Galician Carlos Núñez is the world's most famous player of the gaita, the bagpipes of Galicia, Spain's northwest region that has a rich Celtic traditional music past. It was Paddy Moloney, leader of the celebrated Irish traditional band The Chieftains, who called Galicia "the unknown Celtic country", and today Carlos Núñez is hailed as Galicia's foremost traditional music ambassador.
Born in 1971 and raised in the Galician port of Vigo where he initially picked up the gaita at age eight, Núñez studied at the Royal Conservatory in Madrid. His solo album, A Irmandade das Estrelas (Brotherhood of Stars), debuted in 1996 and became Spain's first Celtic traditional recording to reach Platinum status.
In 1994, The Chieftains invited him to perform with them at New York City's Carnegie Hall. Since then, he has toured and recorded several times with The Chieftains, including on their albums Voice of Ages (2012), San Patricio (2010), and on the Grammy Award-winning The Long Black Veil (1995), and Santiago (1996). Núñez as a solo artist received Latin Grammy nominations for Os Amores Libres in 2000 and Mayo Longo in 2001.
THIRSTY was fortunate to visit with Carlos Núñez at his home in Madrid, Spain for this conversation.
THIRSTY: You are internationally known as the most famous musician of the gaita, the bagpipes of Galicia, Spain. How does that instrument differ from the traditional bagpipes of Scotland and Ireland? How many different types of bagpipes are played today?
CARLOS NÚÑEZ: There are hundreds of different bagpipes in the world, but the best known by far are the Scottish Highland bagpipes, probably due to their military use by the British Empire and subsequent appearance in Hollywood movies, although it must be said that since the 90s, even if what you see on the screen might be a Scottish piper, what you hear on the soundtrack is likely to be the much mellower sound of the Irish uilleann pipes. The Galician gaita is sort of in between both. I often define the Irish pipes as water, the Scottish as fire and the Galician as earth.
Galician pipes have the shape of medieval pipes. Vertical drone that sounds the fundamental (tonic, root note) two octaves lower than the chanter. A couple of hundred years ago two more drones were added playing that same note in different octaves or even the 5th. Its sound is happy and energetic. I think it's an instrument created for fiesta.
Even if you need a certain physical condition to blow, the piper can still smile and scream (aturuxo), even sing, while playing. When that type of bagpipes appeared in the Middle Ages it was a revolution all around Europe, something similar to the creation of the electric guitar.
The Scottish highland pipes are an evolution of the Galician type of pipes, built for a louder volume due to its military use, its size increasing both in the exterior and in its interior calibers. It also went through the same increase in the number of drones but they placed them upwards lying on the shoulder, perhaps to impress the enemy as they look like weapons. They need lots of air to work, especially the pipes for band playing, not so much the soloists. I'd define their sound as powerful to its limit and quite serious and solemn.
The Irish uilleann pipes took a very different path. While the Scottish pipes are an open air instrument that preserved its particular repertoire, the Irish has a mellower sound (legend says to hide from the English who forbade them the war pipes) and it adopted the Baroque fashion extending the tunes to two octaves, such as fiddles or flutes could do. They also added all sort of keys that allowed chromatism and even harmonic accompaniment on the organ-like "regulators". It became a chamber instrument for gentlemen; they even got a bellows to avoid having to blow and thereby extend their elegance.
Lately Scottish scholars think that the bagpipes probably arrived in the British Isles from Northern Spain, through an "Atlantic corridor". Even in the Medieval Irish Book of Invasions the legend says that the Irish came from the North of Spain and recent DNA studies seem to prove so. You know for 10,000 years it was easier to travel by boat. The areas connected by the Atlantic Ocean had more in common than some countries connected by their interiors. And that shared cultural identity became no longer the fringe of the "Old World", but the connection with the New!
THIRSTY: Your latest album, Inter-Celtic, released in February 2014, pays tribute to the seven Celtic countries (Brittany, Cornwall, Galicia, Ireland, Isle of Man, Scotland and Wales) and celebrates their traditional music in one CD. Are there significant differences in the music based on the region it comes from or are the differences primarily in how the music is expressed based on different instrumentation?
CARLOS NÚÑEZ: I often explain the differences between the several regional "flavors" of Celtic music by comparing it to Baroque music, that is a recognizable musical style as a whole, even if Italian, Spanish, French or German Baroque music are very distinctive too. A similar thing applies to Celtic music: most Celtic music fans would be able to tell the difference between Irish, Scottish, Galician or Breton music. In North America, Celtic music applies mostly to Irish and Scottish. My new album, Inter-Celtic, tries to make them discover these other accents, or colors that there are in Celtic music too.
So-called Celtic music can't be said to definitively come from the ancient Celts, we don't really know what music they played. There might be some remains of that ancient music from the Celts, who knows, but the different Celtic countries actually developed their traditional music from different sources and in different historical periods. What is curious is that the final result is quite similar and they even share some rhythms, like the jig, or some instruments like the pipes, flutes or fiddles, while others, like the harp had died out and were "revived" in the different regions. Some instruments such as the bouzouki were imported from other traditions and were widely adopted by Celtic music in all its different regions.
