Edinburgh's Hogmanay: Galician piper Carlos Nuñez on his instrument's Celtic connections

No piper has more panache than Galician 'gaita' maestro Carlos Nuñez. Jim Gilchrist talks to him ahead of his McEwan Hall event

Carlos Nunez
Carlos Nunez

As Scotland rushes into 2019, innumerable sets of bagpipes will be dusted down and sounded out, expertly or otherwise, to welcome the New Year. Edinburgh’s McEwan Hall on 1 January, however, will resound with the shrill, urgent exuberance of a very particular bagpipe – the gaita, from north-west Spain - as the Galician piper, multi-instrumentalist and global music star, Carlos Nuñez, takes the stage with Scottish and international guests.

A musician who delivers traditional and tradition-inspired music with the charisma of a rock star, Nuñez is no stranger to Scotland, having frequently appeared at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival. He promises “a fun show, so that people can relax and enjoy it, given the special day and after lots of hard fiesta”.

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As well as his regular Galician band, his guests will include the diatonic accordionist Itsaso Elizagoien, from Navarra in northern Spain, and also the Canadian fiddler and stepdancer Jon Pilatzke, who frequently appears along with the Chieftains.

At the time of our interview, Nuñez wasn’t sure which Scottish guests would be appearing with him, but one mightn’t be too surprised if they included Capercaillie’s singer Karen Matheson, with whom he has performed in the past (Capercailie will precede him at the McEwan Hall with their own concert that Ne’erday afternoon), or the young, Skye-born piper Brighde Chaimbeul who has appeared in his shows, or, for that matter, the respected Highland piper Dr Angus MacDonald.

Matheson and MacDonald appeared with Nuñez at Celtic Connections two years ago, when he staged a show predicated on a hypothesis, suggested by Professor Hugh Cheape, former curator of the National Museums of Scotland’s bagpipe collection, that the ancestor of the great Highland bagpipe arrived in Scotland via well-established maritime links and that its closest relative today is the Galician gaita, which itself seems an archetypal bagpipe of the sort which flourished across Europe during the Middle Ages.

Highlights of that Celtic Connections show included McDonald playing the piobaireachd The Battle of Glenshiel – in which conflict, in 1719, a Galician regiment fought on the Highland Jacobite side – while Matheson sang An Eala Bhán, “the white swan”, written by the Gaelic bard Dòmhnall Ruadh of Corunna, whose grandmother is supposed to have tended to the dying Sir John Moore following the Battle of Corunna in Galicia in 1809.

Chaimbeul, too, has played the Glenshiel piobaireachd while appearing with Nuñez. Also springing to mind is the Gaelic singing star Julie Fowlis, whose current album features a Galician song, Camariñas, its lyrics slipping between Gaelic and Galego (according to Nuñez, a video of her singing it at this year’s BBC Proms went viral in Galicia).

As well as pursuing such cultural links, Nuñez is an inveterate collaborator, his current album, Inter-Celtic, for instance, featuring a stellar guest list, ranging from Breton harper Alan Stivell to American roots guitar hero Ry Cooder, as well as Irish folk heroes Altan, Sharon Shannon and the Chieftains. In fact the Galician became such an established guest of that last band that its leader, Paddy Moloney, referred to him as “the seventh Chieftain”.

A more recent collaboration has been with the viola da gamba virtuoso and early music specialist Jordi Savall, with whom he has been exploring the historic music of Spain, France and the British Isles. Accordingly, he says, while keeping his McEwan Hall programme suitably entertaining for New Year’s Day – and Nuñez is nothing if not a flamboyant performer – he and his band will also introduce the Edinburgh audience to some historic material: “As a novelty for those who’ve seen us already, we’ll probably play a medley with medieval instruments, the old fiddles and harps, and people will see how similar these pieces are to the Celtic music we play nowadays.”

Nuñez grew up in the old Galician port of Vigo during the Seventies, amid what he recalls as “a big explosion of energy” following the death of Franco. “Democracy started. My dad, who had been imprisoned, tortured and exiled for being a Communist party member, participated in the first democratic city council in Vigo. There was a boom of regional cultures, and they organised the twinning of Vigo with Lorient in Brittany.”

It was an area conscious of Celtic links: “In Vigo there was a Celtic festival in the Sixties, well before Lorient or Glasgow, it was reborn a couple of times but it finally died out. But even our local football team is called Celta de Vigo.”

Nuñez started learning the gaita at the age of eight, but it was Lorient’s massive Festival Interceltique, where he first performed aged just 12, which helped reinforce his sense of pan-Celtic associations; it also introduced him to the Chieftains.

He studied recorder at the Royal Conservatory in Madrid, too, and while he is best known as an international ambassador for the Galician bagpipe, he is also a wonderfully fluid player of the recorder, as well as Highland and uilleann pipes and, from Brittany, the bombarde and little biniou koz bagpipe.

“The gaita has drones,” he says, “so its sound is powerfully earthy. With the recorder, you can fly like a bird.”

The gaita has been played continuously in Galicia – as well as in the neighbouring Spanish region of Asturias – since the 13th century, recorded in venerable ancient illuminated manuscripts or played by carved angelic pipers in cathedrals.

While interest in Galician folk music is as strong as it has ever been, he says, too often it goes unacknowledged at home.

“The local government last year spent two million euros in free summer rock gigs in our beautiful auditorium. But there is no Galician music nowadays where that early Celtic music festival happened in the Sixties. Last summer the Galician Tourist Board created a rock festival in Santiago headlined by Lenny Kravitz to promote the Camino – the pilgrims’ way – again, no Galician music.

“I played, invited by the Bretons, in a Celtic Night at the Stade de France in Paris before 80,000 people and my photo was in the cover of Le Monde that day. Nothing like that would happen in Spain as things are.”

To most people – Spaniards included – the only indigenous Spanish music is flamenco, says Nuñez, who is anxious to promote the recognition that the country’s folk music riches aren’t confined to the flamenco heartlands in the west and south. “Sadly, Spanish folk music variety – and also its commonality – is virtually unknown, even for Spaniards.”

Nevertheless, this seeming neglect hasn’t prevented Nuñez’s book, La hermandad de los celtas (The Brotherhood of the Celts), a 550-page expression of his vision of pan-Celtic culture, from approaching its fourth edition just a month after publication. And that’s just in Spanish.

In recent years Nuñez has brought in the new year – and finished his annual Christmas tour – with a concert in the elegantly Modernist Palau de la Musica Catalana in Barcelona. This year he plays there on 30 December, before flying to Edinburgh, but that “Christmas tour” will extend into the spring. When I interviewed him by e-mail, he was flying over the Andes on a South American tour, forging further cultural links and enthusing about Latin American harp traditions: “There’s so much music out there to discover.”

Carlos Nuñez and Special Guests are at the McEwan Hall on 1 January