Traditional music mainly belongs to the place where it is born, but it can be shared with anyone who loves it. Boys of the Hills is a band with members born in the early 1980s in Madrid, Spain. Since the early 2000s, they have chosen to play folk music from Ireland, and they have put more than their souls in the effort. Their remarkable results have been presented in their first CD since October 2010, though it arrives in difficult times for the economy of Spain ... and Ireland as well, I am afraid.
Pio Fernández: Where and how did the band members start playing music?
We started in the city of Alcalá de Henares (Madrid). Since 1997, we have been playing and coordinating a small group of folk music fans (focussed on traditional Celtic music). The starts were hard since this kind of music was not known and it was difficult to promote it in Spain, where the general knowledge about Celtic or Irish culture and music is limited to movies (and their soundtracks) such as Rob Roy, Treasure Island, Braveheart or Titanic.
In 1997 Jesús (Keku) and myself created our first band named LA GUADAÑA (The Scythe), that was soon joined by the flutist Alex TORCIDA . We then started playing in villages, pubs, music festivals and contests in the Madrid province. We even went on small tours to Portugal and Ireland.
Which kind of instruments and music did you start playing in those days?
Keku and myself have been familiarized with traditional Irish music since an early age. Our older brothers were big fans of folk and Irish music, and they were always listening to LPs and cassettes at home. It was frequent to see them playing accordion, bodhran or gaita bagpipes at the family parties. It was a natural thing that sooner or later we would pick up some instruments and play a reel.
Alex started playing classical music, and he was a flutist in the local conservatory’s orchestra ‘Ciudad de Alcalá’ for several years, while in parallel he became a great fan of Irish music.
The instruments that we played with LA GUADAÑA were:
Which musicians and bands were your favourites at that time?
In the case of Keku and myself, THE CHIEFTAINS were always the biggest and greatest reference for their style, their compositions and their development as musicians. We consider Paddy MOLONEY our father and mentor in our trajectory in Irish trad music. We also like: David SPILLANE, CLANNAD, DE DANNAN, NA FILI, Phil CUNNINGHAM, BOYS OF THE LOUGH and many others.
The references for Alex were Matt MOLLOY and other relevant flutists.
At which moment and why did you take the decision to start playing Irish music?
Around 2001, we decided to focus on the style of music that always made us feel the greatest emotions and move our feet: the Irish traditional music. Until then, LA GUADAÑA was a band that was discovering Celtic music from different places and learning harmonies, cadences and techniques specific from each style. Irish music was the one that matched the best with our personality and our feelings. We consider it the richest and most challenging of all folk music, in its melodies, its complexity and its difficulty. It was always our first great love.
How and where did you learn to play traditional Irish music?
We self-taught this style of music in a family environment where our big brothers had already listened and played Irish music since we were kids. We listened a lot to this music, and learned to differentiate the rhythms, the authors and the musicians, and then practiced a lot with the different instruments. Our travels to Eire were also very decisive in our learning process. Over there, we learned a lot about their traditional music. Since then, we have never stopped promoting Irish culture with our music, also incorporating self-composed songs in our repertoire as a means to contribute to the mutual cultural exchange.
Where did you find the biggest difficulty to play Irish music correctly?
It all depends on the kind of song that we are talking about. A hornpipe is not the same as a jig, and a jig from County Cork is not the same as one from Donegal. It all depends on the style, the place of origin, even the way of playing of their local musicians. For me the main difficulty is the specific playing technique for each instrument, and the way to create a true ‘Irish’ sound with it. Then there is also the speed. For that you need to start playing slowly, interiorizing each of the notes. Then you start incorporating the specific playing techniques for the instrument, and progressively increasing the speed. Always keeping the essence of the expression: clarity of sound but also passion. Regardless if it is a reel, a jig or a slow tune.
When and with which musicians did Boys of the Hills start?
It was in 2005, during a meeting with Keku and Alex, the co-founders of the previous band. It was summer, we were drinking pints of Guinness and we then decided to switch from LA GUADAÑA to Boys of the Hills. We were determined to play Irish music, and with the ambition to do it not just in Spain but internationally. LA GUADAÑA was the start of everything, but also the past. Boys of the Hills was the start of the ‘Irish style’ in our life and musical career, and therefore also our future.
Why did you choose this name?
