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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:

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:

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:

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