various artists,
The Spanish Recordings: Extremadura
(Rounder, 2002)

This is a rare and fascinating collection of folksongs and tunes from Extremadura, a province of many geographical and historical contrasts. It contains a wealth of musical interest for the folklorist and ethnologist alike, and its accompanying 40-page booklet provides relevant and interesting information. There are 42 tracks, 13 of which are instrumental. The instruments played are varied -- some with classically recognisable features influenced by the regions bordering Extremadura, or far-off lands; others common household or farmyard implements brought to improvise! The lyrics provide a glimpse of the vocal traditions passed down and embellished from the 15th century, only to begin being irretrievably lost during the censorship of the Franco regime and the following cultural upheaval as the isolated and pastoral way of life was drastically altered in the latter part of the 20th century.

In the 1950s, Alan Lomax was told he had to gather recordings of Spanish folk music to ensure publication of his folklore series, so he "swallowed his distaste for El Caudillo and his works" and went to a folklore conference in Majorca. There he encountered the organiser, a refugee Nazi, who told Lomax that "he personally would see to it that no Spanish musicologist would help him and also suggested that he leave Spain." Fortunately for posterity, Lomax determined that "this authoritarian idiot" would not succeed in thwarting him, and he and his assistant, Jeannette Bell, thus spent seven months one step ahead of the Guardia Civil as they travelled through Spain. Thousands of kilometres over barely passable roads, struggling against bitter cold, the depredations of insufficient tape, no electricity, no running water; from poverty-stricken villages to shepherds' "chozos" (primitive shelters) -- Lomax triumphed in recording the voice of the people raised in song.

The conditions in which this odyssey were undertaken are crucially important: the traditional transhumant existence had gone; the customary way of life of the muleteers and shepherds, fishermen and peasants was also in its death-throes; the impositions of the police state and its drive to suppress regional linguistic independence and superimpose their ideological interpretation on traditional stories and lyrics was suffocating the spontaneity of the people. The fiercely uncowed spirit that engendered anti-clerical songs to be accompanied behind closed doors by washboards and kitchen utensils during the restrictions of Lent was still present, but in the presence of the Guardia, could not be recorded. Most of these recordings are half a century old; many songs are based on ballads five centuries old; yet despite recent frenzied attempts at preserving and resurrecting this astounding cultural heritage, much has already passed on with the generation to whom these songs were integral to their lives.

The booklet opens with memories from Maria GutiĆrrez, who recalls the impact of Lomax's visit to her village in 1952, when she was 5 years old. She describes children learning the words and technique as they played and helped with chores; women singing as they prepared food, made beds, picked olives; men singing -- soldiers, sheep-shearers, knife-sharpeners, all poor, but with a song in their mouths!

The detailed transcriptions and translations, historical facts, diary excerpts and personal memories contained in the booklet gradually drew me to deeper appreciation of the music. I now have a modicum of understanding of this facet of culture and a profound respect for Alan Lomax's work and dedication to recording and thus retaining this fragile aspect of ethnomusical history. The lyrics give lie to any sombre, sober impression, however; typical of common folk songs and particularly of the harsh environment of Extremadura, they are bawdy, irreverent, tragic and murderous! A touched-up snapshot of life in microcosm, The Spanish Recordings: Extremadura is well able to speak for itself.

[ by Jenny Ivor ]
Rambles: 21 September 2002



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