By Kevin Carr
[Reprinted with permission from the Fall 2015 issue of Fiddler Magazine. For more information, visit www.fiddle.com.]
Alfonso Franco has over twelve years of experience as a dedicated traditional fiddle teacher. He has taught at Galician fiddle workshops in Canada, Scotland, Brittany, Catalonia, as well as the San Simón Fiddle Camp for kids in Galicia, Spain. He was invited two years in a row by Alasdair Fraser to teach Galician fiddle at the prestigious Sierra Fiddle Camp in California. Alfonso has a degree in violin and a postgraduate course in traditional music from the University of Santiago de Compostela. He has extensive experience in organizing events, courses, and workshops. He is a frequent collaborator at the North Atlantic Fiddle Convention, where he has given several talks on traditional Galician fiddle. He is also a member of the Board of Trustees of the Sondeseu foundation, and the head of the fiddle section of the Sondeseu orchestra.
When did you start to play the violin? What inspired you to learn to play?
I started when I was eighteen. In high school some friends of mine started to play in a folk group and I was the photographer during the first months. When the violinist – he was a talented classical player – left the group I decided to learn the fiddle by myself because there was a good chance of being part of the group as at that moment there were very few violinists in Galicia, and no one was interested in traditional music at all. So in three months I became the fiddler of the group… you can imagine the quality of my playing! But we had lots of gigs because folk music was just starting at that moment in Galicia (1983) and there were no more than five bands playing ‘Celtic music’ at that time. It’s a joke that thirty years ago we charged for a concert as much as a top folk band does nowadays.
When did you first hear fiddling? How would you define the difference between violin and fiddle?
My first encounter with the fiddle was pure coincidence. I used to buy LPs by mail order. By mistake, I received an LP of a Shetland folk group instead of the Deep Purple one that I had ordered. As it was very hard to send it back, I decided to give those folk people a chance. The LP was Good Friend, Good Music, by Boys of the Lough. I was impressed by this music. Destiny had sent me one of the best Celtic records ever and I became since that moment engaged by fiddle music.
For me the difference with the violin is that you never hear a fiddler play the tune over and over exactly the same. We always change bowings, ornaments, accents, tempo, even the key. Luckily, we are free to play as we feel and classical musicians can’t do this. They are tied down by the sheet music.
What is the history of the fiddle in Galicia?
The most traditional fiddle style entails singing and playing at the same time. Unlike in Ireland and Scotland, the fiddle was not very common among the population but has remained in the traditional music in the hands of the blind street fiddlers and the mendicants who went from fair to fair playing the fiddle while telling stories and bringing the news of the day as if they were itinerant living newspapers. They were also the ones in charge of playing at the dances, accompanied by different traditional percussion instruments.
Over the years the job of these fiddlers gradually disappeared and the last survivors lived into the ’70s and so, fortunately, some of their performances could be audio and video recorded.
Were there many cegos (blind street fiddlers)? How did they make their living?
Usually, they were instructed by another blind person from a neighboring area, who took them in and taught them so that they could earn their living with music. Once their training was considered complete, the young fiddlers began working, normally with the help of a guide, often a relative, who helped them and sometimes accompanied them on percussion.
Each fiddler had an area of work, extending over their shire and the neighboring ones, but they would also travel longer distances to fairs and open-air festivals, establishing routes and staying away from their homes for weeks. Normally, they stayed overnight in the area where they performed, lodging in the house of a local family or, sometimes, in the stable with the cattle.
These blind musicians (who in some cases only pretended to be so!) sang at road crossings and other places where people gathered, such as the gates of churches. Sometimes they went from house to house offering their music in exchange for money or food.
What would a typical festival day be like for a cego?
They used to work quite hard. They needed to walk long distances to arrive in the village before dawn, very early in the morning, when the animals were sold in the market or fair. At that time there were lots of people around, so it was the best moment to tell their stories and sell the papers with the lyrics (broadsheets). Later, when people were eating the pulpo á feira (boiled octopus, seasoned with olive oil, salt and paprika), it was also a good time to play and sing. Well into the 20th century, when they were hired, they had to play all the afternoon and festivals usuallywent on well into the evening. But as they were very much appreciated by the neighborhood, the day went by with drinking and joking with them, and the work became mixed up with fun.
Can you tell us about Florencio and his importance?
Florencio was the last of the blind fiddlers. There were lots of blind musicians at the fairs, but this was the only one that was recorded. So he’s the only reference we have. The style of his fiddle sounds a bit Arabic, a bit like music from Eastern Europe. It’s very wild, very fiery. When Sean Keane of the Chieftains listened to the recording of Florencio, it reminded him of the old style in Clare.
Is important for me that you understand that Florencio and the blind fiddlers represent the ancient way of playing fiddle in Galicia and we have lot of respect for this. So thanks to him we know our own style and we sometimes play in this way and, of course I always introduce the style of the blind fiddlers in the curricular program of my school. It’s necessary that the new fiddlers know how to recreate the legacy of the blind fiddlers, and also when we play with our groups or as soloists we take from them some technical resources and also their repertory and of course sometimes we also sing while we play fiddle like they did.
