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Letters Blog Letters Blog | Barrie Mahoney

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

Anyone for a Timple?


“How about a timple?” I was asked by an earnest assistant in one of the traditional music shops in Las Palmas. I had just called in for a replacement violin string, and was looking at the range of Canarian traditional stringed instruments for sale. I quickly realised that I was not being offered an early morning alcoholic drink, and that the young salesman, speaking in English, had discovered an amusing way to catch the attention of English-speaking visitors to the shop. I have only recently begun to study early Canarian musical instruments, and as my first passion is the violin, this particular stringed instrument caught my eye, simply because of the beauty and simplicity of design.

The timple creates a voice by the instrumentalist plucking its strings in much the same way as the guitar, but there the similarity ends. It is much smaller than the guitar and usually has five strings, although in Tenerife some timples only have four strings. The timple is mainly used to accompany Canarian folk music and has a loud and rather sharp voice. Due to the success and increasing popularity of this instrument, it has now reached the status of a solo instrument in some circles.

The name of the instrument still intrigues me and I have yet to find a definitive answer to the origin of its name. In line with my initial thought about an alcoholic drink, the timple did used to be called a tiple (with only one ‘p’); before that it was called a ‘camelito camelillo’ because the back of the instrument looks very much like the hump of a camel, although it is less than 40 centimetres in length.

Timples were created in the Nineteenth Century and played throughout the Canary Islands and much of South America. In many ways, they are related to the ukulele, the Spanish guitar and the Portuguese chavaquino. Interestingly, the range of woods used is varied with the most common being pine for the body, ebony for the bridges, holy stick for the mast, and wood from the orange tree for decoration. Creation of these beautiful and interesting instruments was and still is a cottage industry across the islands, offering considerable variation in both design and construction. The island of Lanzarote became the centre for the systematic making of these instruments where one of the last timple makers is about to retire after more than sixty years of timple making.

The Government of Lanzarote has recognised Antonio Lemes Herandez as artisan of the year for his involvement for more than half a century in the production of timples. Antonio, a craftsman from Teguise, has been building small timples since he was a child. As a child, he made them from cardboard and other materials before painting them. He eventually perfected his technique and transformed a range of wood into his instruments, mostly pine, which he favours for timples since it can tune well. Over the years, Antonio has developed his own unique house style, which continues to delight players across the islands and across the world. Sixty years after his first contact with the timple, Antonio’s hands continue to create his unique timples, although he now feels that it is time to retire.

There are many renowned timplistas, as timple players are referred to, playing classical music and jazz and it is often regarded as an alternative instrument of choice chosen by guitarists. During the next fiesta, if you are fortunate enough to hear Canarian instrumentalists, do watch out for and listen carefully to the timple. I am sure that, like me, you will find it to be an engaging and fascinating instrument.

© Barrie Mahoney 2024

To find out more about Barrie, his blogs, podcasts and books, go to: http://barriemahoney.com/

A Little More than Amnesia


I guess most people will have heard of Indonesia and maybe Polynesia, but what about Macaronesia and, indeed, Micronesia? How about visiting Macaronesia one day? No, this is not a new name for France invented by the ambitious French President Macron, but a cluster of four archipelagos in the North Atlantic Ocean, just off the continents of Africa and Europe, which are formed by raised and exposed peaks of the ocean floor that peer out above the ocean’s surface.

The Canary Islands are part of Macaronesia, which also includes Cape Verde, Madeira and the Azores. Interestingly, the islands belong to three different countries: Spain, Portugal and Cape Verde, which are all part of the continent of Africa. The Azores are an exception, since they are part of the European continent.

Although I vaguely remember the term ‘Macaronesia’ being used during geography lessons when I was a pupil, I have rarely heard the term used in recent years. It came to light once again this week after Cape Verde announced that it was aiming for a free trade zone with other Atlantic islands to allow for the free movement of people, as well as goods and services. Despite the term ‘free trade area’ now being seen as ‘dirty words’ in the UK, it is good to hear that some countries apply common sense to their trading arrangements with other geographically close countries. The establishment of free trade areas is usually regarded as a very sensible way forward for nations to trade and work together in a coherent and civilised manner.

Cape Verde is a group of ten windswept islands off the coast of West Africa. It is a volcanic archipelago that was a Portuguese colony until 1975, and with which it still has close links. The islands have stronger economic growth that most of the sub-Saharan countries in Africa. The International Monetary Fund recorded Cape Verde’s growth in 2017 at 4 per cent, which is forecast to improve even further to around 7 per cent. The islands are hoping to enhance tourism and economic growth with such a deal and re-engaging with other islands in what is known as Macaronesia. Cape Verde is hoping to create a legal framework for its people and goods to travel freely for the benefit of all.

