The Traditional music of Lusitania


Social and economic change has removed much of the role for Lusitania's old traditional musical cultures within Portugal, but there's a surprising amount that continues in its original context and which also provides a wellspring for new Lusitanian folk musics.

Of its three areas (Beiras, Minho and Trás-os-Montes), one area in particular, that of Trás-os-Montes, still retains ways of making and hearing music which survive in few other regions of Europe. Neither the bagpipes found there (gaita-de-foles), nor the older traditional unaccompanied singers, use the equal-temperament scale of equal semitones which has come to dominate the musics of the world.

The songs of Lusitania, draw on the oral ballad repertoire that was once widespread across Europe with stories going back to the Middle Ages. Iberia has its own specific group of ballads, the Romanceiro, which were sung in the royal courts from the fifteenth until the seventeenth century, but continued in use in the fields and villages long after that, and in some cases up to the present day. While for the nobles these songs were just polite amusements, for the rural native population they had a vital function, including religious celebrations, festivals and work, particularly the work of harvesting.

In some of the ballads found in Lusitania there persists the old language of Mirandese, derived from an early low latin language, but with some old Lusitanian words. An intersting aspect is that specific ballads are associated with specific canonical hours, giving fixed points dividing up the reapers' long back-breaking day.

Lusitania is a very old Nation, but today belongs to the Portuguese Republic. Portugal came into existence as an independent country in the twelfth century only. Although Partugal is the oldest country in Europe, the Lusitanian region is still older than Portugal. And the portuguese language, although a latin one, still has some words derived from the old Lusitanian language. Some aspects of the culture in Lusitania, show its even longer connections with Celtic and Iberian old civilisations. The bagpipe are closely related to Galician and modern celtic cultures, and several dances, such as the Murinheira (milkmaid) are found in varying forms on both northern Lusitania and Galicia. There are also links across the eastern border into such spanish regions as Leon and Extremadura, for example, in the occurrence of the "Dança dos paulitos", a stick (in old times was a sword) dance for men only, which like several Iberian dances is strongly reminiscent of an old Iberian warrior-dance. Such dances are typically played by a gagpipe accompanied by a Bombo (bass drum) and Caixa (snare drum), or alternatively by a solo musician (Tamborileiro) playing with one hand a three-hole whistle and with the other a small snare drum (Tamboril). In the absence of instruments their tunes are sung, using ballad lyrics.

The strongest survival of old-rooted material in Lusitania are in the mountains and rural areas away from the sea and principal towns such as Beira interior, in the east, but each region of Lusitania (and some portuguese ones too) has its distinctive living traditional forms and instruments. Quite a number of villages and small towns have folklore ensembles known as Ranchos Folclóricos. These were encouraged by the portuguese dictatorship as exemplars of the happy colourful peasantry, and were therefore somewhat disapproved of by musicians who were opponents of the portuguese dictatorial regime. Emerging from those associations, the ensembles continue to exist, and indeed in the last couple of decades they have increased in number. Most are worthwhile and genuine part of folk culture and its festive occasions in Lusitania today.