Piper Carlos Núñez’s sound crosses borders

“The Jimi Hendrix of the bagpipes,” Carlos Núñez.
Javier Salas
“The Jimi Hendrix of the bagpipes,” Carlos Núñez.

He’s been called “the Jimi Hendrix of the bagpipes,” and also “the seventh Chieftain.” Carlos Núñez is, however, neither Scottish nor Irish. Born in the Galician town of Vigo, in the northwest corner of Spain, he plays the gaita galega, a kind of bagpipe related to, but different from, the familiar Scottish Highland pipes and the Irish uilleann pipes of head Chieftain Paddy Moloney. This Friday, Núñez will be bringing his signature instrument to Revels’ first “Fringe” evening, in Somerville; the following weekend, he’ll be part of WGBH’s “A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn with Brian O’Donovan” in Worcester and Cambridge.

“I always felt that I am closer musically to Ireland and to Scotland than to flamenco,” Núñez says by way of explaining his Celtic connection. He cites the ancient Irish tradition that the Celts came to the Emerald Isle from Iberia. “Galicia is a very old kingdom,” he points out. “They say it was the first kingdom of Europe. And today it is part of Spain. But the truth is that we feel closer to Ireland and to Scotland. The Atlantic is our real nation.”

He actually started out playing the recorder in school. “I loved that instrument,” he says. “But then the next step, it was the gaita. Why? Because the Galician pipes is like the national instrument. It has a history of 1,000 years. We know that through the Atlantic corridor, through the sea, there was a great piping connection with Ireland and Scotland. Centuries ago, all the Irish pipes, all the Scottish pipes, were very similar to the Galician pipes, nearly the same instrument. Today what makes it different is the sound and the way it’s played. I always love to say that the Scottish pipes are the fire, the Irish pipes are the water, very mellow, very subtle, and the Galician pipes are the earth.”


He met the Chieftains when he was 13; they went on to record a Grammy-winning album together, “Santiago,” that explored Galicia’s Celtic roots. And it’s the Chieftains, Núñez says, who “gave me the key for the future of Galician music. They say, ‘Carlos, your Galician music is Celtic, but it’s like the bridge of Celtic music with Latin America.’ ”

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Núñez had always been attracted to the idea of what he calls a “transatlantic Celtic family,” of music as a common connection among people who spoke different Celtic languages, Gaelic and Welsh and Breton. His latest album, on RCA Victor, is called “Inter-Celtic.” But the Chieftains helped him rediscover Galician traditions in the New World. In the same way that the Irish and Scots emigrated to North America, Galicians emigrated to Latin America. “We discovered that the first European instrument that arrived in Brazil was the Galician gaita,” he says. “And as soon as you go looking for the older traditions, you discover the pipes, you discover the Celtic music in Latin America, the Galician Christmas carols. You have the word gaita all over Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina.”

The other thing Núñez says he learned from the Chieftains is that “all music is connected.” When he asked why they had invited rock stars like Sting and Mick Jagger to sing on their “Long Black Veil” album, he says Moloney told him, “‘You know, sometimes, someone who comes from rock music, or classical music, they will rediscover new things in your own music, they will sing it in a different way, maybe closer to the real roots.”

On his 2012 “Discover” CD, Núñez collaborates with, among others, Jackson Browne, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Laurie Anderson, Jordi Savall, and Montserrat Caballé. So he’ll be comfortable jamming with jazz saxophonist Stan Strickland at the Armory in Somerville. Revels artistic director Patrick Swanson describes Núñez as “a powerhouse who carries the banner for his own country and culture but is also deeply interested in where the cultures meet, where improvisation happens, where fusion happens, where other energies meet his.”

Galicia had already been selected as the theme for last year’s “Christmas Revels,” so it was a kind of serendipity that Núñez was available to open Revels’ new “Fringe” series, which Swanson says was inspired by the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. “I’ve always been fascinated by what happens to something that comes out of a very solid traditional core and then reaches the edge of the universe and starts being mutated into something else,” Swanson explains. “I thought this would be a great opportunity to see what happens when we put a brilliant Galician piper with very open sensibilities together with a jazz saxophonist who is steeped in our Revels traditions.”


The “Fringe” show will also feature fiddler Hanneke Cassel and harpist Maeve Gilchrist. “We will play some of the cantigas of Martín Códax, the medieval songs from Vigo,” Núñez says. “And we will do some improvisations with pipes and saxophone.”

“I’m just fascinated to see which direction these performers go in,” says Swanson. “We’ve been swapping music back and forth the past few months. Each of the individual musicians has been working with tapes and music, but when we hit the ground, it’ll be the first time they’re together. Should be fun.”

For “A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn,” Núñez says, “it will be a Celtic party, we will have the chance to play together with all the different bands that Brian invited, so it will be a celebration.” Núñez has performed at Symphony Hall with the Chieftains, but it was O’Donovan who gave him the opportunity to appear here on his own last year, first in the back room of the Burren in Somerville’s Davis Square, and then as part of the Boston Summer Arts Weekend, for which O’Donovan is the artistic director.

“I knew about Carlos’s work with orchestras in Europe,” the host of WGBH’s “A Celtic Sojourn” recalls, “and I thought that would be a perfect collaboration with the Landmarks Orchestra here in the Boston area. Carlos had all of the charts and the music already written, so it was a perfect marriage, and he did not disappoint. There must have been 6,000 people there in front of that stage. He had the whole audience eating out of his hand and doing a Breton dance all around Copley Square.”

In Worcester and in Cambridge next weekend, Núñez will be collaborating with the Alan Kelly Gang, Keith Murphy, concertina player Caitlín Nic Gabhann, and fiddler Ciarán Ó Maonaigh in what O’Donovan describes as “a journey around Irish music, jumping across to Brittany and Galicia and back here to Canada and the Maritimes and down through New England, with Carlos front and center.”


But Núñez will be happy wherever he is. “When you go to a new country,” he says, “you look for the connections. The Celts, we always feel at home everywhere.”

More information:

A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn with Brian O’Donovan

Presented by WGBH.

At: Hanover Theatre, Worcester, March 14, 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $26-$46. 877-571-7469;

Sanders Theatre, Cambridge,

March 15-16. Tickets: $25-$45.


Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at