Maelog: Building musical bridges between Wales and Galicia
Pubs and musical sessions have always gone together in Wales; but The Crofts pub in Roath, Cardiff boasts one special monthly event on Thursdays where the gaita bagpipes sing out in harmony and the instruments play the blistering muiñeira dances. Welcome to the Caerdydd Galician Session!
Wales and Galicia – in north-west Spain, with Portugal to the south – are hundreds of miles apart, but they share common similarities, culture and problems. Maelog, a band which consists of three Welsh musicians, an English percussionist and two Galicians, is the centrepoint of the session. They take their name from Maelog, a sixth-century Welsh saint and the son of King Caw of Strathclyde, who built his church in Llanfaelog, Anglesey, where he is the patron saint.
There are two accounts to Maelog’s pilgrimages through Brittany, France, Spain and Galicia. A St Maeloc – or Mailoc – the bishop of Britonia, a settlement founded by expatriate Britons in Galicia, founded the monastery of Santa María de Britonia. Was Maelog the same person? And even if he was not, some studies say that the bishop was definitely Welsh – and Maeloc is the brand name for a popular Galician cider. Milladoiro, the first big Galician band, even named their debut album A Galicia de Maeloc – Maeloc’s Galicia.
The Maelog personnel are Marta Novo, lead Galician vocals, bombo (traditional Galician bass drum), peitoque (Galician chest castanet) and pandeireta (traditional Galician tambourine); fiddler Rhian Evan-Jones, a member of inspiring South Wales band Carreg Lafar; fiddler Gareth Westacott, lead Welsh vocals; Dan Lawrence on guitar, bouzouki and backing vocals, who performs with actress and fiddler Lucy Rivers in the Welsh duo Olion Byw; Gerardo Albela on gaitas (Galician bagpipes), whistles, piccolo, clarinet, jew’s harp and Galician vocals; and Sam Jowett, a graduate from the Royal College of Music and Drama who plays drumkit, tamboril (traditional Galician snare drum) and garden hoe.
Garden hoe? Gerardo explained: “The garden hoe thing is a bit of a joke from Dan, because we don’t actually have a proper garden hoe for Sam to play yet. But tools such as hoes, scythes, sickles, or kitchen utensils such as pans, pot lids, spoons were commonly used in Galicia and many other places when making music, especially if it was after a day’s work in the field harvesting grain or clearing potato fields from weeds.”
And Gerardo jests not; there are videos of Galician stars such as Mercedes Péon and all-female choir Raigañas beating time with garden hoes, and playing them beautifully too. And these are not titchy British implements, but massive earth-shifters. “As soon as we find a proper, well-tuned, hoe, somebody in the band will be playing it,” Gerardo said. “But at the moment, Sam mimics the sound by hitting a metallic shelf support with a chisel.”
How did Maelog form? Gerardo was born in a region called A Ulla, with the city of Santiago de Compostela near to the north. Marta Novo, who used to sing lead Galician vocal and played bombo (traditional Galician bass drum), peitoque (Galician chest castanet) and pandeireta (traditional Galician tambourine), was born and raised in Madrid, like so many other Galicians born in the diaspora. (Gerardo says: “So many Galicians had to emigrate to other parts of the world that there is even a word, morriña, to describe the longing that Galicians feel for their homeland” – the Welsh noun, hiraeth, is very similar.)
Marta worked at Cardiff University as a researcher in the School of Biosciences, specialising in earthworms. Julia, Gerardo’s wife, also lectures in the School of Biosciences, and Gerardo and Marta met up through a mutual colleague. Carreg Lafar musician and unofficial Maelog member Antwn Owen-Hicks is a development officer for the Arts Council of Wales and plays a mean gaita, and Rhian and Gerardo met at a “Celtic Lunch” that Antwn hosted at his house. Later that year, both Rhian and Gerardo travelled to the gigantic Lorient Festival with the Welsh delegation, and played a lot of Galician music at really late pub sessions.
Gerardo had already met Gareth and Dan, one Monday night in the Welsh music session at the Cayo Arms in Cathedral Road, Cardiff: “It was really good, because they already had my attention because of how well they played. It was great to meet them afterwards.”
Later that year, Gerardo started running the Caerdydd Galician Sessions in The Cayo Arms, with another gaita player, Roberto Carracedo. They decided that they wanted to imitate what another good friend, an excellent bagpiper and all-round musician, Mano Panforreteiro, was doing in Oxford, where he ran a monthly Galician music session: “Mano not only gave us the original idea – he was also instrumental in helping us put together a set of scores that we could use for the sessions.