The Cape Verde islands, which have a population of around 500,000, and with a large immigrant population, have already passed legislation to remove visa requirements for Europeans and hope that the European Union will reciprocate. Laws have been changed to make it easier for foreign investors to invest, and recent legislation allows foreign exchange accounts to fund transfers without restrictions. Cape Verde’s currency is linked to the euro, which also facilities business activities. Cape Verde aspires to develop the islands as a hub for air travel, since it is ideally located between the Americas, Europe and Africa. It also sees itself as offering great potential as a digital hub for Africa. Sadly, due to Brexit, the UK is not included in this common sense arrangement.

Since I mentioned Micronesia at the beginning of this article, I should explain that this group of small islands is in the Pacific Ocean, but that is a story for another time. I think I am going to add Macaronesia to my postal address in future, after several incidents of my post being sent to the Cayman Islands, instead of the Canary Islands. It might help Correos to deliver my post rather more accurately in future.

© Barrie Mahoney 2024

To find out more about Barrie, his blogs, podcasts and books, go to: http://barriemahoney.com/

When is a Pirate Not a Pirate?


Many commentators will agree that since the vote for the UK to leave the European Union, the views of the general population have become increasingly fractious and divided in attitudes towards ‘foreigners’. Nothing is new, and the British have always been suspicious of their European neighbours. The Daily Mail, Express, Sun and, indeed, Facebook and Twitter are all currently having a field day in distorting ‘the truth’, whatever that may be. By now, we should all have begun to realise that there is no such thing as ‘the truth’, which, at best, is merely a perception of how we interpret an event, based upon our base opinions and prejudices. ‘The truth’ is always open to manipulation and distortion by others, however well meaning.

Do you remember any of your school history lessons? I certainly remember exciting historical events that I was taught as a pupil at school, as well as the content of lessons that I taught as a teacher. Was Cromwell a revolutionary hero, or was he a genocidal war criminal? I guess much of the answer will depend upon whether or not you hold an Irish passport. What about Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, whilst not forgetting Admiral Nelson’s attack on Tenerife? Were they simply well meaning explorers and adventurers seeking to enhance the common good, or profiteers, warmongers and unpleasant pirates? We often like to label people from the past as saints or sinners, but much depends upon what you have been taught to believe, as well as which country you have been taught in. For me, the definition of a pirate has certainly changed since I lived in Spain and the Canary Islands.

A report from the University of Las Palmas in Gran Canaria, which is undertaking an archaeological study in Fuerteventura to locate the remains of an estimated 90 English pirates, took my eye this week. These English pirates died during a battle in the Eighteenth Century with the residents of the Canary island of Fuerteventura. It is an interesting story, so let us turn the clock back 277 years to the year 1740…

The ‘War of Jenkins’ was a conflict that lasted from 1739 to 1748 between Spain and England, which refers to the ear of an English pirate captain that was cut off. In 1740, English pirates launched two major attacks on Fuerteventura, with a month between them. The Fuerteventura militia were successful in both of these pirate attacks, which also demonstrates the lack of harmony between England and Spain at this time.

The first attack involved 50 English pirates looting a village, whilst failing to realise that the island militia had already been placed in defensive positions. Towers at strategic locations had been built to watch out for English pirates who often attacked this island. Thirty English pirates were killed and 20 were taken prisoner. Islanders attacked the English invaders with clubs and stones, and hid behind a wall of camels when they fired muskets at them. These English prisoners were shipped off to the island of Tenerife to be dealt with.

A second English pirate attack took place one month later, but the number of pirates is disputed, as some reports claim that between 200 and 300 pirates were involved, whilst another suggests that fifty English pirates were killed. The second attack was put down with much greater brutality; no prisoners were taken alive and all the English pirates were killed. The Fuerteventura islanders showed no mercy after this second audacious attack. This new research will last for several years, and whilst focussing on the conflict, will also search for the remains of the English pirates who were killed in Fuerteventura.

We often refer to Viking pirates raping and pillaging the British Isles, but sometimes I guess we should look closer to home for unreasonable behaviour. When we next visit a museum to admire Spanish gold, trinkets, doubloons and other treasures, let us remember that these were often stolen by English pirates from our European neighbours. Let’s face it, we have always had suspicions about anyone living across the water.

© Barrie Mahoney 2024

To find out more about Barrie, his blogs, podcasts and books, go to: http://barriemahoney.com/

Wells Are For Life and Not to Hide Corpses


Many people do not realise that the Spanish Civil War of 1936 actually began in the Canary Islands. Francisco Franco was General Commandant of the Canary Islands, who was based in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. It was here that Franco plotted his strategy, well away from the rest of Spain, before he headed to the Spanish Peninsular. It was under his watch that Spain became divided into two factions: ‘Republican’ and ‘Loyalists’.

The Spanish Civil War began on July 18, 1936, as a revolt by right-wing Spanish military officers in Spanish Morocco that spread to Peninsular Spain. Franco broadcast his message from the Canary Islands, which called for all army officers to join the uprising and overthrow Spain’s leftist Republican government.

The Republicans and the Nationalists secured their territories by executing thousands of suspected political opponents. The horrors of the Spanish Civil War are still very raw in Spain and the Canary Islands, and continue to have a significant impact upon the loyalties and divisions of all the islands; the scars of which remain today.

