Cuba dances to a Celtic beat

 

MAGAN'S WORLD:  MANCHáN MAGAN’Stales of a travel addict

THE LATEST Fáilte Ireland video presents Ireland exactly as you’d hope it would be to the world – as a potent, self-confident place brimming with beauty and joie de vie. It’s revelatory, and ought to be forwarded to everyone you know abroad – make promoting Irish tourism a viral campaign (check it out on YouTube).

Tough times may have sparked our government agencies to up their ante. Cultural Ireland, a tiny seven-person organisation, has captured America with its Imagine Ireland programme of 400 events, plays, readings and concerts throughout the US. It is also presenting Irish culture to China, Australia and Russia, but most interesting of all is Cuba’s CeltFest which it helped establish last year, and which is about to have its second airing.

It never dawned on me that Cuba might be part-Celtic, that the colonial settlers would have come from poor areas of Spain such as Galicia and Asturias on the Celtic northern fringe. They brought with them their bagpipes and fiddles and over the centuries blended their tunes with the African, Latino and Caribbean sounds that flow like a river through Cuba.

Music coalesced in Cuba like nowhere else, and yet a pure Celtic strain remained. It was this that the Westmeath piper, Kilian Kennedy, stumbled accidentally upon during a holiday in Havana. He was practising his uilleann pipes in the park one day, when a local piper turned up and introduced him to “a rich, hidden vein of Celtic music” on the island.

Two years later, they established CeltFest Cuba, bringing Liam Ó Maonlaí, Niamh Ní Charra, Brendan Begley and his sons together with Cuban, Scottish and Cape Breton musicians and dancers to play in a range of back street cafes and crumbling colonial buildings in Havana. It was a wild success; the locals immediately catching on to the magical swirling airs of Begley and Ó Maonlaí and joining in to create a Cuban/Celtic mezclado of pulsating, rhythmic sound.

Each side were like spark and kindling to each other and wherever they gathered, whether in old Hemingway bars or on street corners, the music would re-ignite: Irish fiddles and accordion, Spanish gaitas (bagpipes) with Afro-Caribbean percussion creating irresistible rhythms that set everyone moving – feet stepping with Cape Breton precision and waists shimmying with Latino abandon.

The video snippets on celtfestcuba.org capture the atmosphere: the bold Begley boys coaxing Ó Maonlaí into dancing a jig straight through a midnight salsa video being shot on a Havana street, or Brendan Begley singing Slán Le Maigh as a farewell to staff in a bar, hand-in-hand with his two sons, Bréanainn and Cormac, channelling the millennia-old dúchas of the Corca Dhuibhne Gaeltacht, with Ó Maonlaí and a group of locals joining in, much to the bemusement of the bar’s locals – it’s a tingling cross-cultural moment.

“I think the big thing is that people were getting lost in the trance of the Irish music,” says Ó Maonlaí. “We were bringing some of that cloud of our dream time here and, in turn, were getting lost in some of the music that was here. I was allowed to exercise certain musical muscles in myself. It was fertile ground.”

How, you might ask, does any of this help Irish tourism? Most Cubans are hardly likely to be able to afford a holiday in Ireland, but the 1.7 million Cuban-Americans could easily, and reminding them that we are all Celtic brothers is a worthy undertaking which could reap rich cultural and economic rewards.

After all, Los Cubanos have always been known as the Irish of the Americas – a gracious, generous, tactile, dance and music-obsessed people – and their Rip Van Winkle island may have something to teach us about bucking modern social and political realities, and offering an alternate vision, one in which arts are a central tenet of society.