Nova Scotia, Cuban-Celtic-style

One of the best things about travel is the ongoing chance to have your most basic assumptions overturned by the unexpected realities of a new place. This happened to me a few years ago, when I traveled to Havana to learn salsa dancing, and instead wound up learning how to play the bagpipes.

Bagpipes, I discovered, aren’t some recent, quirky anomaly in this part of the Caribbean: The instrument was brought to Cuba in the late 19th century, when immigrants from Galicia and Asturias — Celtic regions of Spain — settled on the island. The bagpipers I met during my visit to Havana weren’t middle-aged hobbyists, either — they were hip young Cubans with a genuine passion for Celtic music.

Almost two years after I befriended these Cuban bagpipers, I had the privilege of accompanying them to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia for the fantastic Celtic Colors International Festival, a nine-day celebration of global Celtic music. Here, I was able to see my Cuban friends not just as musicians, but as first-time international travelers. What they found fascinating about Canada (such as the chaotic abundance of a Wal-Mart superstore) helped me see North America in a whole new way.

The audio slideshow above helps tell this story of my friendship with the bagpipers of Havana. Since that experience, they have gone on to host their own international Celtic music festival, called CeltFest Cuba, each spring in Havana. For more information, check out CeltFest Cuba’s Facebook page.