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.

3 Sep 2017

43. A sense of humour.


The first time I visited El Hierro I came with my son, a camera and a rather heavy backpack. We spent the first night sleeping rough on the cold and wet Common (Dehesa) in the west of the island. The morning the sun brought us back to life and in the distance we saw a man sitting on a rock watching his cows grazing. I went forward alone and sat on another rock to his left. Gazing west over the pasture, twisted windcrippled trees and the ocean, he did not look at me nor recognize my presence in any way. After a while I leant over towards him with a packet of cigarettes,
     “Would you like to smoke?”
     “I don’t usually smoke, but to keep you company …” he said, taking one.
We smoked in silence. Then he rummaged in his woolen satchel (talega) and pulled out a diminutive barrel made of a hollowed-out piece of mulberry trunk.
     “Would you like a drink of good wine?” he asked.
     “I don’t usually drink,” I answered, “but to keep you company …”
We both burst into laughter, made friends and he took us back to his house in Sabinosa for lunch.
I know the humour wasn’t all of his making but the experience told me a lot. He had obviously been aware of our presence since the day before. His ignoring me sitting beside him was a test and a provocation. His reply, ‘to keep you company’, was a gambit. He definitely had a fine sense of humour.

The men who built this belfry on top of a small
volcanic cone at some distance from the church
in Frontera must have had a fine sense of
humour: how little we are seen against the back-
drop of the overpowering escarpment. The under-
side of the sea of cloud can just be seen at the
top of the photo.
Of course there’s the raucous, bawdy humour of bars and building sites you find everywhere, but the islanders have their own ingenious humour intended to elicit a smile, or thought, or even to convey an unpalatable truth. Rather like English humour.

Eloy saw a bar of toilet soap one of the children had dropped into our drinking water cistern.
     “Don’t worry,” he said, “like that you wash your insides as well!”.

We had arrived for a short holiday a few days before and the carpenter’s wife said,
     “Oh! You’re here then! We weren’t aware.”
     “We don’t make a lot of noise. You know that.” I replied.
     “That’s why we put up with you!” she said with a smile and a chuckle.

On my way back from a morning in the vineyard, I stopped at a friend’s house. One of the men who were also there started pulling my leg about the size of my hoe, worn down almost to a toy by years of work. My friend came to my rescue:
     “Shut up, you lazy son of a bitch! You don’t know what work is. I saw the Englishman on his way to the vineyard this morning. His hoe was brand new!”

On our first trip to the island, my son and I were in Frontera looking up at the vertiginous 3,000 foot escarpment we were about to ascend. We could not see the top hidden by the sea of cloud lower down.
     “It’s a long climb up,” I said to the young man we were talking to.
     “What you can see, yes. And what you can’t, too!” was his comment.

But I suppose the most characteristic humour is in the nicknames. A limping mechanic was known as ‘the crankshaft’; another whose low-cut jeans were always showing a bit too much was ‘the piggy bank’; the landowners and tradesmen of Valverde were ‘white-tails’ while the rest of the islanders were ‘black-tails’; ‘skin and bones’, ‘the noble’, ‘parsley’, … Sometimes admittedly they are cruel, but there is always an element of tenderness.