It’s been a while since I’ve revisted the wildly diverse folk music of Spain. Today’s example is from the autonomous community now known as Cantabria, and in the past known as Santander (after its port city) as well as the more lyrical La Montaña.

Cantabria is indeed, mountainous. A small, coastal, and green region, it is bordered by Asturias to the left and the Basque Autonomous Community to the right. Because of it’s geographic location, it’s no surprise that its music has much in common with the music of its neighbors. And yet, it retains its own uniqueness. This piece is introduced with the classic pitu and tambor duet – the pitu being the small reed instrument of the north of Spain, and the tambor, its accompanying drum. However, after a short introduction, all stops, and the classic, acapella singing of Cantabria begins. Journalist Rodney Gallop somewhat improbably wrote about these two particular artists when they recorded a few sides for HMV in 1928 and 1930, and distinctly noted what he called the “tragic intensity” of their brand of Cantabrian singing. It’s also forceful and strident at times. What still, for some reason, shocks me, is the fact that it’s unaccompanied, until the pitu and tambor return for a brief refrain at the end of the piece. It shouldn’t shock me, I suppose – although it’s less common on commercial discs, unaccompanied folk singing was recorded all around the world. Even Asturian tonadas, right next door to Cantabria, were often completely unaccompanied (when not accompanied by the gaita bagpipe). And on a crisp recording like this one, made in 1930 by the German Polydor company, you can really experience the acoustics of the room, something that is often buried under layers of hiss and decades of groove wear. The sound of the singers’ brief pauses are almost as interesting as their voices themselves.

Because, perhaps, of the region’s size, the cancion montañesa of Cantabria wasn’t recorded nearly as much as the coros of Galicia, let alone the flamenco superstars of Andalusia. As far as I can tell, Manuel Sierra and Sara de Ortega made a handful of records for several labels from the late 1920s to the early 1930s, after which I have no idea where their careers went. Sierra was popular enough to perform at a large exposition in Barcelona in 1928. Any success they would have had outside of Spain would probably be due to the intrepid Rodney Gallop, probably the only person writing about commercial “ethnic” 78s for the English speaking world at the time. He was specifically fond of Sierra and Ortega’s duets. The song itself is a sweet interplay between a boy and a girl on the way to the festival and pilgrimage honoring Saint Cyprian, which dates from the XV century and still occurs yearly in Cantabria on September 16th. Thanks to reader isoldevila, we have a full transcription of the song, a slightly different version than the one documented on this site.

Vístete pronto mozuca
que vamos a San Cipriano
no te apures por las cuestas
que yo te daré la mano
y en brazos, nena, te llevaría
A San Cipriano a la romería.

Dices que me quieres mucho
y a la romería iré,
y al pasar el regatuco en
tus brazos me pondré
pero no te resbales
que no quiero caer.

No tengas miedo
que yo resbale
con una carga
que tanto vale
con gran cuidado
iré, preciosuca, como
llevando a la virgenzuca

Y si caemos nos levantamos
y le decimos a San Cipriano
que fuimos juntos al regatuco
y nos caímos apretaducos.

Sube, sube las cuestas arriba,
que por ti suspira tu moza querida,
y subimos arriba a los llanos,
a tomar la sombra de los avellanos

Manuel Sierra y Sara de Ortega – A San Cipriano

Technical Notes
Label: Polydor
Issue Number: 220060
Matrix Number: 3047 BK

And yet another shout out to Heritage’s Voices of Spain CD, which contains 3 songs by Sara de Ortega and Manuel Sierra. One duet, and two solo pieces.

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