FolkWorld Issue 35 02/2008; Article by Pío Fernández

Sound from Heaven
SONDESEU: A Folk Music Orchestra from Galicia

Imagine a forty five musicians orchestra, with a section for string instruments such as Celtic harps and hurdy gurdies, and a woodwinds section with bagpipes and traverse flutes. This is SonDeSeu, performing since 2004 in the city of Vigo in the province of Pontevedra, Galicia, North West Spain. Musicians from top Galician folk bands have promoted this project.

The Birthplace of SonDeSeu: The ‘Universidad Popular de Vigo’

Vigo, the city of the Medieval troubadour Martin Codax (13th century). It is also the city that keeps the capital institution for today’s traditional music in Galicia, and probably the whole Spain. This is the 123 years old ‘Escola de Artes e Oficios’, formerly called ‘Universidad Popular de Vigo’ (People’s University of Vigo). Its two most significant musical activities until now have been:

There is a fundamental document for Galician and Spanish traditional music, recorded in 1987 and published in 1990 by the record company Sonifolk (Madrid), named: ‘Instrumentos Populares Galegos’.
SonDeSeu, Gaita Section

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This CD contains a 40 pages booklet that illustrates and explains (in Galician) the characteristics and traditional tunes played with the different instruments from Galicia. Besides the brilliant starts of a very young Carlos, Anxo or Santiago, you can hear the contribution of some of the ‘grandfathers’ of Galician traditional music, such as:

Anton Corral is also a teacher for instrument construction, and a maker for Galician gaitas. Some his bagpipes are being played by gaiteiros such as Carlos Núñez .

Today’s teachers in this school are musicians such as Rodrigo Romaní, one of the original members from the charismatic 80’s folk band Milladoiro. He also became director of the University in the mid 90’s, and today is the teacher for Celtic harp.

Anxo Pintos is the teacher for hurdy gurdy. Anxo, Carlos Nuñez, Santiago Cribeiro, Isaac Palacín and Pancho Alvarez created a band in the early 90’s named Matto Congrio (with a CD in 1993 featuring Paddy Moloney), which later split into Carlos Nuñez' band (Carlos and Pancho) and Berrogüetto (Anxo, Santiago and Isaac).

Xaquin Xesteira is the teacher for gaita, the traditional bagpipe from Galicia. It is important to consider that the history of the traditional music of Galicia (and its neighbour region to the East, Asturias) must be understood by the relevance of gaita songs and dance tunes coming from three or four centuries ago. Xaquín is part of the traditional Galician band Treixadura (by the way, treixadura is the name of the type of grape for making the Galician Ribeiro white wine).

The Meaning of SonDeSeu

Lets try a first translation of this name, which could be something like:

  • ‘Son de seu’ (Galician)
  • ‘Son suyos’ (Spanish, also known as Castilean)
  • ‘They are his/hers’ (English)
  • ‘Sie sind seine/ihre’ (German)

    But the Galician word ‘son’ also means ‘sound’. Therefore, the meaning would probably be:

  • ‘Su sonido’ (Spanish)
  • ‘His/her sound’ (English)
  • ‘Sein/ihr Sound/Ton’ (German)

    But also ‘deseo’ (Spanish), or ‘desexo’ (Galician), means ‘wish’, ‘desire’. Therefore, it could be: ‘Sound Wish’.
    SonDeSeu, Hurdy Gurdy Section
    If the name was ‘SonDeCeo’ (Galician), the meaning could be ‘Sound from Heaven’. And so on ...

    After this erratic comparison of European languages, I leave it to the reader to guess about the meaning of SonDeSeu. My mother tongue is Spanish (from Madrid), and I have limited knowledge of the Galician language of my grandparents.

    But what SonDeSeu clearly means to Galician folk music is a new path for exploration. We are used to many traditional bands with ‘gaita’ and ‘redobrante’ (bagpipe & drum), big gaita marching bands, folk bands with all kinds of traditional and contemporary instrumentation, jazz-folk, folk-rock, even classical music orchestras with gaita pipers as guest musicians (Susana Seivane, Edelmiro Fernandez). SonDeSeu has done something innovative (at least in Spain, I believe), that is to take the size and structure similar to a classical music orchestra, but using the instruments and repertoire from the Galician musical tradition.

    The orchestra is arranged in three rows as follows (as seen by the audience):

    Front row:left:6 harps (section director: Rodrigo Romani)
    right:8 hurdy gurdies (section director: Anxo Pintos)
    Second row:left:4 percussionists (section director: Xaquin Xesteira)
    center:drum & bass drum
    right:4 ‘requintos’ (traverse flutes) (section director: Xosé Liz)
    Third row:left:6 gaitas (section director: Xaquín Xesteira)
    center:10 ‘pandereteiras’ (female singers & Galician tambourine players) (section director: Javier Feijoó)
    right:6 violins (section director: Alfonso Franco) (One of the fiddlers is Begoña Riobó, who has also played with Carlos Núñez' band.)


    The Sound of SonDeSeu

    The ‘forty many’ musicians go on stage without a conductor. But backstage they are supported by their teachers (or ‘spiritual fathers’ as they call them): Rodrigo Romaní, Anxo Pintos and Xaquín Xesteira.

    Therefore, the sound of SonDeSeu could be just that, a smooth blend of these three great bands :

    All the songs they play are from the Galician traditional repertoire, and the melodies transmit the characteristic emotions in Galicia & its southern neighbour Portugal:
    SonDeSeu, Harp Section

    Icon Sound @
    swinging all the time between deep melancholy (harps, voices, hurdy gurdies, violins), then shifting towards outbursts of joyful happiness (bagpipes, drums, tambourines).

    The level of musicianship is simply among the best you can find in the whole of Spain. The taste in the selection of the tunes and their orchestration is simply brilliant.

    What could be criticized? Difficult to say, but: Maybe audiences that are not so used to the sound of bagpipes and drums, might find it a bit too noisy sometimes, mostly after the smooth start of the harps, violins and voices.

    I would like to hear more solo passages as played by some of the top pipers or fiddlers they have. Sometimes an oboe, clarinet, accordion or guitar, played by some guest musician would be a pleasant surprise. Or even a guest singer. Maybe there are still some other ideas to be taken from the orchestration of classical music, and similar experiences also based in traditional music, but done in other places, and not just in Europe but maybe also in Africa or Asia. A couple of traditional Galician dancers should become part of all their concerts.

    I believe that SonDeSeu still has a lot of musical possibilities to offer, mostly playing on this borderline inbetween territories, from the purest Galician tradition to the influences from the music of Portugal or the ‘Celtic’ countries: Ireland, Scotland, Brittany.

    Photo Credits: (1)-(4) SonDeSeu (by SonDeSeu).

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