Piping hot on a Caribbean island
An Irishwoman’s Diary about a musical export
Gay McKeon of Na Píobairí Uilleann: bringing piping skills to Cuba. Photograph: Dave Meehan
On May 1st traditional Irish musicians, headed by singer Damien Dempsey, will host a fund raising event to finance a young Cuban uilleann piper. Plans are afoot to bring him from Havana to Ireland this summer, where he will attend the Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy summer school in Milltown Malbay, the Joe Mooney summer school in Drumshanbo, Na Píobairí Uilleann and events in Waterford.
The uilleann pipes are the most complicated of all Irish traditional instruments. A full set consists of a bag, bellows, chanter, three drones and regulators in a variety of pitches. To become a proficient player requires dedication. The old adage, often quoted by the late Seamus Ennis – “The uilleann pipes take seven years of learning; seven years of practising, seven years of playing” – indicates the need for a lifetime of dedication.
The instrument evolved in the 1770s and Protestant clergymen actually used the pipes as a church organ. A century later modifications made it the instrument it is today, with a musical terminology that features terms such as “yelping”, “cranning” and “rolls and cuts”.
Yet it is an instrument that is played worldwide. Accomplished pipers can be found in Australia , America, Asia and all over Europe .
But it is a group of young Cuban pipers, known affectionately as the Buena Vista Pipers Club, that is causing huge interest in the piping fraternity today. Music is taken seriously in Cuba. Since 1960 promising young musicians are given a conservatoire training – a university musical education that draws on both classical and popular island traditions.
In 2011 Gay McKeon was asked by Kilian Kennedy to give a piping workshop at a festival in Havana. Cuba Celtfest had been established a year earlier as a vehicle to bring Irish traditional musicians to Cuba. The fiddle and harp were taught, as was sean nós singing and step dancing, but it was the uilleann pipes that most enthused local musicians. McKeon brought two sets that had been made up of components donated by uilleann pipemakers in Ireland.
“The young Cubans made extraordinary progress in that week but Alexander Suarez Mendez was the leading student,” says McKeon. “I have returned for the last three years and have been amazed at his progress. He lives in a tiny apartment in Havana with three generations of his family, yet practises daily. Any CDs of piping I have given him are devoured. His skill and technique are in the same class of veteran pipers like Willie Clancy, Leo Rowsome and Seamus Ennis,” he adds.
The piping fraternity in Ireland has been supportive and enthusiastic about the Buena Vistas. Jimmy O’Brien Moran, Paddy Keenan and Donnchadha Dwyer have all visited Cuba and Donnchadha, who is also a pipemaker, has given workshops in reed-making.
And Alexander is now training his fellow pipers in this art. There are now over a dozen pipers, in Havana and Pinar de Rio, using pipes donated by student pipemakers at the NPU Pipecraft Uilleann Pipemaking training centre in Dublin. They are known as learner sets.
“When I am in Cuba I lend Alexander my full set of pipes each evening and he stays up almost all night practising on them. His talent astonishes me. I have never heard anyone play regulator accompaniment on the uilleann pipes at the first time of trying” says McKeon.
As well as attending the summer schools, Alexander will perform at the concerts there. He will get tuition from individual pipers and has been invited by Na Píobairí Uilleann to perform at their monthly concert at the Cobblestone in August, a night before he returns to Havana. “He has been invited on his merit,” adds McKeon.
The fundraising event which will help to finance his month-long stay in Ireland will take place on Thursday, May 1st at 8 pm at the Grand Social. Liffey Street in Dublin (just by the Halfpenny Bridge).
Damien Dempsey has been supportive of this venture since its inception. He will be joined by two TG4 Young Musicians of the Year, Liam O’Connor (on fiddle) and Sean McKeon (on pipes). Harry Bradley, this year’s TG4 Musician of the Year (on flute), Jesse Smith (on fiddle), John Blake (on guitar), Paudie O’Connor (on accordeon), Aoife Chaoimh (on fiddle) and singer Jimmy Kelly will also feature.
Tickets are €20. Donations can be sent to Friends of Cuban Pipers, c/o NPU, 13 Henrietta Street, Dublin 1.