The Spanish folk quintet Vigüela call their new album A la manera artesana or “In the artisan way.” In the album’s liner notes by the great folk music champion Simon Broughton, he explains it this way: “The title of their new album A la manera artesana is about how ‘artisanal creativity’ is something different from ‘handicraft culture’ which is about templates and repetition. One unique, the other generic. The latter is very common in many amateur coros y danzas groups with colourful costumes and stylised choreography which exist across the country. Vigüela know the music from the inside out and recognise its style instinctively.”
That’s all well and good, and easy enough to say in a group’s promotional materials, right? But I think this ensemble is really living that artisan lifestyle, as illustrated by this quote from their website:
One of the greatest moments in the history of Vigüela was the cooking concert-show we did at WOMAD UK. We cooked gazpacho, Spanish potato omelette and rice pudding, while we sang and played. Then the audience ate it all up in a minute 🤣.
Sure enough, the music on this album, their ninth (third for ARC Music), is far from some stuffy museum piece, always played and sung the same way to ensure its “authenticity.” It’s lively, engaging, vibrant.
The band’s members come from the Castilla-La Mancha region (yes, that La Mancha), particularly El Carpio de Tajo, a village of 2,000 people about 40km west of Toledo. Vigüela is leader Juan Antonio Torres, his sister, Carmen Torres, singer María Nieto, also from the village, plus Luis García, from Braojos, a small village north of Madrid, and David Mollón from Alcorcón – what is known in the U.S. as a “bedroom community” for Madrid. The band formed in the mid 1980s as young Spanish people were looking for ways to reclaim their culture in the wake of the long Franco dictatorship. The name of the band, Vigüela, is a local term for guitar. The word is similar to vihuela, which refers to a different Renaissance instrument, but they come from the same root.
The album is a mix of songs and dances from the villages, farms and small cities in the region, their performances both a capella and accompanied by traditional acoustic instruments: guitars, the friction zambomba drum, the one-stringed rebeq fiddle, clapping, castanets, some wild percussive instruments and a whole lot of respect for traditional rhythms and vocal melodies.
The sequencing of the album is like a tour through the region’s various styles. The first four songs highlight repertoire from La Mancha Alta and La Mancha de Vejezate, areas not much explored by musicologists and rarely recorded. There are four dances – a fandango, rondeña, seguidilla and jota. Then there are several a cappella tonadas, and finally some lively sones. It is an extremely generous offering of 21 songs, lasting 1 hour and 21 minutes, and it never gets boring.
A la manera artesana unfolds like a well-planned journey from the Toledo mountains to the western branches of the Cuenca hills … Along the way we meet the stories of hill-dwellers, dressmakers, conscriptees and married couples, the traditional practice of ‘running of the bulls’ and of course, respect to beautiful artisan crafts.
It kicks off splendidly with the fandango “Estrellitas matutinas” (morning stars), belted out by one of the women over a dense bed of strummed guitars and lutes with maracas and handclaps adding to the pulsing rhythm. Here’s a performance video.
It wraps up more than 80 minutes later with the 10-minute tour de force of “Camina,” a son which features the vocalists showing their stuff punctuated by an expressive flute and some incredible picking and percussion. The vocal performances stand up to the best of European styles like Balkan sevdalinka and Portuguese fado in terms of the way they convey sheer emotion.
In between we receive a panoply of styles of music and performance. “El pie derecho” features a capella singing both solo and full ensemble; similarly the “running of the bulls” song “Tonadas por toreras” in a call-and-response style with some ambient village sounds of cowbells and such. There are three versions of the “Tonadas por toreras” song, each from a different village – El Carpio de Tajo, Anovar de Tajo, and Olias del Rey.
The middle of the album has several songs that feature that friction drum called the zambomba, which is typically played on each beat, sounding like something between a honking tuba and a snorting bull. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friction_drum This kind of song was often sung around Christmas time when people could sing in their homes, safe from the ears of the landowners, bosses, priests and other authorities. “Finiquito de un gañán” (The farmhand’s severance pay) is about a quarrel between a boss and a worker who is quitting and trying to get what he’s owed. These songs all have a rugged, earthy power to them.
I was perplexed by the song “Antón, a la miel” (Antón, To the Honey) – with reason, it turns out. The lyrics refer rather explicitly to female and male sex organs. The first part of this short song refers to honey and the triangular shape of a corbata (necktie), in the second it’s about a monk with a beard that reaches to his knees who gets the girls.
I’m particularly taken with two songs that highlight village life and its natural surroundings. The brief “Pajarito lindo” (pretty little bird) sung by a solo female voice accompanied only by lightly clattering hand bells, leads without a break into “Que vengo de lavar del rio” (I come from washing at the river), with call and response lyrics on which the men and women take turns in the lead – and the zambomba joins in about halfway through.
A la manera artesana is a top-notch persentation all around, including the liner notes and even the album cover. It features needlework by Maria José of Arte del Bordado in the Toledo town of Lagartera, famous for its artisan embroideries and vivid traditional costume-making, which has made the cover of Vogue. Don’t miss this one!
(Arc Music, 2022)