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Tuesday 5 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
Terence Bong Alexander Suarez Mendez
Irish music

Did you know the uilleann pipes were big in Cuba?

Alexander Suarez Mendez is one of about 20 adults in Cuba learning the uilleann pipes.

ALEXANDER SUAREZ MENDEZ has only been playing the uilleann pipes for about three years but has already shown tremendous potential.

The Cuban has gained the attention of more experienced Irish pipers who want to bring him to Ireland so he can hone his skills further.

“I’ve been absolutely amazed with him. He really is very, very, very good,” Gay McKeon, CEO of Na Píobairí Uilleann, told the John Murray Show this week.

“He’s innately musical and people will be thrilled to hear him play. Even the way he interprets slow airs, which is a difficult thing for anyone even if you are immersed in the tradition. It is astonishing.”

Robin Morales Reyes / YouTube

Suarez Mendez is one of about 20 adults in Cuba learning the uilleann pipes. In turn, they are teaching numerous children how to play.

They became interested in the musical instrument in 2011 when McKeon played at a festival there. He had brought some spare pipes with him so peopl could try them out. He also organised workships which were in demand with the residents of Havana.

“It took off from there, there were queues of people. There was great demand for workshops.”

This week, McKeon took 14 uilleann pipe workshops in the capital.

“Currently, there are 14 with sets of pipes and another six or seven people are timesharing. It’s growing every year.”

He believes the Cuban people are “taken with the sound and the expressive qualities of the instrument”.

They also have an “empathy” with the Irish music.

“I discussed the possibility of playing Cuban music and there wasn’t much appetite. They are quite happy to play jigs and reels and hornpipes.”

cuba2 Terence Bong Suarez Mendez with other students at a workshop this week. Terence Bong

McKeon hopes that Suarez Mendez will learn even more about the uilleann pipes during his trip to Ireland, which can inform his teaching on return to Cuba.

The piper has started teaching others in the area. He also teaches Cuban children how to play the tin whistle.

There are also plans for him to attend classes in pipemaking so he can help maintain the instruments in Cuba.

Some of the pipers have already acquired some of the intricate skilles of reed-making and pipe maintenance in order to establish sustainable clubs in both Havana and Pinar Del Rio.

cuba uilleann Teaching children in Havana.

McKeon says Suarez Mendez will benefit immensely from further tuition – at various summer schools around the country – but that fundraising is required to make the July trip possible.

To help raise money, a number of Ireland’s leading traditional musicians will stage a one-off concert next Thursday in the Grand Social in Dublin’s city centre.

Tickets are €20 and can be purchased here.

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