Whoa! I can’t believe it’s taken this long to get back here, to these “pages”, I mean. I had every intention of throwing out more observations from Brazil, and I still hope to, but it’s been nearly a month since I returned to Portland, and now I’m in Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia, Northwestern Spain. It’s raining like crazy today—it’s the rainy season—and Galicia is much like the Pacific Northwest, very rainy in the winter and spring which makes everything green.
This trip came about because I read a book last winter called Everything But The Squeal: Eating the Whole Hog In Northern Spain which was a a British writer’s account of a year he spent in Galicia trying to find local specialties that incorporate different parts of the pig. His goal was to basically reconstruct a whole pig, part by delicious part, traveling from one hamlet or festival to the next. (Now don’t misunderstand, the reconstruction was theoretical…he didn’t save all the parts in his basement to reconnect them all with Crazy Glue or something.)
Anyway, I finished the book in Austin at Carnaval time this year and subsequently loaned it to my buddy Carlos Femat with whom I was staying while in Texas. Almost as soon as he’d read a few pages he commented that it was a very good book and very well written. A bit later, as he got deeper into the pork fat, I suggested we head to Galicia to search of pig parts ourselves. Somehow, the spring dates were not gonna work, the summer dates were not gonna work (for him, not me since I’m underemployed. Finally, in September I just said: “Hey, let’s go to Galicia in early November after my Rio trip.” We both researched some flights and found one that worked for us both, he paying a very reasonable rate, and I trading in some frequent flyer miles. The dates were finally set. And so here we are.
For nearly a week we’ve been ensconced in the Hotel Airas Nunes in the heart of historic Santiago, a few hundred feet from the ancient cathedral that supposedly holds the bones of the brother of St. John the Evangelist, the apostle St. James, reputedly the first apostle to die a martyr’s death at the hands of Herod Agrippa in Judea. But before his untimely end, James had been in Spain to spread his faith. Thusly, his place in Church history is enormous. (I’d heard him referred to as the brother of Jesus, but that is apparently not the case.) He is the patron saint of Spain, and Santiago is considered to be the third most holy city in Roman Catholicism after Rome and Jerusalem. For this reason, beginning in the early middle ages it has been the most popular pilgrimage site in all of Europe attracting walking pilgrims from all over Europe and the rest of the world as well. To acknowledge your journey, you get a special certificate if you actually walk the last 100 kilometers to arrive in Santiago. Oh, and your are awarded a scallop shell which is the symbol of St. James. And maybe a guaranteed place in heaven. Who knows?
This is actually my second trip here. The first was in 1999 when Son of Rammock Lady and I drove up through Portugal to check out this mystical city. We had a marvelous time, but we were only here three days.
But what really inspired that first trip, you wonder? Well, the inspiration was music, not pig parts the first time ’round, music on two fronts.
First was my 35-year infatuation with a body of medieval music called the Cantigas de Santa Maria which is a collection of troubadour songs supposedly written along the Caminho de Santiago, the pilgrimage trail to Santiago, back in the early years of the last millennium. These songs were eventually collected in the 1200s by King Alfonso X (El Sabio) who happens to have also written some of them. Coincidentally, the troubadour Airas Nunes (whose name is on this hotel where I am writing this) is often considered to actually be the author of the majority of the Cantigas!!!! Wow! Anyway, the first time I heard an LP of the Cantigas back in 1974 I was blown away (the record was performed by Thomas Binkley and a group based in Germany at the time, though largely comprised of Americans) and I’ve collected maybe 20 versions since then. Maybe 30.
None of the recordings are complete, of course, since the entire collection is about 420 some poems and only a handful survived with musical notation. But what we have are beautiful solo-voice songs, the instrumental accompaniment is only guessed at. One thing to remember, all of these songs revolve around miracles worked by the Virgin Mary on behalf of selected pilgrims along the Caminho to Santiago. This is a special place for that reason, some sort of mystical air is palpable in the city.
Now, music reason number two: somewhere in the mid-90s I got a CD by a Galician folk singer named Uxia that blew me away equally forcefully. This CD sent me over the edge and pushed me to Santiago on that trip in 1999. Uxia is still around, but doesn’t seem to perform much, she’s probably my age.
So it was music ensconced in some sort of religious-spiritual vortex. (Wooooooo, new age anyone? Hardly, this stuff goes back more than 1000 years here.) Music. One thousand-year-old stone buildings and streets. So here is the story of Son of Rammick Lady and my arrival here in March 1999:
We arrived late in the evening, about 9.30pm, had to park our rental car, lug stuff back to the hotel, get settled, find dinner, you know the drill. We ate some tapas, a couple of other dishes, and finished supper around midnight, which is typical for Spain. It was a nippy evening in March, but very clear, very crisp. After eating we were too wired to go back to the hotel, so we decided to walk the city a bit; the old part is maybe a half-mile wide in all directions, maybe smaller. Naturally we headed to the town’s major ediface, the Cathedral of Santiago, maybe 3 minutes from the restaurant, five from our hotel. As we got closer I started to feel some sort of eerie feeling come over me, dare I say something magical? Crap, I don’t know. We entered the enormous cobblestoned square (maybe a football field in size) where the full moon was beaming down in a most dramatic fashion. The drama was aided by very effective lighting on the church itself, and the whole spectacle was absolutely breathtaking, even for an old curmudgeon like me. I was truly in some sort of special place.
