In the wake of Columbus arriving in the Caribbean in 1492, the conquistadores took with them to the New World the traditional music of pre-Baroque Spain. Over the following centuries those forms changed and evolved, adapting to local idioms and traditions, and some of these flowed back to the Iberian homeland. The celebrated Catalonian musician Jordi Savall has brought two concerts exploring these themes to the 2018 Perth Festival, the first featuring a most varied ensemble of eleven performers, the second involving only himself and equally celebrated harpist Andrew Lawrence-King. Both concerts explore how this creole music developed around specific themes, particularly La Folía, and other musical tropes and dance forms which developed into the formal building blocks of Baroque and later musics.

The first concert, under Savall’s direction, incorporated members of his ensemble Hespèrion XXI including Lawrence-King, Xavier Puertas (violone) and David Mayoral (percussion). They were joined by Mexican group Tembembe Ensamble Continuo, comprising two singers and a dancer along with four other players of the most varied and exotic group of instruments from Latin America one could imagine; some of the players sang, and the singers danced and also played other instruments. These included, as well as violin and the expected guitars of varying sizes (including a very small one called a mosquito), a marimbol (an African origin Caribbean instrument), a horse’s mandible (quijada de caballo) and other percussion forms such as maracas and pandero. The overall event could be referred to as a fandango, or huapango, in which music, dance and song are interwoven to produce an exuberant festive occasion, which certainly happened here.

The concert began in slow and stately fashion with La Spagna by sixteenth century composer Diego Ortiz, featuring viol, violin and harp, moving on to contemporary variations on La Folía with rhythmic variations, all demonstrated very refined string playing. This was followed by a bracket of traditional Mexican songs, the first featuring the two singers, Ada Coronel and Zenen Zeferino, with well-projected plangent voices in Latin American style, both also projecting festive good cheer. They were accompanied by sensitive violin and guitar solos.  In the second song, they were joined by dancer Donají Esparza, in a style of dance similar to flamenco called zapateado, also apparently originating in Spain but now indigenous to Mexico. Esparza herself was a revelation, moving with incredible grace and fluency, with ramrod back and sinuous arms and legs, clad in a colourful, full skirt over a lacy white underskirt and with matching lacy white blouse; a black scarf added another layer and served as a prop for dramatic emotional statements.

The concert continued exploring further musical forms such as passamezzo and romanesca, canario and gallarda (galliard), but any hint of academic didacticism was totally lost in the vitality and excitement of the performances. The bracket before the interval juxtaposed 16th and 17th-century Spanish compositions with traditional Mexican and Cuban songs, the last item (Guaracha – El arrancazacate) sounding like a gigue, and the overall effect was a joyous explosion of dance, song and instrumental playing, with the ever-disciplined Esparza permitting herself a small smile, which had the audience totally engaged.

In the second half, a similar pattern of intermingling Spanish and New World music from the pre and early Baroque continued. The songs did not seem to correspond to the printed texts in the programme, but this was a small limitation. Another item was introduced by Lawrence-King, enunciating a most sensuous text on dance by Casanova, the perfect introduction for Esparza to sally forth to another blend of Spanish and Mexican music accompanied by the singers. The final programmed item was another swirl of music, song and dance from Old and New Worlds, and had the audience on its feet at the end. We were rewarded with an encore, a work entitled La Iguana, and this time multiple instrument player and occasional singer Enrique Barona turned out to be a dancer as well, imitating the writhing lizard to great comic effect. Jordi Savall already has a solid following in Perth as shown by a full house, and the enthusiastic reception on this night can only consolidate that.