It’s not only about travelling, it’s romancing women and… the music
Hiking the Inca trail to Machu Picchu dressed as a 16th century conquistador was going well for Spanish university student Julio Gullien until, when turning the corner of a mountain pass, he came face to face with a Peruvian boy who turned and ran away screaming.
“He yelled, ‘Sons of Pizarro!’ and pointed at me before running away,” Gullien recalled, laughing. “I’m not sure what he thought I was doing up there.”
Unlike Franciso Pizarro and the conquistadors of old, Gullien says he wasn’t in Peru looking for silver, but instead visited as part of a trip by his tuna, the Spanish term for a university music club whose members travel the world as itinerant troubadours, dressed in medieval costumes consisting of doublets, puffy shirts and tights.
Gullien and two other tuna musicians, Santiago Barranco and Carlos Matilla, hit Phnom Penh this week, performing an impromptu mandolin concert at local riverside restaurant Cantina, after which they sat down with The Post and explained that the rules of playing as a tuna group are simple, yet date back centuries.
“The tradition of the tuna is from the 16th century, it referred to poor students who travelled around Europe and had no money so they had to play music to continue their trips and go to university. When they were doing that, they used to play in the parks and salons, and the food people gave them was the rest of the food that nobody wanted,” Gullien explained, before adding that the difference between ordinary university students and members of a tuna are not just about costumes, but attitude. “The difference is we dress in tights and do whatever we want, we are the modern conquistadors.”
Rather than Iberian salons, Gullien and his two partners have performed their repartee of melodious Spanish love songs to at times confused audiences in bars and restaurants across Southeast Asia over the last two weeks after meeting through different tuna groups in Spain and agreeing to set out on a month-long tour of the region.
“Anyone from the tuna can meet another member and start playing with him; it’s the same songs, there’s no difference between different tunas. But it’s not only about travelling, it’s romancing women and, of course, the music,” Gullien told The Post before joking that as a science student, arguments about sightseeing regularly erupt between him, Barranco and Matilla, who both study naval engineering.
“Every day is a battle between, ‘This is a science trip’, ‘No, no this is a naval trip’. We’re a democracy, so it’s two of them against one of me.”
Packing their doublets, guitars and distinctive plumaged trousers, or gregüescos as they’re traditionally known, the trio set out from Spain in early July and arrived in Phnom Penh via Hong Kong and Malaysia, paying their way by performing music in the tradition of the first generations of tuna musicians.
Understandably, the reaction to the group has varied according to Barranco, who says that in some cases their costumes can see them hired straight off the street to perform the very same night or, in contrast, simply gazed at in bewilderment.
“Imagine if you’re Japanese and suddenly you see four guys in tights walk up to you. In South America and Mexico they know about us so it’s no problem, but for example in Hong Kong or Malaysia, they are stunned, they’re like, ‘What’s that?’”
Ideally, tuna trips are self-funded, explained Barranco, a situation which can see musicians in groups of 10 or more take up residence in some unusual places.
“Sometimes you sleep in five-star hotels and the next day you sleep in the street. Well, maybe not in the street, but in horrible places. We carry some money just in case we need it if we have problems such as stolen passports, but ideally you pay with your music. Of course you cannot pay for a bus ticket with music so we try to earn some money as well as food, but you have to like the adventure and the challenge.”
As well as paying with music, another key tradition of taking part in tuna performances in Spain and in expeditions abroad is the so-called ronda, which Carlos Matilla told The Post involves serenading eligible female university students in the style of a medieval troubadour.
“That’s the other thing that we do. If you think about the middle ages with a woman in a balcony being serenaded, it’s like that. A lady will invite us, we go to the girl with our friends, we go to serenade them outside their window, and if we do it properly, we go out and make a little party.”
The only downside, according to tradition, is that women who disapprove of their musical talents are entitled to pour buckets of cold water or, as is the case in some medieval tales, burning oil, onto the musicians below. Luckily for the musicians, this practice has since been discontinued.
After completing a stirring solo guitar recital at Cantina, Gullien said the trio will leave tomorrow for temple sightseeing in Siem Reap, before carrying on to Thailand and China.
“We may be in Siem Reap for two or three days, we don’t know. It’s like the Balibo museum in Spain; sometimes you get tired, you cannot see the whole museum in one day because it’s like too much alcohol, you get drunk.”