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The music coming from across the hall was melancholic, strange, fascinating, new to these Caribbean ears. And unlike anything that came out of my dorm neighbor’s stereo, who would constantly blast The Clash, Bow Wow Wow and the entire catalog of 80s British punk and new wave. But these sounds were radically different.

Curious, I asked him what he was playing. “The Chieftains,” he replied. I don’t remember much else from that conversation. But that music left a deep impression.

My taste for music had always been rather eclectic (and still is). In high school, my musical diet went from 1950s rock and roll to 1970s rock, salsa and early electronica (with some top 40s thrown in for good measure). In college, I added 1960s folk-rock and psychedelic rock, traditional American folk music and nueva canción latinoamericana to the mix. But somehow, that beautiful, lyrical, sometimes sad music from Ireland spoke to me in ways that no other music had until then.

I immediately tried to get my hands on anything recorded by the legendary Irish folk group. I soon added Tommy Makem and The Clancy Brothers to the list. And as a DJ for KRLX-FM, Carleton College’s student-run radio station, I included as much Celtic music on my playlist as I could without driving my listeners insane.

The first and most significant piece of the puzzle that would explain this sudden fascination with Celtic music fell into place a couple of years later when my mother shared with me a piece of Spanish history my grandfather (her father) had shared with her: that the gallegos were descendants of the Celts.

(Let me digress here for a moment: three of my grandparents emigrated to Cuba from Galicia in the early part of the 20th Century and to this day I regret not having spoken to them about that faraway land and the how and why they emigrated to Cuba. In one case, I couldn’t because my grandfather on my father side died when I was barely 11. In the case of the other two, it was a case of being too goddamn aloof for my own good.)

And yet, when it came to the music, I never put two and two together. Yes, the gallegos may have been direct descendants of the Celts but as far as I was concerned (and for that matter, as far as other people were concerned, too), Celtic music only originated in Ireland and Scotland and in Irish and Scottish communities throughout the world. But, in 1996, the story came full circle for me when The Chieftains released “Santiago,” their very personal take on the ties that bind Galicia and Ireland (or for that matter the rest of the Celtic world) and how Galician immigrants left their mark on Latin American music. This album not only introduced the world, and me, to the actual sounds of Galicia but also to a brilliant young piper: Carlos Núñez.

Two decades later, Núñez himself would further explore those musical links between Galicia and Latin America when, in trying to solve the mystery behind the disappearance of his great-grandfather José María, he traveled to Brazil and discovered not only that Galician music was alive and well in the land of samba and bossa nova but that it had been absorbed into the culture. As a result, Núñez produced the best album of his career thus far: “Alborada do Brasil” (2010).

STRAIGHT TO THE SOURCE
Back then, if you stopped by the Celtic music section of your local Rose, Tower, Virgin or any other record store, you would find a wide selection of Irish, Scottish and even some Canadian artists and groups…but nothing from Galicia or Asturias (Galicia’s Celtic sister). And if you looked under Spain, you would only find a wide variety of flamenco recordings but nothing more, giving you the strange impression that Spain produced nothing else musically but flamenco (or the occasional pop star if you walked over to the Latin music section).

The 1997 release of Carlos Núñez’s first album “Brotherhood of Stars” promised a floodgate of releases but in the end, I only saw a trickle: Núñez’s second album “Os Amores Libres,” Susana Seivane’s self-titled debut album and a couple of recordings from Milladoiro, Galicia’s answer to The Chieftains. WEA Latina, at the time Warner Music’s Latin division, released the one and only record of Valladolid’s Celtas Cortos, one of Spain’s top Celtic rock bands, that would ever see the light of the day this side of the Atlantic Ocean: “En Estos Días Inciertos” (1996). If you really wanted to know what was happening in Galicia’s Celtic music scene (or for that matter, the entirety of Spain’s Celtic music scene) you had to go straight to the source.

In 1997, my wife, myself, and two of our best friends traveled to Santiago de Compostela. First, I wanted to get to know my grandparents’ homeland better and second, I wanted to bring back as much music as possible. This was my second trip to Spain, and even though I had acquired some recordings in Madrid during that first trip, I wanted more. I could not get enough. I discovered in this second trip the music of Luar Na Lubre, Mutenrohi and Camerata Meiga as well as a fantastic anthology, long out of print, titled “Naciones Celtas.”

In subsequent trips to Galicia, I brought home with me the latest by any of the above as well as the works of gaitera and pianist Cristina Pato (today, a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble), Na Lua, Faltriqueira, Fuxan os Ventos and Lume. And if a friend or acquaintance travels to Spain, I always placed a special request for the latest.

Today, thanks to iTunes and such online retail stores as CDRoots (a great purveyor of world music; I strongly recommend this store), and the online radio program Aires Celtas, I can quench my thirst for this music. Because, more than 25 years after I first heard those tunes by The Chieftains, I finally understand why I was so immediately attracted to Celtic music.

I was responding to el llamado de la sangre, to that indescribable feeling gallegos call morriña and los brasileños saudade. A lament for lost opportunities —those connections that never happened or I never bothered to pursue—, a longing and a joy for a land that is lush, distinctive, tragic, and yet proud. A land that waved goodbye to sons and daughters who left its warm embrace in search of a better life, much like their Irish and Scottish cousins did. A land that was, in the Medieval ages, the center of Europe’s comings and goings. A land that produced martyrs and dictators, poets, musicians and fishermen.

En fin, la tierra de mis abuelos.

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