The gralla is a woodwind instrument with a conical bore and a double-reed mouthpiece. It belongs to the large family of traditional oboes and may be referred to by the generic name, chirimia. The gralla should not be confused with the Majorcan bagpipes; it is, in a sense, the traditional chirimia of Catalonia.

Many instruments similar to the gralla have existed on both shores of the Mediterranean since the Middle Ages: the Turkish zurna, the Serbian and Macedonian zurla, the Moroccan ghaita, the Valencian dolçaina, the Italian ciaramella, the sorna from the region of the former Persia, the Greek karamouza, the Albanese surle and the Egyptian mizmar, among others. It would seem that these similar types of  instruments evolved in parallel in their respective countries, and as time passed they came to resemble each other, whilst at the same time retaining characteristics considered to be traditional in the different regions.

There is open debate about the gralla. There are many types of gralles and, perhaps because of this, different ways to tune them: there is the low gralla, the gralla in B-flat, the gralla at 440, and others. In some cases this encourages disagreement as to what is and what is not a gralla. The concept “low gralla”, for example, is not unanimously accepted in Catalonia: this instrument is so similar to the tarota that some consider it to be a modified tarota rather than a gralla.

Gralles can be made of different types of wood –African rosewood, boxwood, jujube, granadilla and olive, among others–, which affects the final sound of the instrument. As has happened with other traditional Catalan instruments, it was not until very recently that universally accepted common standards regarding its manufacture were established. This has meant that the organological evolution of the instrument has been quite slow. This has not happened with other traditional instruments, whether European or Catalan, where there has been a consensus on their basic principles. In these cases it is simply decorative matters or technical innovations that differentiate models of the same instrument, as in the cases of the Catalan tenora (another instrument from the oboe family), the Breton bombard in all its tonalities and the Scottish Great Highland bagpipes, among others. The lack of agreed standards for the gralla is related to the adverse effects of the huge cultural setbacks that Catalonia has suffered throughout its history, the last of which was Franco’s forty-year dictatorship.

Although the name of this instrument has become synonymous with an unpleasant sound, and it even shares its name with a bird that has a screeching and disagreeable song, the gralla in fact has a gentle, unaggressive sound if played with this intention, with the correct technique and with its own reeds. In some parts of Catalonia the gralla is played in a way that does not produce this sweet, musical sound; reeds from other instruments are used to intentionally create very characteristic, more aggressive ones. These two types of sounds co-exist in Catalonia in the realm of the traditional gralla.

The two centres that teach traditional Catalan music –ESMUC (the Higher School of Music of Catalonia) and AMTP (the Traditional and Folk Music School)– are currently trying to standardise everything to do with the gralla: the sound, the reeds, the technique and even the instrument itself, with the aim of facilitating teaching the instrument and of unifying concepts.

It must be mentioned, however, that part of the final sound and the working methodology proposed by the two centres has not been accepted or approved by many Catalan instrumentalists.

The gralla is one of the most forceful instruments in the world of traditional Catalan music. In a short time it has become quite a common instrument in Tarragona and has a firm hold across the rest of the nation. It can be heard in bands of grallers (gralla players) and street musicians, in castellers (bands accompanying human towers) and in specific musical formations with gralles and tabors, among others. The fact that the gralla most commonly uses a well-tuned scale at 440Hz means that it is commonly included in a wide variety of bands of different styles, and also fused with many other traditional and modern instruments.

The gralla is one of the most emblematic features of the sound of Els Berros de la Cort. It permits both penetrating attacks and softness where necessary. It is a very versatile instrument which is easily compatible in both sound and tonality with the rest of the sonority, and it matches perfectly with the tarotes and the bagpipes. The gralla is guaranteed to convey the sound of our region and the Mediterranean character.

Els Berros de la Cort  play different gralla models made by the luthier Cesc Sans (