The tuna universitaria has come to Baja California

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Tuna UABC at Giuseppis

If you’re in the right restaurant at the right time, something unusual will happen. A bunch of guys show up dressed in Renaissance clothes, carrying Renaissance instruments. They begin playing in bright tones and quick rhythms – possibly Italian, to gringo ears, but the lyrics are unmistakably Spanish – while the little guy with the tambourine capers theatrically.

What happened to the mariachis and “La Bamba”? Has Tijuana suddenly become addicted to Lope de Vega? Or maybe the restaurant thought we’d like to watch “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” in translation?

It’s a bit disorienting, here in the city that began as a Hollywood-style fantasy, to encounter something so deeply traditional and so authentically hispanic as Baja’s first tuna universitaria. Even the name is confusing … the locals know tuna to be cactus fruit and the gringos think it’s a fish … but the term refers to a group of tunos, university students who sing for their supper.

The tradition can be traced back continuously to the beginning of the thirteenth century with the founding of the Studium Generale (now University) of Palencia during the reign of Alfonso VIII. Nowadays tunas are established throughout the Spanish-speaking world. They’re even found in such unlikely places as Oxford, Belgium, and Japan. In central Mexico, tunas date back to the Porfiriato. For UABC (the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California), however, the tuna arrived in 2008.

Something as ancient as the tuna doesn’t fit in a nutshell. Its traditions derive from the wandering student minstrels of the Middle Ages and from chivalric romance of the Renaissance – in other words, from the Carmina Burana and Don Quijote. Tunas still hold with the chivalric code of honor and with ancient instruments like the banduria and the Spanish lute. Their repertoire, while somewhat more current, nonetheless favors zarzuelas and folk songs from more than a hundred years ago. They began as goliards and they are now glee clubs; they began as the charity students and they wound up as college fraternities. “We don’t make our livings by performing,” says Maloro, the leader of our tuna, “but we are able to travel world on the strength of our musicianship. That is something tunos do. We serenade the ladies to pay them court. We compete with other tunas to improve the quality of our performance. Most importantly, we make the rounds every week to play for our neighbors.”


spain_1600.jpgWhy gringos think tunas play Italian music: the Spanish empire in the year 1600.

According to the chronicler José Manuel Sendra Mengual of the Muy Ilustre Tuna de Aparejadores de Valencia, la ronda – making the rounds – was how a Spanish gentleman of the Renaissance showed off “in order to win the heart of his chosen lady, who could not deign pay attention to someone who hadn’t mastered the arts of singing, writing songs, and playing instruments.”

Our tuna’s ronda consists of visits to the original Giuseppis and to Casa Plasencia and El Burladero on Friday nights between 6:00 pm and 10:00 pm and visits to El Potrero and Comida Mexicana for Sunday brunch from 9:00 am to noon. Occasionally on Saturdays they might show up at Villa Saverios, Los Mariachis, Bob’s Big Boy, or elsewhere by special arrangement.

Most of the songs deal with courtly love, a favorite subject of the women in the audience. The sentiment defies translation into such an unromantic language as English and yet the imagery might very well make us blush. To take a copla from “Clavelitos madrileños” (Carnations of Madrid) by Pedro Llabrés as an example:

This flower is not for sale, it is beyond price.
This flower cannot be bought with money,
it can only be won by showing true affection
because the suitor cannot purchase the flower of love
nor can the nobleman sell it.

La Ronda

“The tuna would not be a tuna without womankind,” says Sendra Mengual, “be that the tenderest and most innocent damsel or the sauciest of wenches. At any moment the tuna is likely to appear under a window to serenade a lady; there’s no telling what it might do to win her smile.” When a lady deigns to pay attention to a tuno, she rewards him by pinning a ribbon to his cape. In olden times, this would contain the lady’s perfume and perhaps a brief verse. Nowadays it is more likely to contain a phone number or an e-mail address.

The general public shows its appreciation by offering food, drink, and money, just as it has done for eight centuries. In our chronicler’s words, “for as long as the tuna has existed, the tuno has enjoyed a special relationship with the world of gastronomy.” In the early days, this was how the students took their meals and paid for their schooling. Nowadays food and drink are often only symbolic while the tips help to pay for the tuna’s instruments, clothing, and travel. Bandurias aren’t cheap, and then there are the transatlantic flights….

From their earliest days – when they were still known as sopistas because they sang for their soup – they devoted much of their time to wine, women, and song. They might even have invented the phrase. They had carroused so much by the sixteenth century that they came to be known as tunos (vagabonds, bohemians, rogues, scoundrels). Maloro is at pains to see that UABC’s tuna de distrito does not follow this tradition too closely. “Wherever we go we want to be invited back,” he says, “so we don’t allow our members to get rowdy.”

Maloro’s real name is Manuel Acosta. Tunos go by nicknames – another one of their traditions – and the nickname is usually bestowed during the initiation phase in commemoration of a personal quirk or incident. (“Maloro”, for example, is the Spanish equivalent of Pepe Le Pew, although our Maloro insists he was named during his novitiate at the University of Sonora in honor of an Hermosillo politician.) Postulants audition for a tuna with the hope that they’ll be asked in as novices. They’ll spend about a year in their novitiate learning their tuna’s repertoire, competing in the contests, traveling with the tuna, and building their wardrobe. When they have mastered all this, they will receive their beak (a V-shaped sash worn around the neck) by acclamation of the the tunos.

Our tuna presently consists of four tunos and at least a dozen novices. It became a tuna the same way that novices become tunos, by demonstration and by acclamation. When Maloro moved to Tijuana, he began training UABC students in opera and zarzuela to hone their singing skills. After that he introduced the guitar, banduria, Spanish lute, and tambourine. Then the costumes as they could afford them. With that the group auditioned successfully before several established Mexican and Spanish tunas in order to be constituted the tuna de distrito for Baja California.

In universities where the tradition is well established, each academic department has its own tuna and the university will also have one to represent it as a whole. The tuno’s beak bears the heraldic shield appropriate to the patron of his particular tuna. But the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, in order to remain autonomous of any political or religious influence, is prohibited by state law from endorsing special-interest groups of any sort. Even the most illustrious, celebrated, and noble of traditions must be kept at arm’s length. Our tuna has developed an unusual solution for this most unusual problem – they made a reversible beak. One side bears the shield of UABC, as befits the tuna universitaria; the other side bears the shield of the state of Baja California, which the tuna uses whenever they perform at the university or under UABC auspices.

For anyone interested in choral music or academic traditions, the tuna universitaria is an experience not to be missed. And yet it is not a tradition that lends itself to hit-and-run tourism. Even when they’re on la ronda, our tuna does not keep to a fixed schedule because they prefer to yield the floor to the guitar trios and mariachis, musicians who feed their children from what they earn playing in restaurants. The tuna also suspends its ronda in order to travel and to perform in competitions. So the question really does come down to being in the right place at the right time.

One solution would be to contact the tuna in advance to confirm the ronda for the day of the intended visit. Another solution would be to hire the tuna for a particular event. Since traveling the world is something that all tunas do, it won’t take much convincing to get our tuna to cross the border.

The tuna can be contacted through its MySpace page. The restaurants that make up its ronda can be found on The Real Tijuana map.