Recently, archaeologists excavated a well in Tenoy in Gran Canaria, finding the bones of at least 12 people, including a skull with a gunshot wound. This was one of the places where local people experienced the horrors and repression of the Spanish Civil War.

The old well of Tenoy, in the municipality of Arucas, is one of the places where 140 inhabitants of the north of Gran Canaria disappeared in March 1937. It is believed that these victims were assassinated after spending months in one of Franco’s concentration camps for being loyal to the Second Republic. The project has so far found half a million human bones, a Republican coin, buckles, soles of traditional shoes and ammunition.

Some of the evidence comes from a direct and tragic account of the incident from a Galdar resident, who had been shot at the entrance to the Tenoy well. His friend rescued him and moved him to a safe house. Over the years, the contents of this well became buried with tons of mud and lost memories.

Other wells are also being searched on the island, including Llano de las Brujas, where 24 bodies were recovered. In addition, the search for people missing during the Franco dictatorship led to mass graves in the cemeteries of Vegueta and Sima de Jinamar.

The excavations of wells on the island reveal some of the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. It tells the story of how local residents of Gran Canaria who opposed the ruling class were often placed in concentration camps, killed and their bodies hidden in wells.

As one descendent, who has spent her life searching for the body of her murdered father, has so eloquently put it, “Wells are not meant to hide corpses. Wells are to give life. I want to put the bones of my father where they should be, in the cemetery”. It is a tragic history, but maybe finding some of the missing bodies and giving them an appropriate burial will help to ease some of the pain and provide closure for their families.

© Barrie Mahoney 2024

Join me on Facebook: @barrie.mahoney

To find out more about Barrie, his blogs, podcasts and books, go to: http://barriemahoney.com/

The Cold and Cruel Sea


It is true that less tourists return home alive than have set off for their holiday in the Canary Islands. This disturbing fact is not one that the tourist industry will thank me for highlighting, but it is time that the stark facts are raised once again and that holidaymakers are alerted to the potential risks of a holiday in the Canary Islands, and other popular tourist destinations.

The Canary Islands are a wonderful place for a holiday, but it is best not to return home in a coffin. We have the best climate in the world; each of the seven inhabited islands are unique and offer a range of activities and experiences that will enrich the spirit of even the most hardened and cynical traveller. The problem for tourists is not the islands, but the Atlantic Ocean.

Ours is a cold and cruel sea. It is deceptive in its appeal, but it is not the Mediterranean Sea. Many tourists forget this and quickly succumb to the delights of this turbulent water. Its many charms lull the unsuspecting tourist into a false sense of security with its frothy and inviting appeal to swimmers, surf boarders, wind surfers, but those with a true knowledge of the Atlantic Ocean will be only too well aware of its rapidly changing moods and boiling anger that erupts from time to time.

Every year, I see that the Canary Islands are placed at the top of a very disturbing league table for drownings, with most of these casualties being tourists. Statistics indicate that one tourist drowns every six days in the Canary Islands, a record that is one of the worst in Spain.

The shock of very cold water, swimming after a heavy meal, after drinking alcohol or taking drugs are some of the reasons for these individual tragedies. Cardiac arrest in the sea is not unusual, since it is the result of the shock of cold water, even in temperatures of around 25 degrees. The water around these islands rarely exceeds 24 degrees, even in the hottest periods of the year; it is not just freezing water that is a danger to swimmers. Despite the temptations to cool off after a day in the sun, swimmers can get into difficulties in as short a time as five minutes.

Many tourists forget that high winds, rough seas and treacherous currents are the main reasons for many drownings that take place each year. A strong undertow and unpredictable rip currents are also a grave danger to swimmers. They are unseen and unpredictable, catch swimmers without warning and carry them a considerable distance out to sea. Rough seas around our beautiful coastline can also be a danger for unsuspecting walkers, which may occur even in what appears to be good and settled weather. It depends what mood the Atlantic is in, and freak waves have sometimes swept walkers out to sea.

Some of these issues were brought home to me last weekend when I visited one of our popular, local beaches. It was a beautiful, yet stormy morning and the red warning flags were flying. Despite this, there were many swimmers in the sea, together with several surfboarders. I spotted two lifeguards urging swimmers to come to the shore for safety, which most obeyed. These swimmers were then directed to a safer part of the beach. However, several swimmers, including the surfboarders, continued to ignore the lifeguards.

It is this attitude of bravado and ignorance that is behind many swimming tragedies, and it is hard to legislate against foolishness. Sadly, it is also these attitudes that place the safety of lifeguards and other members of the emergency services at risk. Despite the best efforts of the islands’ government, the municipalities and the emergency services, swimming tragedies continue to occur far too frequently.

© Barrie Mahoney 2023

Join me on Facebook: @barrie.mahoney

To find out more about Barrie, his blogs, podcasts and books, go to: http://barriemahoney.com/

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