We are a group of kids that have been friends since our childhood (Keku, Alex, Alvaro), and we lived in the hills of Gurugú, a small mountain near the city of Alcalá de Henares. As simple as that. It was also a friendly name.
Regarding your instruments: Did you buy them in Spain, or did you have to travel to Ireland?
It was necessary to go to Eire, or to find shops professionally related with folk music in order to get them. Spain does not provide too many options in relation to Irish music, probably due to the low demand. There are just a few small suppliers mostly in the north of Spain. If you make music from another country, you need to go to that place in order to learn and understand its culture, and of course, to buy the instruments with the right sound that only the people from that place know how to make. In Spain, I only bought my first banjo (it was horrible) and some mandolins. I always had bad luck with the instruments that I bought in Spain. My brother Keku decided to go to Sligo to buy a Uilleann pipes set from Charles Rover. Alex did more or less the same with his flutes and whistles.
Have you considered incorporating new Celtic instruments in your next concerts and records: Great Highland Bagpipe, harp,...?
We are incorporating new songs to create new sonorities in our concerts. The problem is always the transportation of all the material, and the kind of place where we are playing. If we are playing in a theatre we take as many different instruments as possible, also for the visual effect. But if we are playing in a pub, with lots of different people (and many times ‘indifferent’ about what is going on), lots of noise, etc. the best is to go just with the minimum equipment. At least this is the way it is in Madrid’s pubs. There are not too many pubs with the proper ambience for a concert hall.
Do you frequently read some magazines specialised on Irish music?
No. We never found any Irish folk music magazine here in Spain, and we learned to live without that. But I would like to be more informed and up to date, for sure.
Which other kinds of music do you listen to, besides Irish folk?
Classical music, jazz, world music, bluegrass, American folk music, soul, etc...
Can you tell us about the latest repertoire of Boys of the Hills?
We play Irish traditional tunes : reels, jigs, hornpipes, slip jigs, mazurkas, slow tunes, songs, airs, ... such as: Ferryman Song, Mountain Road Reel, Dingle Set, The Humours of Castlefin,... thousands of them. It is hard to remember all the names, to be honest.
Have you also written songs of your own?
Yes. We have composed some reels, jigs, slow tunes, etc… For example : The Fortune of Dingle, Take My Hand, Clare’s Miller Woman, Symphonic, ...
In which cities and pubs do you usually play?
We play in Madrid, in the local network of Irish pubs: Clover House, James Joyce, Taberna Elisa, etc. Also in our hometown, Alcalá de Henares: Temple Bar Street (La Garena) or Whelan’s (where we started playing folk music).
In which places in Spain have you played already?
We have played in a big part of the Iberian peninsula, in concerts, festivals, contests, ... For example, in the Folkez Blai in Ermua (Vizcaya, Basque Country) we won the first prize. We have also played in concert with THE CHIEFTAINS in Madrid and Cantabria. But we have played in many other places in the Spanish communities of Asturias, Castile, Galicia, etc.
In which places outside Spain have you played?
We have been travelling to Ireland for eight years, and have played in places in Co. Donegal, Co. Clare, Co. Mayo, Dublin, … We have also played in Portugal, in Lousada, in a festival named Folia 2000. Also in the Czech Republic in 2008.
From all those places : In which of them did you find a specially positive experience?
The north of Spain was specially interesting, beautiful and with lots of nice people. The food was brilliant. Special places for me were San Vicente de la Barquera and Comillas (both in Cantabria). Even more for the unique experience of playing together in concert with THE CHIEFTAINS.
And of course: Ireland. The birth place of our favourite music. Our second home. We always think of that island as if we were bewitched to find it again and again in our lives. If it weren’t so expensive, it would be the perfect place for us to live and make more progress with Boys of the Hills.
That’s interesting! Do you have any particular plans in relation to Ireland?
I have a personal project to start a kind of second life in Ireland. Spain is my home country, and I feel specially attracted to Galicia, probably due to my family background. But I have an extreme wish to travel more frequently to Ireland. I firmly believe that I really need that. I need to be in the ‘oasis’ of the music that I love the most, and that I have been playing and writing since I was a child. I would love to go there more often and learn more about it.
