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Carlos Nunez performs Spanish Celtic music in a Homegrown Concert series event, Tuesday, August 19, 2014, Coolidge Auditorium. Photo by Amanda Reynolds

Carlos Núñez Concert Honors Alan Lomax’s Spanish Fieldwork

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As I have mentioned several times on this blog, the 100th birthday of Alan Lomax is fast approaching.  We’ll be celebrating the birthday itself with an exhibit, and then extending our celebrations throughout the year.  However, today I thought it might be fun to show you that we’ve already gotten a jump on our celebrations with some wonderful Lomax events in the past year.  At the end of this blog post you’ll find an hour-long video of  one of the great performers of contemporary Celtic music, recorded at just one of the Lomax-related events we have sponsored recently.

The video is a special concert at the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium, which took place on August 19, 2014.  In the show, Carlos Núñez, one of the leading figures in the Spanish folk music of Galicia, focused on material collected by Alan Lomax in Galicia in 1952. Núñez is a world-famous traditional bagpiper as well as a classically-trained flute and recorder virtuoso.  He has played with the Chieftains, Ry Cooder, Altan, Sinead O’Connor, Hector Zazou, Philip Pickett, and Tamiya Terashima, to name only a few.  He has also performed with symphony orchestras and classical ensembles, and has appeared on prestigious stages the world over.  But he considers his music, first and foremost, part of the overall category of “Celtic music,” like the folk music of Ireland, Brittany, Scotland, and Wales.

Lomax in Spain
Alan Lomax recording at the Palma Festival, Mallorca, Spain, June 1952. AFC Alan Lomax Collection.

A researcher as well as musician, Carlos has visited the American Folklife Center’s reading room several times in the past few years, researching Lomax’s Galician field trip.  He has not only heard the recordings, but read Lomax’s field notes and correspondence, digging out all the information he could about the first extensive field collection from his home region.  This research enabled him to add readings from Lomax’s notes to the concert program, and he honored me and Alberto Avendaño with the task of reading Lomax’s words.

Lomax shared Carlos’s belief that Galicia was essentially Celtic, which greatly colored his fieldwork. The readings from his notes are full of connections between Galicia, Ireland and Scotland, starting with the landscape…:

Our first trip was down the road towards Vigo. The countryside had that same fey look I had seen only in Southern Ireland, although there was really no resemblance in the shape of the hills or the vegetation; but somehow here, too, one could see strange creatures living in the bright green hedgerows…

…and continuing to connections between their music:

It is always the same with the Celts, whether in Galicia or Galway; there is the hostility, the complexity, the thousand reservations, the distrust of strangers, the duplicity even, and then the music begins… They are suddenly lifted up and they sail away, airborn, the strange Celts whose tunes are so close to bird song.

Alberto Avendaño (l.) and Carlos Núñez discover something new in Lomax’s Galician field notes on August 7, 2013. Avendaño, once Núñez’s English teacher in Spain, is now the Spanish-language editor for the Washington Post. Photo by Stephen Winick for AFC.

These romantic connections between Spain and the Celtic countries are frowned upon by many Celtic and Iberian scholars today: after all, Galicia didn’t have a Celtic language any more recently than France, Switzerland, or the Czech Republic, and we don’t call those places “Celtic” anymore. However, there’s a trend in scholarship that is increasingly supporting Lomax’s and Núñez’s conviction, a recognition that the cultures of the Atlantic fringe of Europe, including coastal Spain and the modern Celtic countries, have been deeply connected through commerce and colloquy since ancient times. More and more modern archaeologists and historians are embracing this view of an interconnected Atlantic culture that went back to ancient times and survives to some extent today. Recent archaeological and linguistic studies suggest that the Celtic peoples spread to Ireland, France, and Britain from a starting point in Spain, not from the east as has generally been thought.[1]  All of this makes the idea of “Celtic Galicia,” or at least of an overarching culture that includes both the Celtic cultures and Galicia, more viable now than ever.

Carlos studies this history, and follows these theories closely.  He mentioned them onstage and in an oral history interview conducted after the concert.  He also pointed out that bagpipes appear in the historical records of Britain just slightly after they appear in church carvings in Atlantic Spain, near the turn of the 14th century, suggesting to some people that the bagpipe, too, may have arrived in the Celtic countries via Spain.  So independently of whether either style of music can be called “Celtic,” Carlos believes, as Alan Lomax did before him, that there’s a direct connection between Galician music and that of Ireland and Scotland.

José Maria Rodriguez playing his panpipes, November 27, 1952. AFC Alan Lomax Collection.

In the modern world, there are other connections to be made with Lomax’s Galician field tapes.  Some of these recordings were featured in the Spain volume of the World Library of Folk and Primitive Music, the first anthology of world music in high-fidelity sound, which came out in 1955. One of the tracks on that album was a set of tunes played on a chifro, an eight-hole panpipe carved from a single piece of wood with a handle shaped like a horse’s head.  The musician was José Maria Rodriguez, an itinerant farm laborer, knife grinder, and capador (pig castrator) who announced his arrival in town with an alborada, or “dawn song.” The recording made its way to the ears of Gil Evans and Miles Davis, who used the alborada as the theme “The Pan Piper” on Davis’s classic album Sketches of Spain.  You can hear Carlos play the tune in the ocarina in the concert, or hear the original pan piper at the site of the Association for Cultural Equity, at this link.

That’s more than enough introduction to this concert, except to point out that it also features Dr. Judith Cohen, a Canadian ethnomusicologist and singer who specializes in Spanish traditional music.  Judith is the world’s foremost academic expert on Lomax’s Spanish field trip, having followed in his footsteps and visited many of his surviving informants.  She is also a performer capable of bringing the songs to life.  She has known Carlos since he was a teenager, and was the perfect presenter and singer to invite to join him onstage. In addition, the band is joined on two songs by AFC folklife specialist Jennifer Cutting on accordion, and by me on vocals.

Without further comment, then, here is The Carlos Núñez band performing music from the Alan Lomax collection, featuring Carlos Núñez, Pancho Álvarez, Stephanie Cadman, and Xurxo Núñez, and guests Alberto Avendaño, Judith Cohen, Jennifer Cutting, and Stephen Winick:

1. For example see: Facing the ocean: the Atlantic and its peoples, 8000 BC-AD 1500 by Barry Cunliffe (2001); The Atlantic Iron Age: settlement and identity in the first millennium BC by Jon C. Henderson (2007); Tartessian: Celtic in the South-west at the dawn of history (2009) and Tartessian 2: The inscription of Mesas do Castelinho ro and the verbal complex preliminaries to historical phonology (2011), by John T. Koch.; Celtic from the West: alternative perspectives from archaeology, genetics, language, and literature edited by Barry Cunliffe and John T. Koch; and Celtic from the West 2: rethinking the Bronze Age and the arrival of Indo-European in Atlantic Europe edited by John T. Koch and Barry Cunliffe (2013).


  1. How wonderful! Thank you –

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