(This article was first published in CampoPulse in December 2010)
It could, you know. It produces a sound, does a zambomba. An instrument that requires some skill and a lot of practice, although once you have it, you have it. But we should start at the beginning. That is, with the costumes. No, not costumes, which imply fancy dress, but the right clothes. Remember, we’re talking Christmas, therefore shepherds. Though in the case of Andalucía, it’s more likely to be goatherds (photo below). No matter, the mountains are cold, so they wear sheepskin over a traditional checkered shirt (photo). Trousers (types of) may be optional, but not the chaps. Hang on, we mean the chaps they wear over the optional trousers, like the ones worn by cowboys, less fancy but with the same objective: to protect the legs from pricks – okay, thorns. (Still following us? See more below)>
This guy is obviously a shepherd, isn’t he? Actually, I think he’s a plumber … but that is a zambomba he’s carrying on his back.
The women (and girls) wear the female equivalent, or a fanciful equivalent at any rate, on the grounds that they stayed home to cook and clean and therefore needed no protection from thorns or pricks. So they wear long skirts instead, and lots of colourful clothes, always in order to stay warm. And for some undoubtedly practical reason, they all wear bandannas. (We wouldn’t know, we’re all male here.)
Costumes done, now for the instruments.
The most unusual is the zambomba, which is classified as a percussion instrument. A drum, in fact, but not one you beat. (Not quite sure where the percussion comes in then. Any help from our many musician readers?)
Made from a pottery container, wood, or a hollowed out pita plant root ball once it is dried (pita, above, is its local name, but also called agave, which is very common in Southern Spain although it originates in Mexico); it flowers after 20 years and dies, the dead leaves are removed and the root ball is hollowed out to make a zambomba, at least in much of Andalucía. The skin can be made from a thickish, strong material such as parchment, or well-tanned goat skin – the latter being more easily obtainable in the mountains of Andalucía.
A tiny hole in the middle of the skin allows for a stick to be inserted, and fixed to its entry point, sometimes with a piece of cloth or tape to limit how much actually goes in, as in the photo. Somewhere I read that stiff rope can also be used, but I’ve never seen it. The hand does not pull and push the stick in and out of the skin. It is the hand rubbing on the stick that sets off the vibration that gives this instrument its particular sound. Naturally, the larger the circumference and the longer the drum, the deeper the sound.
Many zambomba players carry a spray bottle of water to keep their hand moist. We have also seen bleeding palms by the end of the holiday season, though this may have causes more to do with alcohol than water.
A similar instrument, the cuica, is used in traditional Samba bands in Brazil, though there it is the stick that creates the vibration as it is rubbed into the skin, instead of the hand on the stick, and the sound is much more acute.
The next instrument is the pandereta. This one you know because you had one as a child, when it was called a tambourine. Of course the professional version is not made of plastic, but steam-bent wood. The skin is also goat and the discs are usually steel, though sometimes tin, depending on what sound is required. The pandereta is played with the fingers against the skin, except when obtaining a deeper, louder sound, which is made with the palm.
In these photos, it is used by my friend Domingo as a lead instrument, with which he directs his group, the Comparsa Navideña Los Ángeles, from the village where I live. In his case, he makes the most of it. And so do the players, who thoroughly enjoy themselves.
Again, a similar if not identical instrument, named pandeiro, is also used in Brazil, although it is usually used with great dexterity and moist fingers on the skin, which produces a different sound to the traditional Spanish version. In Spain it is mainly thumped, though not always, whereas in Brazil it is usually rubbed.
The botella, or ‘bottle’, is very easily available. Ask at any bar for an empty bottle of anís and you have it. You wouldn’t even have to remove the plastic pourer. Just tie some colourful ribbons around the neck, by which it is held, find a strong little stick – or a small metal rod if you want to make more noise, but risk breakage (a teaspoon will do) – and run it rhythmically along the ridges. That’s it. (Please practice out of earshot, please!)
The campana is just a bell without a clapper. The player is the clapper, striking the metal with another piece of metal, maybe even the dismounted clapper. Usually made of brass, practice will allow a certain degree of tuning, but this may also depend on the size of the bell itself. Syncopation with this instrument can be tricky if you have no sense of rhythm, as it is usually used in counter-rhythm. Again, please practice out of earshot, especially as you’ll need the whole band to get it right.
I have seen all these instruments, except the campana, being used by street urchins in Rio de Janeiro, to make music for tourists from whom they then demand money. Street kids are amazing there: they’ll make rhythm with a box of matches, a couple of sticks – anything. And when Brazilian pop idol Carlinhos Brown came to one of our International Music Festivals, one of his group was seen to be playing a botella, though not on stage: he was practicing in a dark corner (well out of earshot).
In other parts of the country there are other groupings and sounds, though usually the same villancicos with the same lyrics and tunes. Fortunately, we have yet to hear a proper villancico to the tune of Jingle Bells, although we do not doubt for a minute that there is a version or will be very shortly.
As to most of the villancico lyrics, these tend to be of a similar vein to those of anywhere else. They all mention either The Good Shepherd, His Mother, Father and Animals, the Three Kings, or all of the above together. Sometimes even Baby Jesus, whose birthday we somehow forget we’re celebrating…
Curiously, one of the most popular is called Los Peces en el Río, or The Fish in the River. I must look into this one more closely… Listen carefully to any group over the holidays and you’ll probably hear it. We would have posted a video, but, frankly we’re fed up with hearing it.
There are, some may be relieved to hear, Spanish versions of traditional (English) carols such as The Little Drummer Boy, or Silent Night. These can be as sweet and melodious and sticky as anything, so we thought we wouldn’t put you through it either. Anyway, you’re probably peeling potatoes, or deciding on whatever to do with ever more leftovers or something …