Nevertheless, Boys of the Hills is right now mostly focussed on the promotion of its music in Spain, working hard and struggling in the local music market. Our primary target is to get firmly established as a band in Spain, although not missing any other opportunity to play anywhere else.
So, how do you find the situation of Irish folk in Spain? Do you believe that it is becoming more popular?
It is a difficult time for music and arts in general in Spain. Nothing is easy for anybody. It is a battle that some of us will win, and others will lose. But the disasters are guaranteed.
In any case, I am not too optimistic about the development of Irish music in Spain. There is not too much effort put on the education for music in general. Traditional music is only being kept by small and courageous groups of musicians, promoters and managers, that firmly believe in this cultural alternative, and not just as a minority business, but also as a means to save this art in itself.
Boys of the Hills play Irish music. It is not anything Spanish, but it is something European. If it were possible to change people’s mindset, to recognize that we all belong to the same continent (Europe), and that we are all affected by the same continental events, it would be easier to get to know each other’s culture. In our case, we are in Spain but we care about the Irish culture. If things happened in reciprocal ways somewhere else in Europe, everything would be easier for everybody’s traditional culture, even for regional music.
In Spain, folk music just ‘survives’. Nothing else. And I do not believe that it progresses a lot more (talking in general), since it is being too self-centred. In any case, it is difficult to make a thesis about all this...
Is there any place in Spain that you can recommend for its activities on Irish music?
The word “recommend” would be saying too much... It all depends on what you are looking for. Obviously, Irish music in Spain cannot be found as easily as in Ireland. You have to look for it with lots of attention.
If you are in Madrid and you want to live some good moments with traditional music, I would recommend LA TABERNA DE ELISA (calle Santa Maria, 42) on Fridays and Saturdays. They also have sessions on Bluegrass on Mondays. There is also EL LEON DE ORO (calle del León, 10), having sessions those same days and also on Thursdays. Sometimes you will find traditional or folk music, but other times you will find styles that have nothing to do with that.
Maybe nobody really makes a true effort to seriously invest in quality live music shows in Madrid, as they do in coffee bars or pubs in other places in Europe.
Do you know any other band in Spain making Irish or ‘Celtic’ folk music similar to Boys of the Hills?
We have some friends that play the same kind of music as we do. For example: Cesar PASTOR and Fernando DEL VALLE. I am thinking mostly of individual musicians, more than of bands and other musical projects. Such kinds of musicians have all our admiration and respect.
The tendency on most other ‘Celtic’ folk bands in Spain is to look for a ‘fusion’ with better commercial perspectives, closer to Celtic-rock or pop. We do not consider that as our style of music. They are too commercial and full of marketing. The style of Boys of the Hills is more personal, trying to stay within the boundaries of Irish trad music, with maybe some Americana music at the most.
Which CDs have you published? How can they be purchased?
At the moment we only have our first album, named Boys of the Hills. It was published in October 2010. Before that, we just had three self-made samplers that we were selling in our concerts.
This first CD is a compilation of all the different influences and styles developed in Boys of the Hills. It contains mostly Irish trad tunes, stepping a bit into Country music. For example, ‘Welcome March’ is a song with Irish roots but also a bit ‘fussed’. ‘Ferryman Song’ sounds a lot like the typical Irish tavern songs, with some DUBLINERS’s sonorities. ‘Her Mantel So Green’ is an impressive tune, to close your eyes and let the music take you to Doolin, to the Cliffs of Moher, shaken by the wind, with the sound of the powerful Atlantic Ocean in front of you.
This CD was recorded in Infinity Studios and can be purchased on-line on our website, on iTunes, in a few shops in Madrid’s province, or directly from us in concert.
Which plans do you have for Boys of the Hills in 2011?
Lots of ideas in my head… Every week I meet our manager, José Ramón Alvarez. We have lunch and then we discuss the route plan. We will have concerts in festivals and several village fairs in Spain. We are also looking for shows in Spain’s national theatres network and some concert on the Spanish TV. The summer tour: along the north of Spain, a new concert with THE CHIEFTAINS, Keltska Noc in the Czech Republic, Ireland, Portugal and Fuerteventura.
We have the determination to work hard against Spain’s economical crisis, to play our music and to make a lot of people happy.
Any place where we can frequently find Boys of the Hills playing their music?
Photo Credits: (1)-(2) Boys of the Hills (from website).