The Tuna Singers of Salamanca

Visions of large fish leaning into a microphone may come to mind. The word Tuna is misleading. In Spain, these are musicians dressed in medieval garb who play guitar, mandolin, or tambourine, and harmonize. The Tuna tradition started 700 years ago at the newly created Spanish universities. Starving students would play music in order to feed themselves with the tips they earned. Each university department had its own band. Tuna groups still play and sing around the major Spanish universities today.

Midway through the fall I studied in Spain, a friend and I went to Salamanca. We wanted to see Spain’s first university and the famous churches. When we ate dinner in the Plaza Mayor, we saw wandering minstrels in black coats with puffy sleeves and black capes with flag crests for each country they had visited. I had spent almost every peseta on the Salamancan charro button jewelry, but my friend still had enough to ask a Tuna group to play us a song. They played a rousing melody about Salamanca.

When I look at a video of modern Tunas, they remind me of something I’ve seen at a cultural festival or a Mexican restaurant, Mariachis. This Mexican musical style is similar to the university minstrels. They use acoustic instruments: the guitarrón (oversized guitar), vihuela mexicana (small six string), guitar, harp, violin, trumpet and voice. Spanish theater musical groups, indigenous music and African rhythms are credited with inspiring the first mariachis in Mexico. I wonder if Tunas had influence as well. One clue may be the charro button I was admiring in Salamancan jewelry, which is similar to the decorative side buttons (called charros) on the mariachi pants. Mexican groups have taken the musical art form to a new level.

When Evan and I lived in Austin, Texas, we would often visit San Antonio. Several restaurants near the Riverwalk specialize in mariachis. Dining outside La Villita Café, men with charro suits and large sombreros would play as they walked. We asked the musicians to play Cielito Lindo or Malagueña Salerosa. The singer refused the second song, because of the high notes in order to build a little drama and get a better tip. When he agreed to play and sang it beautifully, we applauded heartily and tipped well. Also in San Antonio, we went to the San José mission mariachi mass, attended by people from the world over. The experience was uplifting with joyous trumpets and singing.

I love Latin music. I have since high school. I would play the mariachi tune “Malagueña Salerosa” badly on the piano and sing mostly on key “Que bonitos ojos tienes…” (What beautiful eyes you have). Before our child was born, I was in a band called Estudiantina Panamericana (Pan-American Student Group) in Madison. Estudiantina is the name for Latin American tuna groups. We played songs from Spain and many countries in Latin America: like Cielito Lindo from Spain, La Bamba from Mexico, Canción y huayno from Peru, Gracias a la vida from Argentina, and the Mexican birthday song, Las mañanitas. We performed at Triangle Fest, the North Farmers’ Market, the Atwood Festival, even the Madison International Festival once. Our group played guitar, mandolin, saxophone, drums, harp, marimba and a cuatro. I’m no Linda Rondstat, but singing with this folkloric group was one of the best experiences of my life. Now our child and I sing these Spanish and Latin American folk songs together. For me, that is true happiness.

Para leer este ensayo en español, haz un clic aquí.

Estudiantina Panamericana, Madison Triangle Fest 2008 by Evan Wedell
Rebecca Cuningham

5 thoughts on “The Tuna Singers of Salamanca

  1. Dearest Bec, I always learn something from your posts, and I love the memory of hearing you sing with the Madison group. We are so grateful you could be here last weekend, and for your persistence (woman vs. bus!) Keep cool! Hugs, Mom

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

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