Musical Celts take Cuba by storm

Mick Moloney and Alexander Suárez Méndez in front of the Casa de Iberoamerica in Holguin.


By Daniel Neely

Part 1

Last week, I returned from the brilliant “Jornada de la Cultura Irlandesa,” an Irish music cultural tour of eastern Cuba intended to increase awareness of the country’s historical ties with Ireland. Organized by the Fund for Reconciliation & Development, funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies, and led by John McAuliff, the tour paired Mick Moloney and Green Fields of America (Athena Tergis, fiddle; Billy McComiskey, button accordion; Robbie O’Connell, guitar/singer; Niall O’Leary, dancer; and Leni Sloan, dancer) with a quartet of brilliant Cuban musicians, including Angélica María Góngora Paino (fiddle), Yadira Hernández Barrera (sean-nós singer), Alexander Suárez Méndez (uilleann pipes) & Rosalia Acosta Corrales (uilleann pipes), who have embraced Cuba’s Celtic heritage by playing Irish traditional music.

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Some might find the notion of a Celtic Cuba surprising. However, it becomes less so when one remembers Cuba’s connection to places like Asturia and Galicia and learns of how their longstanding emigrant communities have maintained distinctive identities over the years through mutual aid societies that function much like Irish county associations do in the US. Then there’s the Irish presence, which has been a factor for centuries, but which exploded in the nineteenth and early twentieth, when Erin’s sons and daughters landed in and stayed for a host of different reasons. If you look carefully, especially in cities like Havana, traces of old Celtic Hibernia peek out and tell a story that few in Irish America realize exists.

This hidden heritage is perhaps what’s given firm footing to a bit of an Irish-Cuban music revival in the last decade. It seems to have started in the late 00s with “CeltFest,” a music festival that attracted many important musicians to the country and in turn inspired a generation of young trad musicians, including the four on this tour, who have been real leaders helping the tradition to take root. Their continued efforts have led to things like a performance at Havana’s Teatro Martí in February with Brendan & Cormac Begley, Gay McKeon, Aoife Ní Bhriain, Liam Ó Maonlaí, and trips to Ireland, where they not only appeared on Irish TV, but also performed for president Michael D. Higgins.

It’s their work that made this trip a possibility and the Green Fields proved an ideal pairing, as Moloney & co. have made finding common ground with musicians of diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds an integral part of the group’s mission since its formation in 1978. This, the Green Fields’s third visit to Cuba, was their first to the eastern part of the country. Stops in Holguin, Santiago, and Guantanamo gave everyone involved an incredible perspective not only on Cuban culture, but also on Irish music’s place in a part of the country known particularly for its strong African heritage.

The tour saw the group playing a pair of formal concerts and a few additional exchange events (including a memorable evening at the Centro Cultural Africano Fernando Ortiz, assisted by their dance group led by O’Leary), which were well delivered and warmly received. Not only were Irish tunes played in these contexts, but music were shared with Cuban musicians playing in local styles as well. But more frequent, and perhaps more illuminating, were the moments of informal music making in which the musicians chatted, asked questions, traded tunes, and learned about each other.

Part 2 will be in next week’s Irish Echo.