THIRSTY: You are well known for your collaborations with The Chieftains and you participated on several of their Grammy Award-winning albums. How do the traditionalists in the Celtic-speaking regions view the Galician style of Celtic music?
CARLOS NÚÑEZ: The Chieftains made me discover things that I couldn't recognize in my own music. They told me that some Galician pieces could be Irish, but others could sound like flamenco or like Latin American music. At first I was surprised, maybe even not too happy, as Galicia's identity had been built as very distinct from flamenco, the Spanish south and the Mediterranean...but soon I realized The Chieftains were right. Nowadays I'm proud that the Bretons say I play "Celtic music with sun", or the Irish call me the "Spanish Irishman". I often say now that I play "Celtic music with Spanish passion", this is not to say that the other Celts are not passionate, they are indeed! But I think that anybody who has seen our band live knows what this means. To put it in a different way, in the U.S people often compare my piping style to the electric guitar, you know Billboard once called me "the Jimi Hendrix of the bagpipes" ha, ha! I think it has to do with this passion, this energy that maybe in America reminds you of rock n' roll.
Apart from all that, I think traditionalists respect me as a piper. For me this is important, first you must know your own tradition and then you can experiment. Paco de Lucia could play jazz with John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola because he was a true master of flamenco, he was certainly not a weak flamenco player "hiding" in a jazz context as it sometimes happens...
What you say about Celtic-speaking regions is very interesting. I remember that when I started playing in Celtic Festivals in Europe in the late 1980s some of them were reluctant to accept that Galicia was Celtic because the Galician language is of Latin origin; you know, the Romans had fought the Celtic tribes in Galicia and had won. But then in those Celtic Festivals that decided to book me, the audience ended up loving Galician music so much that suddenly they didn't care about the language anymore. The funny thing is that nowadays experts are researching old Celtic words in the names of places, of rivers, etc. in Galicia and they've come to the conclusion, once more, that the Celtic languages up North originally came from the now lost Celtic language of Northern Spain.
THIRSTY: You have collaborated with Ry Cooder of Buena Vista Social Club recording fame. How have you incorporated your Spanish heritage into your Galician traditional music?
CARLOS NÚÑEZ: I met Ry in New York 20 years ago recording with The Chieftains and he was very surprised that I played the pipes but wasn't Irish, or in other words, being Spanish that my instrument wasn't the guitar. Then he really liked the story of Galician emigrants going to Latin America and mixing their bagpipes with local music there, a bit in the same way the Irish and Scots went to North America and mixed their fiddle music with other traditions, resulting in bluegrass for instance. So The Chieftains and Ry Cooder came to Cuba with me to explore this Celtic-Latin music connection and we recorded a few tracks for The Chieftains Grammy-winning album Santiago, and the band started calling me "the 7th Chieftain"! Then Ry went to Cuba again and recorded his Buena Vista Social Club Album with many of those same Cuban players.
More recently, he and The Chieftains recorded a Mexican album San Patricio in which again I participated. Many other Latin American countries have a Galician connection.
I recorded an album in Brazil for instance, called Alborada do Brasil exploring that country's Galician connections. Did you know that the first European instrument to be played for Brazil's indigenous natives was the Galician gaita, in 1500, on the very beach where Galician explorers had just disembarked?
If by Spanish you actually mean just Spain not in an "open way", I can tell you that following that path opened to me by The Chieftains, I even recorded a full album dedicated to flamenco. It might seem paradoxical being the same country but in Spain, Galician music and flamenco were considered a bit like water and oil, however, I did find many things in common and the result of that musical encounter is pure fire.
THIRSTY: Your current international tour brings you to North America where you will be appearing at venues from California to Wisconsin to New York and Canada. Do you sense there is a revival of interest in Celtic traditions and music on this side of the pond? Will you be spending more time in America?
CARLOS NÚÑEZ: I think America has played a key role in Celtic music since the mid-90s. What probably was the biggest Celtic hit at the time, Riverdance, couldn't be conceived without its two original dancers, Irish Americans Jean Butler and Michael Flatley, with whom I shared many US tours in the early 90s with The Chieftains. Even "the masters", as I call The Chieftains, wouldn't be The Chieftains as we all know them today, without their American experience either. So I think North America has already played an essential part of Celtic music already.
Now I think that Spanish Celtic music is spreading to America as a continent and that the Galician diaspora in Latin America is waking up too. And it does have consequences in Celtic music. For example, The Chieftains albums that I mentioned, or my own, or more recently the new show by Riverdance producers, called Earthbeat from Home (in which Paddy Moloney from The Chieftains and myself have a guest appearance) all mix Irish and Latin dance and music.
For the Celts, paradise always was in the West and that's America. I toured America a lot with The Chieftains in the 90s. Then I built my own career mostly in Europe, Latin America, Japan...and now I'm so happy to be back in the US again with my own band. This will be my 4th tour in less than two years, about 60 concerts already in such a short time. So, yes, I'll be spending more time in America and I love it!