By Valerie Collins
My first love was a tuno. Imagine a naive 18-year-old, on what is now called the gap year…out on the streets of Valencia of a Saturday night, glimpses of flying black cloak and coloured ribbons, guitars and tambourines on the breeze…standing on the balcony of our crappy student flat while this dark, handsome (well, I thought so) young man serenaded me…oh, the excitement, the romance… and the old vinyl LP of tuna songs would cheer me through the bad times to come.
That was back in 1969, in the latter days of Franco’s dictatorship. Now of course, Spain is utterly modern, and so are young men like my friend’s son José: slumped in ragged jeans on the family sofa, hooked up to MP3 player, channel zapper in one hand, mobile in other. Mobile rings. José disappears. Minutes later he reappears in black velvet knickerbockers and doublet with white lace collar, yelling for his stockings, whereupon his mum, my friend, starts running around like a chicken without a head. The stockings (black) are found and José pulls them on, then wedges his feet into shoe-like objects of medieval aspect. He slides his mobile into the breast pocket of his doublet, kisses his mum, grabs his guitar and zooms off. Tonight he has a gig with the tuna.
It was quite a surprise to discover that so many of Spain’s future lawyers and dentists, architects and telecoms engineers are still devoted to prancing around in bloomers and capes and ribbons, singing “typical espanish” songs, serenading women under balconies and getting buckets of water sloshed over them by sleepless neighbours. Women and tourists love them, men hate them. Their legendary ladykiller skills trigger barely concealed envy: “This guy in stockings pulls all the girls!” ordinary geeks complain.
But, as the tourist brochure copywriters never tire of telling us, Spain blends modernity and tradition in a unique way: the tuna is “a university institution of a cultural nature” that keeps alive, almost unchanged, customs inherited from the Spanish students of the 13th century, from the black costume to traditional instruments like the bandurria.
The sash worn over the shoulders and chest, called the beca, identifies, by its colour and coat of arms, the university or faculty to which the tuna belongs. And so they have long-winded names like Tuna de los Ingenieros Agrónomos y de Montes de Córdoba, Tuna de Architectura Técnica de Madrid, Tuna de Humanidades y Ciencias de la Educación de Almería and Tuna de Informática de la Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.
The cloak represents two basic tuna qualities: tireless traveller, and lover of women. It bears the coats of arms of the cities and countries visited, and coloured ribbons with affectionate dedications – from girlfriends, sisters, mum… As the famous song says: “cada cinta que adorna mi capa guarda un trocito de corazón”. Every ribbon that adorns my cloak holds a piece of heart. According to my research (unconfirmed), the ribbon was originally a strip of undergarment. Which figures.
It all started in Palencia, during the reign of Alfonso VIII, where, the first ‘studiu generale’, the forerunner of the university, was founded in 1212. Young men flocked there, and those too poor to pay their way busked in inns and taverns and medieval greasy spoons for a few coins and a bowl of soup, coming to be known as sopistas. When night fell and the curfew sounded, they wandered around town, strumming their bandurrias and lutes, singing popular songs under women’s balconies, and raising hell. The first written reference to the tuna, dating to 1300, is in the archives of the University of Lleida: a ban on the students’ night-time activities, on pain of confiscation of their instruments, so that citizens could get a decent night’s sleep. The sopistas always carried a wooden spoon and fork so they could tuck in whenever they got the chance, and today these utensils are the symbol of all the University Tunas.
It was not till the 16th century, however, that the tunas as we know them today were formed. In 1538 a scheme was introduced to give poor students free accommodation, which was organised by subject and run by the oldest students, who were also supposed to help the newbies in their studies. Packed with sopistas, these student houses were not exactly models of serious study.
