Guitars, definitely yes, castanets, quite possibly, but the one thing you don’t expect to see when on holiday in Spain are bagpipes. Up in the northern regions along the Cantabrian coast, however, you are likely to come across more than perhaps you’d find in Scotland. In Asturias, with its Celtic links and culture, the traditional folklore music is based around the gaita asturiana (Asturian bagpipe) and a large single drum. Turn any corner in any town or village and you are likely to find groups of men, women and children dancing happily to these traditional bagpipes and drums, the colourful bandas des gaitas (pipe bands).
Spending a slightly damp day touring the excellent museums of Oviedo during our Slow Train through Asturias
trip (the Archaeological Museum and Art Museum are most definitely recommended, don’t wait for a rainy day), it seemed as though each room echoed to this music as different bandas des gaitas
moved around the squares and streets surrounding the museum buildings and the sounds filtered through the shuttered windows. Later, over a lazy lunch on a terrace near the Catedral de San Salvador we watched a spectacular wedding spilling out into the square. Elegant women teetered on dangerously high heels while smartly dressed men chattered about football. All stopped to dance and clap as one of the pipe bands joined in the celebrations, the rhythmic music setting everyone’s feet tapping. Even the bride twirled on the cobbles in her tightly corseted dress with a glass of fizz, surrounded by family and friends and encouraging cries of “¡Viva!
Exploring the old quarter of this beautiful city, every plaza seemed full of these musical dancing bands, colourfully dressed in traditional costume. The men wear dark felted hats, one side much larger than the other and folded up so that it forms a distinctive point, along with buttoned breeches and hand knitted socks held up by gaiters. Both women and men have intricately embroidered waistcoats and shawls and leather or uncomfortable looking wooden clogs. Some bands had a smart matching colour scheme whilst others wore a rainbow of handmade items. What was evidently clear though was their pride in upholding these traditions, everybody stopped to watch and clap as they passed. Families held hands and joined in the singing, drivers tooted their horns and, caught up in the mêlée, we found ourselves joining the throng following the crowd as the pipers marched through the streets, humming to the sound of Asturias. With the reedy tones of the bagpipe, swirling skirts and methodical beat of the drum, it felt like we were part of an ancient folk tale.
At each square along the way, the bands joined hands in circular groups and danced to the melancholic voice of a single female singer, moving in and out to the verse then joining in with the chorus, crowds included, before the pipes and drums took over, and the circles broke into swirling couples. Some of the songs were sad and haunting, tales of hard lives living off the land and sea, of poverty and rebellion, lost love and tragedy but others were joyful with an infectious beat. Larger bands had pennants, carried proudly before the musicians, each embroidered with their name and symbol, matching those on the men’s waistcoats. The afternoon drifted past in a musical tour of Oviedo as we watched the different bandas des gaitas perform in the streets.
Catching the FEVE to the next stage of our trip, we followed the members of one band down the escalator to the train, their traditional attire strangely at odds with the modern design of the platform. Sitting in a carriage of pointed hats, clogs and bagpipes as the train trundled through fields of cows and hórreos (granaries on stone pillars) we definitely felt that we had seen a glimpse of life in this fascinating region of Spain.
All images courtesy of Selina Lovell