Saturday, 17 December 2011

Spanish Carols

There is not really a tradition in Spain for the type of Christmas carols that we know in more northerly parts of Europe. Some of those carols are known here and have their own Spanish versions, such as Venid Fieles (Adeste Fiedeles), Al Mundo Paz (Joy To The World) and Noche de Paz (Silent Night), but the real Christmas singing tradition here is based on a large group of songs called Villancicos.

The villancico was a popular form of poetry and singing in Spain, Portugal, and their colonies, for several centuries, starting in the second half of the 15th and continuing into the 18th. The style declined in popularity in more recent times and the term "villancico" gradually came to represent little more than a Christmas carol. (Well, perhaps carol isn't really a good translation, for songs such as White Christmas, Jingle Bells and Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer are also referred to as villancicos. The more-encompassing term Christmas song might therefore be more appropriate.)

Despite, this degeneration, the medieval musical influence can still be gleaned in the villancicos that remain popular around the Christmas period. This is aided by the often medieval flavour of the music and its instrumentation, which still often consists of little more than a simple drum, a zambomba (a friction drum, or, in Dutch, a rommelpot), and some tambourines (panderetas in Spanish). In the Comunidad Valenciana, a dulzaina might also be used and in Andalucía, the villancico has become particularly popular performed in flamenco style, accompanied by guitars, castanets, hand-clpping and the cajón.

Villancicos are most often sung by groups of children (who, strangely enough, seem to have little musical ability) and this adds to the naivety of the whole. A glorious exception to this rule is provided by the flamenco performers of villancicos, who transform the simple songs into superbly exciting numbers: look out for a group called Raya Real in this respect.

So why not scrap the traditional carols this year and instead go for a more Spanish form of Christmas entertainment? You can find plenty of sites online where you can listen to villancicos, performed both well and badly, and lots of CDs are available in the shops, too, though these are of equally diverse quality.

Navidad Digital is a good place to start. Not only does the site offer many, many villancicos, it also allows you to hear carols in French, German, Italian, Latin and English. (In addition, you will find information about Belenes, recipes for traditional end-of-year fare, and hundreds of photos.)

And here is a short list of some of the more popular and traditional villancicos:

  • La Marimorena
  • Campana Sobre Campana
  • El Burrito Dabanero
  • Ya Viene La Vieja
  • Los Peces En El Rio
  • Arre Borriquito (Arre Burro Arre)
  • Alegría Alegría
  • Fum Fum Fum
  • Rin, Rin
  • El Chiquirritín

¡Felices fiestas!

Monday, 12 December 2011


Some thirty-odd years ago I was "into" Bonsai. I had lots of little trees and enjoyed the hobby for several years. During that time, I learned a great deal about plants in general, not just Bonsai, and also discovered the greatest gardening tool ever known to man.


You know, the things with which you eat Chinese food (delicious!). Marilyn Monroe played Chopsticks in her glorious film, The Seven Year Itch, together with Tom Ewell, but that was on the piano and a different story entirely.

The art of Bonsai originated in China, so it is perhaps not surprising that the chopstick has remained linked to Bonsai care. (For a brief history of chopsticks, as well as other information about them, look here and here). From Bonsai I learned that a wooden chopstick could function as an excellent water gauge, dipping it into the soil, removing it after a while, and checking the dampness of the wood. As well as using chopsticks or parts of chopsticks for shaping, separating, and styling Bonsai, they have one use which is particularly suitable to other forms of cultivation: root separation.

When repotting a plant, it is often advisable to clear out the old soil from between the roots and to ensure that the roots are evenly spread in the plant's new pot. This can be best achieved with a chopstick!

Chopsticks come in various sizes and have differently shaped points (the Japanese chopsticks tend to be shorter, more often round along their whole length, and more pointed than their Chinese cousins), so keep a few different ones handy in order to be able to select the most appropriate one for the task. Larger plants with large root masses might benefit from some running water when the roots are being teased loose, but this should not be necessary for plants from normal and small-sized pots. Simply use the chopstick to gently tease the roots loose and to remove the soil which is caught between them: because of the slightly flexible and natural aspect of the wood, the chopstick will fulfil this task admirably and will cause far less damage to your plant than a metal item, such as a fork. Later you can use the chopstick to spread the roots evenly over the new soil before covering them and fixing the plant.

I also use chopsticks to push soil up against cacti stems, to ensure that the soil is well tamped down, though not excessively, at the sides of the pot, to nudge a cactus into its correct position in its new medium, to act as a fixed support for a while until a less than stable cactus has settled down, and countless other ways. Why, only just the other day I used a chopstick to unclog a leaf-sucker (garden vacuum).

I'd still like to have played Chopsticks with Marilyn, though…

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Bye Bye UK (if only)

It really is time for the UK to make its mind up as far as its membership of the EU is concerned.

Ever since the UK joined the European movement in the early 1970s, it has been nothing but a whining pain where the sun doen't shine. When I worked for the EU, during the 1980s and 1990s, it was embarrassing to be British: even then the UK looked far too much at its own needs and worried too much about is "national sovereignty" instead of working for the cause of European union and advancement. Now, with the other 26 member states agreeing to relatively harsh but necessary measures to shore up the Euro, the UK has once again shown its true colours and has vetoed the agreement.

Well, UK, get out, please, just go and wallow in your petty island mentality. Sadly, of course, England will take the other countries of the UK down with itself, unless Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have the means, the will, and the courage, to throw off the English chains of constraint and oppression in order to go their own way as part of a United Europe.

The current crisis is, in many ways, a good thing. It offers Europe a chance to get its house in order, it highlights both the weak and the strong aspects of Europe and demonstrates the need for the member states to forget all about their ridiculous worries about sovereignty. It really is now time to stop putting the individual member states first and instead to put a united Europe first, to work towards far more harmonisation, far closer political union, and far more freedom for the citizens of Europe.

And this can be better done without the dragging anchor of the UK to slow things down.

As for other member states, they must decide either to be in Europe, or out: no half measures, no pandering to their own right-wing, nationalist elements. From now on it must be either 100% Europe or get out and go-it-alone. And if you want to be in Europe, you use the Euro.