Websites, female tunas (a contradiction in terms?) and MP3 downloads of ‘Clavelitos’ aside, little has changed since Mateo Alema?n wrote in La vida del Pícaro Guzmán de Alfarache (1603): “they would not pick up a book, nor bother about that for which they had come to the University; their guitars were never out of their hands…” Rehearsals, rondas, women, partying, travelling and taking part in competitions take up a huge slice of the tuno’s life. Tunas are involved in all sorts of socio-cultural events. Several years ago, for example, members of the Tuna de Ciencias de Barcelona were invited to play at an International School in Paris on the Dia de la Hispanidad, where, they boast, they knocked everyone out with their “regional songs and personal charms, and a fat lady wanted to take a tuno home as a souvenir and sexual fetish.” By contrast (another cliche the copywriters never tire of – Spain is a land of contrasts) in Sevilla, on the eve of the Fiesta de la Inmaculada Concepción, all the city’s tunas gather to serenade the Virgin.
More mundanely, the tuna is definitely for hire. “Want to serenade your girlfriend? Want your boyfriend to serenade you? Want to organise a hen party? Would you like the tuna to sing at your golden, silver or bronze wedding? Your daughter or sister having her First Communion? Make it different – call the Tuna de Derecho de Valladolid” says this tuna’s webpage.
Medieval Europe was full of wandering minstrels, but only the Spanish managed to turn the bohemian student way of life into an institution and, moreover, export it (recently): not only to the rest of the Spanish-speaking world (Portugal has its own version) but also to France, Belgium, Germany, Holland and Japan. Foreign tunas, of course, sing in Spanish.
Seeing the world with expenses paid is one of the big reasons why students join the tuna. These guys really get around, taking Spanish culture and alegria to the four corners of the globe. As the Tuna de Farmacia de Barcelona boasts: “we have left our mark in places as different as Santo Domingo, Miami, Australia, Germany and Switzerland.” To say nothing of Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania. No, I hadn’t heard of it either, but the multi-award-winning Tuna de Derecho de Valladolid gave a performance there as part of the Slippery Rock University Spring 2004 International Arts and Cultures Series. And what more fitting for the closing ceremony of the very first meeting of the International Institute of Women in Engineering near Paris in 2001 than a performance by the Tuna de Caminos (Civil Engineers) de Madrid?
But, despite appearances – and perhaps this is why it has endured – the tuna is not just about wine, women and song. It is really a fraternity: like other male institutions, at its best, it’s about unfashionable stuff like discipline, commitment, companionship, loyalty, honour…character building. Oft quoted in the tuna literature are University of Zaragoza historians Jiménez Catalán y Sinués y Urbiola who wrote in the 1920s: “from these troupes and sopistas came men who governed Spain and occupied preeminent positions in letters, politics and public life.”
The aspect of the tuna that attracts much comment in these officially egalitarian days is its rigid hierarchy, in which novices submit with total obedience to veterans, acting as their servants, putting up with indignities, insults, practical jokes and assorted despotic behaviour. In exchange, the wannabe tuno, called pardillo, is trained in all the arts of tunahood, including singing and playing if necessary (you don’t actually need to play an instrument to join). Obedience is key during your pardillaje, which lasts for about a year. You may be obliged to go around in pyjamas for the first six months, and then in a harlequin costume, but if you learn to act like a true Caballero Tuno and pass your final test (performing whatever songs are demanded), you will be awarded your beca and enjoy the warm glow of bonding and belonging (after a ritual skinny dip in a public fountain). You also get a mote (nickname), by which you will be known forever after.
Once a tuno always a tuno – and there’s no need to retire into obscurity, either: you just move on to the cuarentuna (literally forty-something tuna). Life for some of these veterans is probably unthinkable without the tuna, thanks to which they survived years of university at a time when grants were minimal or non existent, and were also able to travel the world and meet “ministers, writers, actors, bullfighters, singers, doctors and all sorts of people,” as a class-of-1960 tuno explains, “including Picasso.”
So, you’ve been warned: one of those men in black stockings serenading your restaurant party might just turn out to be your bank manager.
© Valerie Collins 2004