Text and Photos by Irina Echarry
HAVANA TIMES, April 28 — “A festival of what?” one woman asked, as she watched a parade to the pipers moving down calle Obispo in Old Havana. When she found out that it was a festival of Celtic music and tradition, her face grimaced as she wondered, “Are there really that many followers of that culture in Cuba?”
That same question was posed by many people. But from April 6 to 13, Havana residents could enjoy a different atmosphere. Bagpipes, violins and guitars celebrated the musical inheritance that migrated from European Celtic nations to the western hemisphere.
The Casa de la Poesía, the Centro Hispanoamericano as well as the Office of the City Historian were settings in which the performances were given by Irish artists Kilian Kennedy, Ryan McDonald and James P. Troy (on Highland bagpipes); Mary Jane Lamond (singing Gaelic songs), Liam O Maonlaoi (who constantly interacted with Cuban musicians), accordionist Niamh Ni Loud, the bagpipe band of Eduardo Lorenzo and the Centro Asturiano de la Habana.
The public in attendance was well defined: the majority was younger people between the ages of 25 and 40, in addition to rock music lovers.
One spectator, Gustavo —sporting a beard and long hair plaited into a braid— smiled to the chords of the duo made up of violinist Ward McDonald and guitarist Tim Chaisson. “I love this music,” he said. “Not only do I hear it, but I feel it deep in my being. I don’t know if in another life I was Celtic (laughing). But no, seriously, it’s a privilege to be able to see such fine musicians and not have to pay a dime… It was a great idea to put on the festival; magnificent artists have come here. Look, I never expected to listen to O Maonlaoi live. I was familiar with his recordings; some friends of mine in Canada sent them to me… But now I can see him playing barefooted with my own eyes…”
Old Havana —which centuries ago greeted Catalan, Basque, Galician, Scottish and Irish immigrants— now welcomed the traditional parades of bagpipe bands, conferences, workshops (on singing, dancing and musical instruments such as the traditional violin, accordion and bagpipes), in addition to concerts.
For Alberto, a young worker at the Ministry of Health, not everything was rose colored: “The foreign guests are superb, but what I don’t like listening to are Cuban artists singing traditional Irish songs. I don’t know, that passion strikes me as funny… it seems like they’re faking… just like some of the apparently fanatical audience… you see them there gathered here as if they were waiting for some god of the Irish pantheon, but those are the first people who when they leave the country start making their living giving salsa lessons…”
According to Marcel Nazabal, a young piper and one of the organizers of the event, “Our objective is to make this an annual event… It’s a job that requires a lot of effort by several national and international institutions. This festival is the little brother of the great Celtic Colors, which takes place in Cape Breton in October every year; its president, Jackeline Taylor, has helped out a great deal so that we can enjoy what we’ve achieved.”
The followers of Celtic music and tradition in Cuba now have their event. It’s good that there’s a space for everyone. All and all, our culture is a mixture of many others.