And then it happened:
We looked around, walked around. Finally, from a small covered alleyway next to the right of the church, we spotted a huddle. The women. The tambourines. The music. We’d found it. Magic. We looked at each other and smiled. Women. Six or five or seven? We’d never heard anything like it before, but we really liked it. Did I mention magical? Normally, I don’t put much credence in such things. But this, combined with the overall weirdness of the city, the church, the moon, the mystical stones of the pavement, made me sort of float and feel somehow connected with this place that had drawn people for a thousand years to its center for one reason or another. I’d made the Caminho from Austin, via Portugal, not walking, but in my Avis. I’d arrived. I was one of them. I’d earned my scallop shell, at least somewhat. Wow.
This video is what we heard, more or less. Oh, and the “connection” gets even weirder during this visit. You ain’t gonna believe it.
(This video—I shot it a few days ago, story to come—is seven minutes long. You may not want to watch the whole thing, but I think it’s worth it. I have my reasons for that, though I don’t really know what they are.)
Okay. Ya got some of the feeling of what we heard that night. Fast forward ten years. As Carlos and I explored Santiago on our first day, were informed that on the first Thursday of each month, a music/drama venue called the Sala NASA has a Sertán, a night of Galician folk music and dance. I plan to write more about this event in another post, but let’s cut to the chase. Carlos and I arrived at the beginning of the Sertán as dance lessons were being conducted. But those soon ended and the actual music began in ernest. Some bagpipes, then the pandeireteira group featured in the video, then an accordion group, then a group with bagpipes, drums, clarinets, and a sax. Then lots of dancing—the crowd, mostly under 25, was very much into the dance. I took lots of photos, shot some videos. It was fantastic. And the beer was good, Estrella da Galicia. My fave, a local beer. Duh. Galicia.
About halfway through the night, a woman and a guy ran up to me. The guy said to me, “Do you speak English?” I replied, “Eu falo português.” (duh again… yes, it means “I speak Portuguese”.) At that point, the woman smiled, and the guy ran away. I mean it. He ran away. But she stayed and begin to speak to me in Galician. Not Spanish. Galician which linguistically more Portuguese than Spanish.
Here’s the academic footnote (duh, ANOTHER academic footnote, get use to ’em): many moons ago, about the time the bones of St James were being moved to Santiago, or, rather, being rediscovered in Santiago (they’d been buried in a Roman necropolis and forgotten), Portuguese and the Galician tongue were one in the same…some linguists today insist they are still the same language. Anyway, this language, strangely called Galician Portuguese, was the language spoken in these parts, and it was the language used in most of the Cantigas. But as the years rolled on, to the south the tongue evolved on its own way and became what we know as Portuguese, and here in Galicia, the language stayed somewhat the same (I think ) and is known as Galego. It is NOT a dialect of Spanish. It is an independent language. Like Portuguese. I could go on, but you are bored…
So, this really beautiful redhead is talking to me. To ME! In a club. The first time in my life a strange female in a nightclub has, of her own volition, chosen to talk to Dr. Nerd. Wow! She was explaining that she’d intended to take some photos but was unable to do so, and wanted to know if I could give her some of the photos I’d shot.
What, you kidding? Does the pilgrim shit in the woods? Sure, I’d love to have an excuse to talk more. So we went a bit further toward the rear of the room to chat a bit. Turns out she was the one giving the dance lessons. Cool. Turns out she had something to do with organizing the bands. Cool. Turns out she’s in a music group herself. Cool. Turns out she’s probably one of the women in the group Son of Rammock Lady and I’d heard that first night near the Cathedral. Cool. WHAT???? Yep, the conversation drifted around here and there, and then I told her the story of that night in March 1999. “March you say? I think we were trying out different locations for a video,” she said. Cool. WHAT!!!!??? She was one of them!!!! SHE WAS ONE OF THOSE MAGICAL WOMEN ON THAT MAGICAL MOONLIT NIGHT!
Her name is Montse, and she’s a member of the group Leilía whose CD I’d bought on that first trip and loved because it reminded me of the music of those women we heard by the church. In fact, I created a fantasy when I got home and heard the disc: I told people I played it for that maybe, just maybe, they were the women I’d heard at the church, knowing that it probably wasn’t.
Well, turns out it WAS the same group. And the magic of Santiago was continued to 2009. Confluence, vortex, whatever. One of those spiritual, or galactic, or chance (nothing happens by chance, they say) happenings had occurred. How was it that things converged like that? March 1999 and November 2009, that music. Those people. Santiago. Some people I know would say that Montse I were there at the same time for a reason. Well, whatever. She lives in Santiago. She works with music. I was in Santiago to hear and learn about music. Those things are not exactly chance. More like intentional and professional, or hobby. Whatever.
Now, the fact is that JET is a very ubiquitous stone used in the jewelry produced in Santiago—it’s seen in all the windows of all the tourist shops—and it is a relative of coal, but graced with some sort of BS spiritual qualities. And I do know, experientially, that a JET brought me to Santiago this time. Just coincidence???
Maybe there is something to all that mystical stuff!
…to be continued (more Santiago, more music, more Brazil even!)