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Alfonso Franco: Galician Fiddling, Yesterday and Today
Kevin Carr
Alfonso Franco has over twelve years of experience as a dedicated traditional fiddle teacher. He has taught at Galician fiddle workshops in Canada, Scotland, Brittany, Catalonia, as well as the San Simón Fiddle Camp for kids in Galicia, Spain. He was invited two years in a row by Alasdair Fraser to teach Galician fiddle at the prestigious Sierra Fiddle Camp in California. Alfonso has a degree in violin and a postgraduate course in traditional music from the University of Santiago de Compostela. He has extensive experience in organising events, courses, and workshops. He is a frequent collaborator at the North Atlantic Fiddle Convention, where he has given several talks on traditional Galician fiddle. He is also a member of the Board of Trustees of the Sondeseu foundation, and the head of the fiddle section of the Sondeseu orchestra.
When did you start to play the violin? What inspired you to learn to play?
I started when I was eighteen. In high school some friends of mine started to play in a folk group and I was the photographer during the first months. When the violinist – he was a talented classical player – left the group I decided to learn the fiddle by myself because there was a good chance of being part of the group as at that moment there were very few violinists in Galicia, and no one was interested in traditional music at all. So in three months I became the fiddler of the group… you can imagine the quality of my playing! But we had lots of gigs because folk music was just starting at that moment in Galicia (1983) and there were no more than five bands playing “Celtic music” at that time. It’s a joke that thirty years ago we charged for a concert as much as a top folk band does nowadays.
When did you first hear fiddling? How would you define the difference between violin and fiddle?
My first encounter with the fiddle was pure coincidence. I used to buy LPs by mail order. By mistake, I received an LP of a Shetland folk group instead of the Deep Purple one that I had ordered. As it was very hard to send it back, I decided to give those folk people a chance. The LP was Good Friend, Good Music, by Boys of the Lough. I was impressed by this music. Destiny had sent me one of the best Celtic records ever and I became since that moment engaged by fiddle music.
For me the difference with the violin is that you never hear a fiddler play the tune over and over exactly the same. We always change bowings, ornaments, accents, tempo, even the key. Luckily, we are free to play as we feel and classical musicians can’t do this. They are tied down by the sheet music.
What is the history of the fiddle in Galicia?
The most traditional fiddle style entails singing and playing at the same time. Unlike in Ireland and Scotland, the fiddle was not very common among the population but has remained in the traditional music in the hands of the blind street fiddlers and the mendicants who went from fair to fair playing the fiddle while telling stories and bringing the news of the day as if they were itinerant living newspapers. They were also the ones in charge of playing at the dances, accompanied by different traditional percussion instruments.
Over the years the job of these fiddlers gradually disappeared and the last survivors lived into the ’70s and so, fortunately, some of their performances could be audio and video recorded.
Were there many cegos (blind street fiddlers)? How did they make their living?
Usually, they were instructed by another blind person from a neighbouring area, who took them in and taught them so that they could earn their living with music. Once their training was considered complete, the young fiddlers began working, normally with the help of a guide, often a relative, who helped them and sometimes accompanied them on percussion.
Each fiddler had an area of work, extending over their shire and the neighbouring ones, but they would also travel longer distances to fairs and open-air festivals, establishing routes and staying away from their homes for weeks. Normally, they stayed overnight in the area where they performed, lodging in the house of a local family or, sometimes, in the stable with the cattle.
These blind musicians (who in some cases only pretended to be so!) sang at road crossings and other places where people gathered, such as the gates of churches. Sometimes they went from house to house offering their music in exchange for money or food.
What would a typical festival day be like for a cego?
They used to work quite hard. They needed to walk long distances to arrive in the village before dawn, very early in the morning, when the animals were sold in the market or fair. At that time there were lots of people around, so it was the best moment to tell their stories and sell the papers with the lyrics (broadsheets). Later, when people were eating the pulpo á feira (boiled octopus, seasoned with olive oil, salt and paprika), it was also a good time to play and sing. Well into the 20th century, when they were hired, they had to play all the afternoon and festivals usually went on well into the evening. But as they were very much appreciated by the neighbourhood, the day went by with drinking and joking with them, and the work became mixed up with fun.
Can you tell us about Florencio and his importance?
Florencio was the last of the blind fiddlers. There were lots of blind musicians at the fairs, but this was the only one that was recorded. So he’s the only reference we have. The style of his fiddle sounds a bit Arabic, a bit like music from Eastern Europe. It’s very wild, very fiery. When Sean Keane of the Chieftains listened to the recording of Florencio, it reminded him of the old style in Clare.
Is important for me that you understand that Florencio and the blind fiddlers represent the ancient way of playing fiddle in Galicia and we have lot of respect for this. So thanks to him we know our own style and we sometimes play in this way and, of course  I always introduce the style of the blind fiddlers in the curricular program of my school. It’s necessary that the new fiddlers know how to recreate the legacy of the blind fiddlers, and also when we play with our groups or as soloists we take from them some technical resources and also their repertory and of course sometimes we also sing while we play fiddle like they did.

[For the rest of this interview, purchase the Fall 2015 issue, or subscribe to Fiddler Magazine!]
[Kevin Carr is a fiddler, piper, and storyteller living in southern Oregon. He loves, listens to, and plays a variety of music, from Irish to Québécois, Galician to Grateful Dead.]
For more information:
Galicia Fiddle:
San Simón Fiddle Camp for kids:
Sondeseu Orchestra:
Escola Municipal de Música Folk e Traditional, Vigo:
X Listen to the blind fiddler Florencio: