Carlos Núñez is the undisputed master of Galicia's signature musical instrument, the gaita, or Galician bagpipes. From northern Spain's Celtic coast, Núñez connects the musical tradition of his native Galicia with that of Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, and beyond.
When the Los Angeles Times suggested "if it's possible to become a pop star playing traditional music on bagpipes and recorder, Núñez could be the man", it may have been an understatement. Invited to perform with The Chieftains early in his career, few pop stars pack the energy, virtuosity, imagination, daring, and charisma into their concerts and recordings as multi-instrumentalist Carlos Núñez does.
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Carlos Núñez is one of Galicia's most revered artists, undisputed as the tradition's greatest piper. He was born in 1971 in Vigo, the port that connects Galicia to the world - Vigo is where Hemingway first set foot in Spain; it remains today much as found it. Núñez started playing the gaita at the age of eight. He studied recorder and Baroque music at Madrid's Royal Conservatory. At the age of 12, he performed at Brittany's Festival InterCeltique. It was there he first heard The Chieftains. By the age of 17, he was touring with The Chieftains, and grew to earn the title, as bestowed on him by Paddy Moloney, head of the group as the "seventh Chieftain".
"Galicia," Nuñez explains, "is the magical part of Spain." A region both beautiful and mystical, it has a culture and music all its own. Galicia was shaped by an ancient history--tied to the Celts who inhabited that corner of the country over 2500 years ago. At the western-most part of Spain, perched on the Atlantic coast, Galicia is a land connected to cultures from across the globe, not only from their own seafaring history but from a constant influx of Christian pilgrims to Santiago de Campostela. Then, during the dictatorial Franco regime, flamenco was promoted as the "national music," while other regional arts, languages and cultures faced severe repression. Now, Galicia is undergoing a modern day renaissance.
Núñez's music draws on influences that range from ancient and contemporary Celtic (with a unique Spanish swing) to Medieval and Baroque, and also borrows from the sounds and styles of the places where Galicians have settled, including Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, even the United States.
He's the undisputed master of Galicia's signature musical instrument, the gaita, or Galician bagpipes. "What the flamenco guitar is to the south, the gaita is to the north," he explains. "The pipes have been here for over a thousand years. Everyone knows Scottish bagpipes and Irish uillean pipes, but now they are supposed to be the descendants of the Galician pipes." The gaita is musically more flexible than its Irish and Scottish relations, and in the hands of Núñez - who also plays pennywhistle, ocarina, Jew's harp, tin whistle and flute - an exciting and funky 21st century instrument. "People say I play the pipes like the electric guitar!" he says. This is an amazing thing to behold. Carlos respects and seeks to safeguard Galicia's musical legacy while also skillfully exploring fresh, fascinating realms of possibility for it. All of that can be heard to great effect on his CD, Inter-Celtic, released by Sony Music in 2014.
What does that title mean to Carlos Núñez? "I had asked myself that question since I was a kid in Vigo," he admitted. "Finally I got an answer when, at twelve years of age, I was invited to play with the Inter-Celtic Festival of Lorient Orchestra in Brittany, France's northwest region known for its own tradition of Celtic music. There, performers from seven Celtic countries put their traditional music together to form 'one nation' beyond languages and frontiers. Since then, that feeling of brotherhood has been a true mission for me."
This musical brotherhood was fortified by The Chieftains, whom Carlos had initially met at Lorient's Inter-Celtic Festival. In 1994, the band invited Carlos to perform with them at New York City's Carnegie Hall. It was a highly auspicious U.S. concert debut by him, and since then he has toured and recorded several times with the Chieftains, including on their albums Voice of Ages (2012), San Patricio (2010),The Long Black Veil (1995), and Santiago (Carlos worked closely with Moloney in developing this Galician-sparked, Spanish-focused project from 1996). The latter two CD's earned Grammy awards, and Carlos as a solo artist received Latin Grammy nominations for Os Amores Libres in 2000 and Mayo Longo in 2001.
Not surprisingly, Carlos's solo album debut in 1996, A Irmandade das Estrelas (Brotherhood of Stars), fulfilled his musical mission of inter-Celtic confraternity in stunning style. Featuring more than 50 guests, the album enjoyed extraordinary sales in Spain, where it became the first Celtic traditional recording to reach the coveted platinum status. Carlos's other albums have likewise generated substantial sales and esteem, expanding the audience for Galician music through a kinship with different Celtic nations that he's cultivated in original, invigorating ways. His 2012 release, a double CD comprising 39 tracks and featuring a host of distinguished guests, was entitled Discover, a single word serving as an open invitation to savor a bountiful cross-section of Carlos's diverse music indissolubly linked to Galicia's music.
The gaita is Galicia's signature sonic symbol, dating back at least to the 11th century, and Carlos's utter mastery of this bagpipe has been integral to its rising popularity inside and outside Spain. His ability in fingering the chanter to bend, extend, or cut notes, sustain and change tempos, explore harmonic nuances and tonal colors, and complement and counterpoint other musicians' playing is nothing short of astonishing, and those musical hallmarks are not limited to his playing of the gaita.
At the Royal Conservatory in Madrid, Carlos took lessons on the recorder, for which he received the highest possible grades, but it was his subsequent self-training that raised his proficiency level to studio and concert-hall quality. "The recorder is a very personal, intimate instrument," Carlos pointed out. "The gaita has drones, so its sound is powerfully earthy. With the recorder, you can fly like a bird."
Carlos's instrumental arsenal also includes the ocarina, assorted whistles, Scottish highland pipes, uilleann (Irish) pipes, bombarde (a kind of Breton oboe), biniou koz (Breton bagpipes), and pastoral pipes (18th-century precursor of the uilleann pipes). This impressive panoply of instruments provides Carlos and his audiences with a variety of textures matched to that of his repertoire.
On his latest CD, Inter-Celtic, Carlos's range is again exemplary and exhilarating, abetted by his own core band and another star-studded roster of special guests. The album gleams from the first track"Mambo" (uptempo, free-spirited dance tune composed by Carlos with bandmate Pancho Alvarez) to the last track "Reel Roots" (medley of dance tunes played in an intoxicating combination of jazz, rock, Irish, and Galician settings).