“Roberto has now sadly left here; now it’s mostly just me organising the sessions, with some help from people like my wife Julia, who does the cake – we have cake in every session! The sessions are still running strong – when we first moved to The Crofts, we had a lot of musicians and public and we had a blast playing and singing. We do have a Facebook page where we post all information about the session, plus videos, pictures. Search for “Caerdydd Galician Session” and you’ll easily find it.”
Marta has now left the band and is now happily installed in Madrid, says Gerardo: “She is certainly irreplaceable – and we haven’t incorporated anybody else to the band so far, so it’s just the remaining five left that are now Maelog.
“It is really important to make the sessions a success. When I arrived in Caerdydd, I found there were Breton, French, European or Irish sessions running. People knew about those musical and even dancing traditions, but they didn’t know much about Galician music – although they really seemed to like it when they listened to it, so it was important for to raise awareness about our music and give interested musicians access to it.
“The sessions allow musicians with an interest in Galician music to know each other and share that interest; they are not only spreading Galician music in Wales but also, through the Internet, raising awareness about Wales in Galicia – so I wouldn’t be surprised if interesting things come out of this in the future.
“Finally, but not less importantly, the Galician Sessions are also a hub where we can meet other fellow Galicians. The fact that the sessions exist mean that there is a “Galician thing” going on, once a month – and where else would you go if you wanted to meet other Galicians?”
Dan lists the similarities between Wales and Galicia: “Both cultures are rooted in agriculture and fishing, with industrialisation occurring later in Galicia. Both share a common hilly landscape and similar damp climate. Both countries have been oppressed by their stronger neighbours and the local languages have both suffered for it; but the Galician language has been resurgent since being re-introduced into mainstream education in the 1980s and is now spoken by over 90 per cent of the population. We have some catching up to do!
“We are finding more and more similarities between tunes from the two countries, especially in the piping tunes. Our approach incorporates some Galician-only sets and some Welsh-only sets and increasingly sets where we combine tunes from both countries. We also have songs both in Welsh and Galician.”
From a few musicians jamming together, Maelog quickly formed into a band – and it was all thanks to Cwlwm Celtaidd. Gerardo said: “Gareth and Rhian became session regulars, so we started putting together a Galician repertoire. Towards the end of 2013, Sarah Smith asked me to play at the Cwlwm Celtaidd celtic festival in Porthcawl. I didn’t really have either a band or backing musicians to play with – but finally I decided to approach Rhian, Gareth and Dan and ask them if they fancied putting together a Galician repertoire. To my surprise, they swiftly agreed. We ended up finding a name for the band and asking Marta to join us too – and that’s where it all started.”
For that first festival booking, Mabon member Iolo Whelan – described by Gerardo as “an awesome guy and amazing drummer” – helped them out. Next came Mark O’Connor, who played with Maelog until September 2014, when he had to leave the band. Sam joined them in January this year.
The magical “pull” of Galicia, with its breathtaking scenery, its generous, friendly people, the thrilling sound of its gaitas, its dances and its strong musical tradition had a profound effect on me when I was booked in the Ortigueira Festival many years ago. Ortigueira is a little town, clinging onto an estuary which empties into the North Atlantic. I took a long walk away from the bustle and gaiety of the festival, down the winding road and right into the solitude and quiet. I came across a tiny, ancient shop, with a donkey tied up to the rail, massive, round local cheeses piled high, bottles of local wine and other exotic alcohol, and an elderly white-haired serving lady in a black dress, sitting and slowly knitting. The red-and-white brand name was obvious; I had stumbled on a Galician Spar store.
Gerardo says that every time he visits Galicia, he comes back more impressed about how strong folk and traditional music are nowadays in his homeland: “It’s not only the big bands and big names, which there are a few – but the fact that there are many successful schools of folk and traditional music, some public, some private, and more gatherings of traditional musicians where many bands play on a single evening and loads of people are dancing while the musicians play. The incredibly high level of the bagpipers that go to bagpiping contests…
“Of course, there are many things to improve – and the fact that a flagship band of the Galician music like Berrogüetto recently split up because it wasn’t economically viable makes it clear that there is a long road to pave before we actually have a healthy folk music industry. But looking at how it was when I first started playing in the early nineties and how it is now, we’ve walked a long way.”
Could Gerardo guide us through the Galician folk music industry? He says: “It is really difficult to name just a few bands or artists here, because there are so many and so good – but, to start with, if you haven’t heard of Galician bands with a long trajectory, such as Milladoiro, Luar na Lubre, Fía na Roca, Berrogüetto… I think it is really worth checking them out.
