Asturies has always been consubstantial with music. We are not alluding here to the classical theories on the origin of music, basing it on the sexual love as Darwin, or on the word as Herbert Spencer intends, or on the ordered physical work as Carlos Buecher pretends, for being irrelevant to our study. Probably all peoples in all stages of civilisation have utilised music, but Asturies must have always been particularly sensitive to the art of sounds, and that due to the defined lyrical and sonorous character of its geographical context. Everything in Asturies sings: the breeze, the wind, the forest, the river or the stream; all of them bring their melody forth conducted by the deep pitch of the sea, and the man, in likewise manner, must have matched his larynx to the sonorous context wherein his life developed.
What precedes is not mere sentimental lyrical solace. Evidence of this man-music affection in the primitive Asturians exists. The prehistoric Asturian whistled and blew on rudimentary instruments. Horns with stylised ornamentation have been found in the cave of Cueto de la Mina, which could have been utilised for sonorous calls after being perforated, or as a type of castanets beating them with other bones or sticks. We also have the more specific example of the alleged flute discovered in our prehistoric sites by Hernández-Pacheco. And there is, lastly, the representation of dancing human figures on the so-called Peña Tú idol, in Puertas de Vidiago.
As we approach historic or protohistoric times, all investigators who have studied the origin and nature of traditional Asturian music have encountered one basic dilemma: the Orientalist and the Europeanist theses.
The former interprets our music as a consequence of Oriental decisive influences arrived through the Southern Mediterranean and North Africa, whose crucial moment would be the Arabic music firmly established in Spain during the long period of occupation by Arabic forces. The principal advocate of this theory was the notable Arabist Julián Ribera.
The second thesis, the Europeanist, hinges initially on the Celtic hypothesis to continue with the influences of Byzantine liturgical music and thereafter with Provençal contributions. Rather than defending an own position, they reject the Arabic thesis with more or less vehemence –Pedrell, for instance, resolutely–.
It is worth noting beforehand that the posed dilemma does not suppose such a radical contradiction as some have pretended. All musical tendencies which arrive in our fatherland, whether they come from the North or the South, have, in a certain manner, a common origin: They all relate remotely to the Middle East, plus perhaps some final Hindustani roots.
The Arabs, let us remember, did not have their own music –it was even initially prohibited by Muslim religion– and they adopt and bring to the Iberian Peninsula only the music which they had heard and assimilated in the Middle East, music fundamentally of Greek tradition and Byzantine substance.
On the other hand, the Celtic and Germanic people who invade Europe passed, coming from India, through the area of the Middle East and their music, whatsoever it was, must have been affected by this common melting pot.
Irrespective of the core source, we can even assume a more remote germinal origin of certain aspects of Spanish folk music, and more precisely the Asturian one, in the tradition of certain ethnic groups of Aryan race which occupied West Asia in the third and fourth millennium b.C. and invaded India between 1500 and 1000 b.C. The Rigveda and especially the Samaveda, whose songs preserve musical notations, offer curious connotations with some characteristics which define our Asturian songs: the preponderance of music over lyrics, the utilisation of chromatic scales unparalleled in classical Greek or Hindu music from posterior times and which on the other hand have evident relations with certain Hebrew chants, especially Sephardic. There is even a unit of time called “urddhi” (augmented) which deliberately prolongs the end of the phrase and seems like a counterbalance of similar characteristics to Christian plainchant. Likewise, the tremolos occurring on Vedic songs resemble the “tremula voce” of mediæval “quilismas”, and probably related, as we will see further on, to Asturian folk music. Peter Crossley Holland points out as well in his study on the Vedic Chants included in the Pelican History of Music (p. 26) that these types of chants remain particularly in certain valleys of the Himalaya, where some primitive dances reminisce, in my opinion, certain Asturian ritual dances. In light of that, it is remarkable the geophysical similarity between the Cantabrian mountain range and the Himalaya, prolonging oddly in similar human traditions joined, mayhap in the mists of time, to distant common links.
Acknowledgment of this general premise of the common source of all music arrived in Asturies is important and constitutes the key to comprehend many posterior phenomena which musicologists have not been able to unravel when studying our music.
Following on from this premise we have to establish beforehand that the North of the Iberian Peninsula, in any case, belongs indubitably in Europe, wherein it is immersed by the climatic, geographic, human and historic context. Nothing is purely haphazard in History. There is a world –a Weltanschauung, which we could call, for clarity, “Occidental”– opposing the Orient, whose limits, variable with time, are defined broadly by Austria in the East and pierces through the core of the Iberian Peninsula from the South West. The Arab tide comes to a halt in Asturies, and the Turkish in Austria, for reasons profounder than the fortuity of a battle. Thermopylæ and its surroundings still mark the boundary of freedom.
Thus, Asturies –and likewise the Iberian Peninsula although Asturies more clearly so– belongs in the European cultural context and in this context are we to interpret its History and, consequently, its music.
