26 Sep 2017

44. The Ritual Folk Music of El Hierro

Four hundred years ago Louis XIV, the Sun King, would put on his favourite costume of peacock feathers and prance around the salons of Versailles to the sounds of Le Canarien, the then popular dance of the ‘wild’ Canary islanders but undoubtedly refined for the courtly tastes of the day. Today, Canary folk music (confusingly known in Spanish as ‘Folklore’) has nothing to do with the Sun King’s inspiration but a lot to do with the crucible of peoples the Archipelago has been since then, varied and alive - Folias, Malagueñas, Polkas etc.- now often rendered anodyne by television and the tourist industry. This of course is also true of the folk music of El Hierro, or rather of that folk music the islanders emphatically call ‘folklore’. And here, of course, El Hierro differs from the other islands.

My neighbor has a seven-year-old whose grandfather made him a drum. Not a toy drum. A real big drum, almost as big as the boy, with the name of our village stencilled on the goatskin drum head. This summer we’ve had three months of drumming, at first pretty awful but drums must be in his genes because in the end we found ourselves listening for his progress. His elder brother plays the local flute – a bit of electricity conduit with holes drilled into it – and his father does, too. It is quite unlike any music I had ever heard before coming to the island. This really is folk music and part of the islanders’ folklore in the real sense of the word. It’s only played at processions during religious festivals and accompanies the dancers in red aprons and colourful headdresses you see prancing around like Louis XIV in airport photos and official brochures. The most imporant of these festivals is the "Bajada de la Virgen" (Descent of the Virgin) which is held every four years celebrating the intervention of the island's Patron Saint in putting an end to a terrible drought in 1741. The groups of musicians and dancers from every village in the island accompany Her image on a procession from Her hermitage on the common in the west of the island to Valverde in the east. A video of part of the procession in 2013:



This music is never sung. The instruments are drums, flutes and castanets. The flutes initiate each piece and the drums take their cues from the flutes, rather than the contrary as would be expected. The melodies, called ‘toques’ (tokays), are played in unison by the flutes and sound deceptively similar and basic. However, they are in fact extremely complex and delicate, with hardly discernible variations, even from one phrase to the next. The rhythms played by the flutes seem to flutter around those they have dictated to the drums which, in turn, guide the dancers. Each village has its own set of toques and some have specific uses: for example, for when the dancers are on level ground, or in the nave of a church, or for when the bearers lift the Virgin’s sedan onto their shoulders, and so on.



I don’t know when this unique music arose in, or came to, El Hierro. I have a feeling, however, it owes nothing to the island’s early European settlers and possibly to none of the later arrivals. If this is so it could well predate Louis XIV by centuries and even have been brought to the island when Carthage was still great and the Sahara had not quite dried out. That may well be romantic lucubration on my part but even so I hope this expression of genuine folk music remains just that, ritual folk music, part of the lore that has held and holds, the islanders together as a people, that has helped them, and still helps them, overcome the difficulties and pressures that threaten them. I hope this unique music is never debased to the status of curiosity and tourist attraction; that it is not further normalized or fostered as an element of identity by our institutions, and that it is never part of the school curriculum ... I hope it is left in the hands of the people like the master drum-maker, his son, Maso, and his grandsons, Cristian and Johan, to keep alive and pass down from generation to generation, as it has been for perhaps centuries. But I fear this hope may be a bit too much to ask.

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