“Wales has such a strong singing tradition, and I would recommend listening to some of the big Galician voices, like Uxía, Mercedes Peón, Xabier Díaz, Guadi Galego, Davide Salvado, Monica de Nut, Radio Cos… or even to the Orfeón Treixadura, which links very well with the strong Welsh tradition of male choirs. The guys from a band called Quempallou are friends of mine, and everybody in Wales who has borrowed their CDs from me have really enjoyed their music; they are really lively and really good fun to watch live, so I highly recommend them.
Dan agrees: “They are really good fun indeed!” Gerardo continues: “There are also nowadays bands that get out of the usual clichés of traditional and folk music and yet use them to do something completely different: I would place there bands such as Tiruleque, Cuarteto Caramuxo or Talabarte; while in a more traditional fashion, I like groups such as Os Miñotos, Carapaus, Tanto Nos Ten (TNT), Os Carunchos, A requinta da Laxeira… And if you wanted to listen to groups who were trying to reproduce tradition as accurately as possible, I would definitely listen to people like Ultreia, or to the band I used to play with, A gaita de Sarandón, or Os Melidaos. There are really good collections of video and audio of old bagpipers, singers, tambourine players, choirs, which are really worth watching and listening to.”
Gerardo says that one of the Galician traditional folk music schools, the Etrad from Vigo, has a wonderful folk orchestra called Sondeseu, which he is sure that people in Wales, especially Clera musicians, will love to listen to: “There are very interesting folk proposals coming from bands such as Riobó, TRIM, Pablo Seoane Grupo…
“Really interesting bridges are being built between Galicia and Wales. Last year, a Galician band called Os d’Abaixo, who sound just amazingly well and are amazingly nice guys, came to play here in Cardiff at the Wales Millennium Centre, and collaborated with the Welsh folk band Calan – and early this year Calan musicians Patrick Rimes and Angharad Jenkins and harper Gwenan Gibbard collaborated with the Galician bagpiper Carlos Nuñez in Celtic Connections in Glasgow.
“Last but not least, you should check out the next album by Daniel Bellón and Diego Maceiras: it will come with an awesome Welsh collaboration on it, no less than Oliver Wilson-Dickson from Jamie Smith’s Mabon and Alaw.”
Maelog recently spent a whistlestop tour playing in Galicia and Santiago de Compostela, events which led to the band being chosen to support the Tuareg blues band Tinariwen at their prestigious concert at the Hay Literary Festival in Powys. Dan says: “I was attending WOMEX14 in Santiago de Compostela on behalf of Olion Byw. The opportunity arose to play at a festival there exactly on those days, so we decided to go as a band. One evening was spent beneath the impressive mediaeval arches on a beautiful square in Santiago, playing two sets for the audience of a café called A Gramola that regularly programs live music – it attracted quite a crowd and a lot of enquiries from WOMEX delegates.
“The second evening we played on the main stage at a local town harvest festival, where the locals tour around local vineyards “clearing the barrels” ready for the new crop – a very happy occasion! The evening has a big ‘twmpath’ event that we were part of.
“One of the people who happened to be in our Santiago audience was Martin Webb, who produces stuff for the World on 3 program on Radio 3. He got talking to Gerardo; the conversation continued via email when we got back to Wales, and this is what came out of it. We didn’t realise that we would be supporting Tinariwen.”
The thrilling sound of the gaita features heavily in Galician culture, and Gerardo lists his inventory: “I have three sets – my very first set, which I bought as a 12-year-old, is a Seivane set in C. Much more recently, I bought two second-hand sets – one in D by Antón Varela and another one in B by Diego Piñeiro. This last one I adapted with an extra drone piece (and with another chanter, obviously) to be able play in G.”
All of Gerardo’s chanters are by Seivane – Álvaro and José Manuel, gaita star Susana Seivane’s father and uncle, are Gerardo’s good friends and skilled makers: “I’m habituated to their bagpipes, so I always go to them.”
That sound of gaitas in harmony: is it a unique tradition? “It is a relatively new tradition, because it dates from the beginning of the twentieth century. The Galician bagpiping tradition is much older, but it has been ever since it was introduced a very well-established and quite characteristic Galician tradition, yes. I wouldn’t be able to say it is unique from Galicia, but I wouldn’t be able to say of any other bagpiping tradition where this was done before it was done there either. I do know that modern Scottish and Breton pipe bands now sometimes imitate this Galician way of harmonising on an interval of a third, but I don’t know that it was traditionally done anywhere else.”
Does Gerardo and Julia have any plans to leave Cardiff and return to Galicia? “Well, so far so happy. No plans to leave this wonderful country as of yet – but if the new Government decides to apply further cuts and my wife’s contract at the University goes, or if they take you guys out of the EU and decide to kick all of us nasty Europeans out of the country, then… who knows?”