Lowdown
What: Auckland Arts Festival – Silk Road Ensemble
Where and when: Auckland Town Hall, Thursday, March 14 and Womad 2019, 15 March - 17 March, TSB Bowl Of Brooklands, New Plymouth

Cristina Pato takes a long pause – and what I imagine to be a mental sigh – when I tell her that most people think of flamenco as the national music of her country, Spain.

I am about to be schooled, in a thoroughly charming way, by someone who has clearly heard this before.

"In Spain," she says, "there are many civilisations; there are many ways of understanding our history. Flamenco music relates mostly to the south and the centre of Spain, so for a Galician, flamenco may be as foreign as it is for a person from New Zealand. Unless you make an effort, you are not exposed to flamenco at all. In Andalusia they have flamenco but in Galicia we play bagpipes."

The distinction is important to Pato, a renowned bagpipe virtuoso from Galicia in Spain's far northwest, who travels here next month with Silk Road Ensemble to perform at Auckland Arts Festival.

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"The Galician bagpipe and the Galician language are how we understand our cultural difference," says Pato. "It's a way of showing that in another time we were a separate kingdom."

That was a very long time ago; Galicia has been ruled by Castile – the region that includes Madrid – for hundreds of years. Pato, however, was born in 1980. That's important too, because it places her among the first modern Spaniards to live without the need to navigate dictator Francisco Franco's opposition to the country's distinct regional flavours.

"During Franco's time, anything Galician, as with anything Catalan or Basque, was suppressed. You couldn't speak the language; you could not play Galician music in a public place without being humiliated."

After Franco's death in 1975, Galician culture underwent a rebirth - central to which was the traditional bagpipe, or gaita, the instrument of shepherds, of celebrations and dances; the instrument of joy.

The gaita, then, is not merely a set of pipes; it's a way of carrying cultural identity. In the town where Pato lives, Ourense, 10,000 people from a population of 100,000 are involved in the bagpipe school.

Next to the bagpipe school lies the classical conservatory. When she was studying music, Pato was one of the few to learn both styles, the folkloric music of the people and the classical music for the people, and, as well as being one of her country's very best gaita exponents, she holds a doctorate in piano.

At the time that was a rare combination and Pato tried to jump between genres, seeking ways to infiltrate her traditional instrument into classical music. That was easier said than done, though not for musical reasons.

The Silk Road Ensemble makes music borne out of cultural differences. Photo/Liz Linder
The Silk Road Ensemble makes music borne out of cultural differences. Photo/Liz Linder

"I was never able to do it because of what the Galician bagpipe represents to my culture and how impossible it was to take it out of the Galician tradition without having to explain why you are using our national instrument to play pop or classical music. When you put a bagpipe into that context, you have to question many things that have nothing to do with music but have more to do with socioeconomics and the status of the instrument."

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In Silk Road Ensemble, the genre-straddling, cross-cultural group founded by superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma in 1998, Pato can fuse classical and folkloric traditions. She sees great value in that exchange.

"In the same way, Yo-Yo used his fame to bring an Iranian kamancheh or Indian tabla to the stage of the New York Philharmonic. By having these instruments and cultures together on the stage of another part of society, conversations can emerge."

Ma has stepped back from Silk Road in recent years and won't come to New Zealand but the jumble of cultural influences he envisioned is what makes the ensemble interesting. These instruments are rarely heard together but, when they are played well, it can work and not merely as an intellectual exercise.

There is push and pull, give and take in Silk Road's music. It is the sound of supremely gifted people revelling in personal and collective artistry, with perhaps a hint of professional competitiveness. For all the accomplishment of the players, though, Silk Road is important less for what happens in the music than for what happens in people's heads, says Pato.

"Just the fact of having a Syrian musician performing with an Israeli musician along with a Galician and an American and a Chinese and a Korean, all together on one stage; that is a very powerful message of dialogue."