Celtic music from Spain which continues to this day.  More recently Núñez was responsible for the haunting soundtrack to the Spanish movie Mar Adentro, ‘Out to Sea’, which won the Oscar for best foreign language film in 2005.

Other Galician bagpipers have also established international reputations, such as Xosé Manuel Budiño and Susana Seivane who is regarded by many as being the best female bagpiper in the world.  Another well-known cross-over musician is the Asturian bagpiper Jose Ángel Hevia whose 1998 CD Tierra de Nadie ‘No Man’s Land’ with its Enya influenced sound established him across Europe as a major recording artist.  

So if you happen to be wandering through the streets of a little Spanish village on holiday and you hear the skirl of the bagpipes in the distance, chances are it won’t be a homesick Scotsman, it’s far more likely to be a an Asturian or Galician gaitero.