Dispensing with the historical period, too distant to have any transcendence in current musical endeavours –although it behoves us to mention the important nucleus of culture signified by the civilisation from the caverns in the East of Asturias and West of Cantabria–, in the protohistoric period, circa the first millennium before Christ, Asturies meets a prolonged invasion of people hailing from Europe, in successive waves, each of them with their own physiognomy although all of them are normally encompassed in the general denomination of “Celts”. Anteriorly, our nation was inhabited by an undetermined population which yielded the megalithic culture, spreading across all our confines. The new invaders assimilated, incorporated or perhaps organised the cohabitation with the previous culture, producing what has been called the Castro Culture. Nevertheless, the area where the prehistoric cave culture was more settled –strictly from Llanes to Torrelavega and more broadly from Candamo to Peña Castillo– remained somewhat separated from Castro Culture, which rooted more firmly in central and western Asturies.
Without trying to discern the character of the establishment and development of these peoples, we will focus solely, with the purpose of investigating the musical connotations, on defining the cultural strata of our primitive population. We have firstly the East of Asturias, with a crucially important prehistoric civilisation, with whose cultural context and geographical habitat are –as we will see hereafter– the Corri Corri and Pericote related.
Central and western Asturias, on the other hand, constitute the seat of a specific Celtic culture which yields the Castro civilisation and around whose musical context revolves the Danza Prima.
This initial draft, carried out with musical observations backed by historical data, permits us to discern clearly a historical identity often miscomprehended: The Astur-Cantabrian world. It shows us firstly the unquestionable affinity between these two peoples whose folk music presents formidable analogies and similarities.
In the North of the Iberian Peninsula we find, in my opinion, three perfectly defined musical families: the Basque, the Astur-Cantabrian and the Galician. Although all of them are related, our music is more closely linked to the Galician and more distant from the Basque. They all stem from a common Celtic core, although differing amongst themselves within the evident similarities that bring them together, and as Galician Celticism appears to be related to the Welsh or Irish, Basque seems to be with the Scottish and Asturian with the Scandinavian.
The Celtic thesis applied to traditional Asturian music has been generally positively welcome by the scarce, albeit enthusiastic, scholars who have investigated our folk music.
Notwithstanding its distance in time, Celtic influence can be legitimately acknowledged in our music for two reasons: Firstly, as we pointed out at the beginning of this study, for the suitability of man-music which remains anchored in the personality of human beings and peoples throughout the centuries; secondly, and further strengthening the aforementioned, because the Celts arrived in Asturies “to stay”. The succession of invasions and conquests reflected on our History –all histories– provokes the temptation of valuing all of them and their consequences equally. Political, tribal or national organisation, language, customs… that is, everything that constitutes the phenomenon known as “acculturation”, can be changed, but blood remains, with everything it entails. Thus, the substrata of the primitive inhabitants of Asturies constitute the essence of our personality. That array of Indo-European peoples which reached the Asturian shores in the millennia prior to Christ, especially the Celts, settled down forever in our land. The gigantic cavalcade, the indescribable Celtic “völkerwanderung” consumed its long trajectory in Asturies, where the Celts established their definitive home and to whom we are the heirs. Thereafter brought Rome their ordinances, officers and police, their language and organisation, but nothing more. The Visigoths, which were but a stream in the Hispano-Roman river, could not have changed much the basic racial structure of Asturies. The Arab occupation lacked any importance amongst us, and this is already a rhetoric cliché. True that amongst our traditions abound references to Moor slaughters, caves, palaces and treasures hidden by the Moors, but they all sound rather like mediæval fables than historical realities worth of consideration. The commencement of the ill-named Reconquista did not suppose a decisive disruption in the human context of our nation either. True that some disperse elements from the Visigothic army and administration sought refuge in our mountains, but the guerrilla campaign characteristic of the beginning of the Kingdom of Asturies could only have been carried out by natives, knowledgeable of the terrain. The organisation, the ideals, the leadership could have been Visigothic, but the blood which kicked off that phenomenon known as Reconquista was Asturian.
And likewise until our days. The mixture of peoples in our nation, amply demonstrated by anthropology, cannot be refuted, but that does not deny the permanence of a basic Indo-European primitive Celtic substratum, which presides our nature and determine our idiosyncrasy.
This Celticism is clearly manifested in some parcels of our music. Firstly, in the Danza Prima, whose fundamental structure –in music and dance– shows, in my opinion, evident Celtic reminiscences. Secondly, the accentuated lyricism of our traditional music stems equally from the Celtic emotional sensitivity. The Celts arrive in Asturies after interminable pilgrimage, they do not settle down by chance. They simply came seeking for their soul, and here they found it, because the forest, the mountain, the secluded valley of Asturies, were shaped in perfect consensus with their sensitivity, our sensitivity.
“La canción asturiana”; José Benito A. Buylla; Ayalga Ediciones, 1977
Translation to English:
Sergio Fernández Redondo.