Stage shepherds can be hard to do
March 18, 2011
Dore's illustration of mountain pass
Dore's illustration of shepherds
The shepherds in the Sierra Morena mountains in Act Four of our play live a hard life. But how are we to recreate that community on stage? We set about some research.
Baron Davillier, who accompanied the illustrator, Gustave Dore on his trip around Spain in 1863, describes the ancient tradition known as mesta, in which thousands of sheep could be moved down from the mountains at the end of summer to the winter pastures to escape the cold. Established as far back as 1501, the mesta was organised in flocks of ten thousand sheep, each directed by a master shepherd, or mayoral, who knew all the best pasture land. He would have had fifty shepherds under his order, and an equal number of dogs. These men were allowed two pounds of bread a day, and though they received minimal pay they could own a certain number of their sheep. The merino wool, prized for its quality, belonged to the proprietor of the flock, but the shepherds could dispose of the meat lambs and the milk.
So the master shepherd in our play, would have been such a mayoral, or as Davillier describes him: 'A general-in-chief of these armies of peace.' Indeed, Don Quixote encounters one of these huge flocks, at one point in the novel. The mad knight mistakes them for an army on the move and attacks them. Gustave Dore accompanies Davillier's description with this illustration.
Apparently this 'transhumancia', or mass movement of sheep, still happens in Spain on the Sunday nearest to the 20th November when shepherds move their stock from the higher mountains in Leon (north of Madrid) through the centre of the capital to the winter pasture in the warmer, flatter Extremadura.
In the fifties, Gerard Brenan describes some of the shepherd boys he met in Andalucia, who having grown up watching their sheep in the high mountains, had almost lost the power of speech, and when spoken to they answered in a kind of sing song voice that was difficult to understand and loud enough to carry from one hill top to another. 'Listening to them', he writes, 'it seemed to me as though in all Mediterranean lands there was one common speech for goatherds, and that a youth from the Spanish sierras would be able to make himself understood in the mountains of Sicily or Albania'. Indeed our researches then uncover a genuine European lingua franca, which is still in use by Spaniards. It is called Silbo.
Silbo is a Spanish form of whistling from La Gomera in the Canary Islands. It was a language invented by the original inhabitants of the islands, the Guanches, and adopted by the Spanish settlers in the sixteenth century. Our sound designer, Martin Slavin, has discovered a film on YouTube which we pull up. It demonstrates the extraordinary tonal whistling language, and sets the actors who are playing shepherds into a spree of tonal whistling.
El Silbo was declared as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2009.
We try and imagine what these shepherds might look and sound like. I can hear the sheep bells, I can imagine the dogs barking, and the shepherds' cries echoing in the mountains, but what about their song? The scene starts with such a song among them. I have searched the archives of Alan Lomax, the American folksong archivist. He gathered and recorded many European folk songs, which could date back many centuries. Lomax travelled Spain in the fifties recording songs all over the country. In Extremadura, which borders Andalucia, he spent a night in a chozzo, a shepherd's hut, listening to an old man chant his song. He describes the place in his notes: 'A hut of straw... an oil lamp, a three-legged frying pan in a little square hearth in the centre of the hut, forks and spoons stuck in a wall of rushes, rush beds of aromatic branches around the room... no windows, airy and clean... low stools of cork and knotted branches.' The recording is an archaic chant-like melody about a murdered shepherd whispering his last words to his sheep with his dying breath. But somehow the song is such a specific sound it would be impossible to recreate.
Today we bring all this sporadic research together. Paul Englishby teaches the shepherds the song he has composed. It incorporates an antiphonal call and response, suggesting the cries of shepherds across the valleys. We add some dog barks, I bring in some copper sheep bells I bought on my travels somewhere (which have been hanging in my study so long I can't remember where I got them!) the actors refine their Silbo technique, and the Sierra Mountains begin to emerge in our imaginations.
by Greg Doran
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