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Carlos Nunez, ‘Hendrix of the bagpipes,’ now on first U.S. tour

Carlos Nunez CD  'Discover' releases Sept 25 2012 Sony Masterworks Press contact Cindy Byram 201-400-4104

Carlos Nunez CD "Discover" releases Sept 25, 2012 Sony Masterworks Press contact Cindy Byram 201-400-4104

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Carlos Nunez

◆ 7:30 p.m. Sunday

◆ Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln

◆ Tickets, $24

◆ (773) 728-6000;

Updated: November 14, 2012 3:02PM

If you’re a fan of the Chieftains, you’re a fan of Carlos Nunez. The bagpipe specialist from Galicia, Spain, first made a name for himself when he toured and recorded with the legendary Irish group while still in his teens.

Chieftain leader Paddy Moloney knew he had found something special when he first heard the 17-year-old Nunez playing the Galician bagpipes. Immediately he knew he wanted to bring the teen prodigy on tour as a special guest.

“We’ve since toured together many times,” Moloney wrote via email. “Carlos really became the 7th Chieftain.”

Now 41 and embarking on his first solo American tour, Nunez is considered a groundbreaking instrumentalist (he also plays a variety of flutes) who has connected the Galician bagpipe tradition to its ancient Celtic roots while also finding connections to Spanish flamenco, Cuban, Brazilian and Mexican music and even rock ’n’ roll.

“My life changed because of the Chieftains,” said Nunez said in a phone interview from Sellersville, Pa., where he was performing. “They told me not to just think about my own traditions but to think about the whole world.”

His newly released, two-disc set, “Discover” (Sony Masterworks), showcases the range and depth of his work. Guests on the album range from Linda Ronstadt, Ry Cooder, Los Lobos, Jackson Browne, Sinead O’Connor and Laurie Anderson to the Chieftains, flamenco singer Carmen Linares, Irish accordionist Sharon Shannon, Brazilian vocalist Carlinhos Brown, Spanish operatic soprano Montserrat Caballe and members of the Buena Vista Social Club.

Spain’s Galicia region, situated at the westernmost part of the country’s Atlantic coast, was shaped by the Celts, who inhabited the area more than 2,500 years ago. The bagpipe tradition here is thought to be the oldest in the world; Scottish bagpipes and Irish uillean pipes are descendants.

During the Franco dictatorship, flamenco was promoted as Spain’s national music while other regional arts, languages and cultures faced severe repression. But thanks to Nunez, the region’s musical traditions are receiving a renaissance.

At 8 years old, he started playing the bagpipe in his hometown of Vigo, a northwestern Spanish port city; by 12, he was participating in festivals. The bagpipe is to the north of Spain what the guitar and flamenco are to the south.

As a youngster, Nunez was struck by the bagpipes’ positive energy. “I would play around all these adult, serious people who would suddenly start to dance crazy,” he said, laughing. “I discovered the power of my instrument. With the pipes, everyone became young.”

After Nunez began touring with the Chieftains, a turning point came when he appeared with them in a 1994 concert at Carnegie Hall celebrating Roger Daltrey’s 50th birthday. There Nunez mixed with the likes of The Who, Sinead O’Connor, the Spin Doctors and Alice Cooper.

“There was this connection with the pipes and rock ’n’ roll that I didn’t expect,” Nunez recalled, the excitement still resonating in his voice even after all these years. “Here I started to feel more free. At the music conservatory they told us you don’t move your body, the rhythm is in your head. In America, my body started to move again.”

Since then, Nunez been called “The Jimi Hendrix of the bagpipes.” But he became much more than that as he traveled the world connecting the pipes to other musical traditions. In Cuba, where there is an active Galician community, he recorded with Ry Cooder and the Chieftains well before the California songwriter-guitarist helmed the now-classic “Buena Vista Social Club” album. Several songs, including the lovely “Galleguita,” a Cuban version of a 19th century Galician song, are included on Nunez’s “Discover.”

“The time in Cuba wasn’t to record the typical Cuban music but to play the Celtic Cuban music,” Nunez said. “The pipes and the music from Galicia mixed with Cuban music 100 years ago, and that is what I wanted to uncover.”

Nunez’s explorations also have led him to Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and and southern Spain, where he merged the pipes with flamenco. “We have so many sounds to share,” Nunez said. “We play traditional music that no one knows. Brazil is known for the bossa nova, Argentina for the tango, Mexico for the mariachi. But there also is Celtic music in all of these, too. People may speak different languages, but we all speak the same musical language.”

Nunez also knows the origins of American music — country, bluegrass, Appalachian — figure into the mix as well.

“I’m really curious about the music of this country,” he said. “There is a lot to explore here. So perhaps the next step is a collaboration with all my American friends.”

Mary Houlihan is a locally based free-lance writer.

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