What are the elements of Galician fiddle style and technique? Are they influenced by the gaita?
The musical aesthetic was immersed in a rural environment where singing and the bagpipes had a privileged place, and the fiddlers had to adapt their technique to the ornaments and grace notes of the pipes and the melodic cadences of the singers.
Although, unfortunately, no recording of a traditional fiddler playing together with other musicians has been preserved, we can assume that, as they often performed accompanied by tambourines and other traditional percussion instruments, they incorporated into their technique those bowings which best suited the rhythmic cadence of the accompaniment.
Is fiddle becoming more popular in Galicia today?
Yes, it’s becoming quite popular, especially in the south, in the city of Vigo and its area of influence.
How is this being achieved?
The most prestigious traditional and folk music school in Spain, called ETRAD, is in Vigo. The fiddle has been taught there for more than fifteen years and therefore the number of people who play traditional music with fiddle in Vigo is bigger than in the rest of Galicia.
Would it be rare to hear a fiddle at a serán or foliada (a gathering or session where music is played and sung, and often dancing occurs)?
Not nowadays, but ten years ago it was very unusual to find a fiddler playing at sessions. We were always the same half dozen people playing. Right now in Vigo, fiddlers are becoming the most common players at sessions. In the capital, Santiago, there are also a couple of good sessions where the fiddlers play an important role.
Besides yourself, who are influential fiddlers in Galicia today?
In my opinion, Alfonso Merino, Begoña Riobó and Quim Farinha are my most respected colleagues. Each one has their own style, and all of them are great fiddlers.
What are the types of tunes played by traditional fiddlers in Galicia?
The most common is to play Galician pipe tunes (muiñeiras in 6/8, xotas in 3/8, and many more). Playing backup for singing tambourine players is getting very popular. When they are singing and beating their instruments hard it isn’t worth playing melodies but it’s really great to play rhythm and chords.
The international repertoire is often played as well: the most usual tunes are Scottish, Portuguese, and music from eastern European countries, and of course the Irish classics.
Is it still common to sing and play the fiddle at the same time?
Of course it is. This is something we usually do at sessions and performances because this way we feel we are preserving our own tradition. Apart from this, our repertoire is based on pipe dances, but there are tons of tunes coming from the tambourine songs and we play the rhythm with the bow and sing. Besides, at the sessions, if you play just fiddle tunes you have a closed ‘folky’ circle, and many traditional music people such as tambourine players or people over fifty who love the old sailors’ tunes, etc., remain left out of the party.
One of the most appreciated moments of music for me is when the fiddlers start a popular song, playing and singing, and step by step the whole bar joins in becoming an amazing chorus… it gives me goose bumps.
What do you think is the future of fiddling in Galicia? What are you hoping for and what do you see happening with fiddling?
We are right now so enchanted with the present that we just hope that all will remain in the same direction. There is a new generation of kids very excited with the fiddle and I hope that our way will be like the Scottish one, with a new revival of fiddlers, both in the professional and in the amateur scene. Right now there are some very interesting fiddle recordings coming up soon by Felipe Rodicio, Begoña Riobó, Paco Juncal, Alfonso Merino, etc., and myself.
In teaching terms, a tutorial of Galician fiddle is close to being finished. There are a dozen fiddlers teaching folk music in Galicia – Quim Farinha, in Santiago, and I, in Vigo, were for more than one decade the only ones who taught fiddle, and before us no one else did. And the San Simón Fiddle Camp for kids is getting very successful.
As the cherry on top, a smart luthier from La Coruña (in the north of Galicia), called Jose Catoira, is building 5-string fiddles and he is very sensitive to the fiddle scene. So, we have lots of reasons to be very happy.
Anything else you think Fiddler Magazine readers would like to know about fiddling in Galicia today?
I invite them to visit Galicia. It’s a powerful country in terms of traditional music, they will find a very healthy scene. The most important focus of fiddling is in the south, in the Vigo Bay. Our non-profit association Galicia Fiddle will be very happy to help all the fiddlers that visit us and guide them to get the best music experience in our land.
[Kevin Carr is a fiddler, piper, and storyteller living in southern Oregon. He loves, listens to, and plays a variety of music, from Irish to Québécois, Galician to Grateful Dead.]
For more information:
Alfonso Franco’s Facebook Profile: https://www.facebook.com/alfonso.franco.50
Galicia Fiddle: www.galiciafiddle.com
San Simón Fiddle Camp for kids: www.galiciafiddle.com/en/san-simon-fiddle/index.html
Sondeseu Orchestra: www.sondeseu.org
Escola Municipal de Música Folk e Traditional, Vigo: http://e-tradvigo.blogspot.com.es
Listen to the blind fiddler Florencio: http://ronsel.uvigo.es/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=29&Itemid=52