Carlos Nunez,
Finisterre: The End of the Earth
(REL, 2003)

The music of Galicia is the Celtic cousin of its more common counterparts in Ireland and Scotland, but the shared roots of this Spanish variant are readily apparent to a familiar ear. But, while similarities abound, there are also differences -- and these distinctions are joyously celebrated by Carlos Nunez and his band on Finisterre: The End of the Earth.

Nunez begins with "Danses Macabres," a tune drawing from two Celtic cultures on the European mainland: Galicia in Spain and Brittany in northwestern France. Nunez immediately exhibits his multi-instrumental talents, playing flutes as well as the Biniou koz (Breton bagpipes), Jews harp and seashell for a sound that is distinctly non-Celtic; at the same time, the connection is hard to ignore. Guy and Jean-Pierre Quere add a form of Breton singing that adds to the diverse ethnic sound.

Nunez turns to the low whistle for "Bretona," a mellow piece inspired by a Breton village founded in Galicia in the 4th century. He employs whistles and ocarinas to accompany Irish vocalist Eimear Quinn; Nunez's original song "Yann Derrien" tells the story of a pilgrimmage to Santiago. It has an ancient feel with a modern inflection, bridging old and new.

Breton artist Alan Stivell joins Nunez on "A Noite Pecha," a song written by Stivell and arranged by Nunez. Stivell provides vocals in the Breton and Galician tongues, along with the bell-like tones of the Celtic harp, while Nunez plays medieval flute, whistles, ocarina, chanter, Jews harp and seashell. The flute and harp play very nicely in unison; rapid but subtle percussion adds a militaristic air to the close.

The electric guitar, played by Breton composer Dan Ar Braz, leads off "The Other Land's End," which again crosses boundaries between the two Celtic regions. The guitar tends to override Nunez's whistle on this track; however, winds make a comeback when Bagad de Local Mendon and Bagad d'Auray, two Breton pipe bands, blast their way into the tune for a very effective climax.

The Kanerion Pleuigner, Brittany's only male choir, makes an unexpected but pleasant appearance on "Karante Doh Doue." The vocals are patently not Celtic in origin, but the whistles, Galician bagpipes and uilleann pipes add a distinctly Irish-sounding undertone. Even more Irish-sounding is "St. Patrick's Polka" -- but it's actually a Breton tune marking the holiday. Breton vocalists Gilles Servat and Bleunwenn sing in their native language on "An Hini a Garan (The One I Love)," with very complementary vocal duets. Nunez provides accompaniment on low whistle, ocarina and uilleann pipes.

A cross-cultural collection of pipes was a dream come true for Nunez and, on "The Three Pipers," he matches his gaita (Galician bagpipe) with Ireland's Liam O'Flynn on uilleann pipes and Brittany's Patrick Molard on Highland bagpipes. They combine for a very regal sound, particularly when merged with Pascal Marsault's organ accompaniment.

"The Cavern Dance" is a cheerful Breton tune that I will always associate with the visual image of Begona Riobo leading the crowd through a lilting, skipping dance at the 2003 Celtic Colours festival in Cape Breton. On the album version, Riobo plays fiddle along with Nunez on recorders. Nunez could easily have played this tune solo and it still would have stuck in my ear; the very modern underscoring does not detract from the traditional lead, however -- together, it's an effective, infectious package. A blast of bagpipes at the end is again unexpected, but very rousing.

The anonymous Breton tune "Ponthus and Sidoine" is a stately duet between Nunez on low whistle and Jordi Savall on viola da gamba. When the tune fades away, Nunez closes the album with "Un Galicien Libre a Paris (A Galician in Paris)," again by Dan Ar Braz. The track blends various elements of the Nunez experience; he plays flutes and the gaita and is joined by many pipes and bombards. It's a great way to end the album!

Throughout the recording, Nunez has surrounded himself with excellent supporting musicians, including his brother Xurxo (drums, programming, electric and acoustic guitars, keyboards, accordion, marimba, vibraphone), Pancho Alvarez (bouzouki, mandolin, electric guitar), Jose Vera (acoustic, double and electric bass) and many more.

Nunez has a very original approach to the music, a full and powerful sound that adds many layers beyond what you'll see in a live performance. But by no means is he overdoing it here; the album is not overproduced by any stretch. Nunez knows just how far, and how full, to go.

Often pigeonholed as a Galician piper, Nunez proves the lie to that presumption with this album. While he does play a variety of pipes, he shows himself to have a much broader range of musical talents -- and pipes are used sparingly, never overwhelming the overall context of the music. I consider myself a pipe fan but, like many pipe fans I can become oversaturated on the sound quickly if overused. Nunez uses the pipes just enough to make it a pleasure from start to finish.

For anyone who hasn't yet explored the mainland's Celtic connections, be it Spanish or French, this would be an exciting first step. The music is very enjoyable and quite accessible to diverse audiences.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 6 December 2003

[ visit the artist's website ]