Tuesday, September 9, 2014

In Conversation--Songs of Holy Toledo

Ana Alcaide (Photo in Google Images)
Where Swedish, Spanish and Jewish Cultures Meet 

In 2012, I discovered Sephardic (Jewish) songs of Toledo via Ana Alcaide, a Spanish traditional musician.  After watching Alcaide's stunning YouTube videos in which she plays the Swedish keyed fiddle (nyckelharpa) and sings Ladino (Spanish Jewish culture) songs, I thought of interviewing the musician for this blog.

I encourage anyone reading this to check out Ana Alcaide's videos on YouTube because you will learn a lot from this fascinating woman who bridges the scientific world with the musical one. 

I caught up with Ana via e-mail and I'm honored to include her on this blog of musical healers.

WME: How do your biology studies wed with your musical explorations? I ask this question because some musicians have taken music into the natural realm or have found musical aspiration from nature.

Ana Alcaide: Right! In fact, nature is one of my great sources of inspiration. As a biologist, I keep a the spirit of curiosity when I approach to music traditions. I always do some kind of ‘research’ on the traditional material I work through. For me is important to keep this part, even though  I take musical freedom afterwards.

WME: Did you have an interest in Sephardic songs prior to moving to Toledo or did you discover these songs and tradition in Toledo?

AA: Yes, it was the fact of living in Toledo what made me ‘encounter’ the Sephardic tradition. During many years I lived in the Jewish quarter of the city, and I could feel all this influence in the streets, in the stones, in the atmosphere around me. So I felt very attracted of knowing more about it. I mainly did it because of aesthetic reasons. For me, Sephardic music represents the beauty of simplicity.

WME: I love the concept of taking traditional music to the everyday person on the street. Was Toledo the first city where you played music on the streets? What inspired this idea?

AA: The first place in which I did it was Copenhagen, many years ago, with a group of friends. Toledo is a good place to play in the streets, because is full of charming and lovely corners in which you actually feel like playing there! Of course, I enjoy doing it. I like to share the music and open it to everybody, to ‘serve’ people doing what you can do. Personally is a very challenging experience. You have to ‘build up’ every single moment. What you get from the people reflects how you feel and what you are in that moment. I learn a lot from doing it, even though not always you feel in the right mood to do it.

WME: You mentioned in two interviews I've read that the Spanish government doesn't support Spanish traditional or folk music.  Is this a regional problem or does it involved the entire country?

AA: Well, I don´t like to generalize. I also feel grateful to all the support I receive. I would say that as an artist, it´s hard to get support because there are not many open vĂ­as to do it. Specially, in the recent years the situation has become harder.

WME: I ask this question because as a music journalist, I have received Spanish folk recordings from Galicia and the Catalan region that have cultural organizations supporting them. Galicia has a strong folk music community with record labels and music festivals featuring folk traditions.  I can even begin to tell you the number of Spanish folk recordings sent to me over the years, granted it pales in comparison to the pop music industry, but I'm still impressed.

AA: I consider that Galicia, Catalunya, also Basque Country, support their traditions in a more committed way. As they feel to have their own cultural identity, they want to emphasize it. So all cultural expressions emphasizing their particular identity is much supported, if you compare it to what is done in other regions of Spain (of course, this is a general feeling, I don´t want to generalize).

WME: I am interested in your connection to Mexico. What types of music traditions did you discover in Mexico during your time there? Did you fall in love with any of the Mexican traditional instruments, mainly lutes and harps?

AA: Well, my connection with Mexico is more personal than musical. I was studying Biology in Baja California for some months with a scholarship, and later I visited the country for personal motivations. I feel deeply attracted to their culture, and the connection was immediate, who knows why? Of course I also enjoy it musically, the country is huge and they have so many different traditions reflecting the spirit of the people. I really like their vital happiness, and the way they understand and celebrate life and death.

WME: You recorded a tragic song, The Bitter Well which features a relationship between a Jewish girl and a Christian boy.  It reminds of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet where two rival families destroy the love of a young couple through their prejudices.  This song is healing in that it provides a moral tale of the destruction of prejudices.  What inspired you to compose a song based on this tragic story?

AA: In my last album I wanted to introduce a legend related to the sephardic people, so I decided chose this one. It represents what you mention and it´s actually one of the most well known legends of Toledo… perhaps because it´s so dramatic? People like that! I also chose it because the bitter well is a real place which you can actually pass through, it which gives name to a Street of Toledo –you can find the place along the Street. It´s also very close to one of my favourites spots to play in Toledo, very near the catedral, so it also have a personal meaning to me.

WME: When you composed the music did you already hear the musical arrangement that appears on the album, La Cantiga Del Fuego?

AA: Not in all of the songs. I mostly ‘listen’ the atmosphere I want to create with each song. Even though the arrangements were clear, in some points it was open to the musicians who collaborated -specially percussions- So there are parts and sounds that were not exactly ‘planned’ like that. It was a very good working experience with a big team of great musicians!