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“Everyone has a different image in mind when you say ‘I play the bagpipes,’ says Cristina Pato, the Spanish musician who has been mastering the instrument since the age of 4. “For some, it’s when ‘Amazing Grace’ is played at a funeral and everyone is crying. But my tradition is quite the opposite.”

On Latina (Sunnyside), Pato and her quartet tackle a stimulating repertoire based on folkloric rhythms from the Americas and Spain. The centerpiece, “Latina 6/8 Suite,” features six movements that explore indigenous music genres that include Peru’s landó and Spain’s muiñeira. “The Afro-Colombian currulao, which I play on piano, was very challenging,” Pato says. “And, as a bagpiper, the fandango is hard to deliver in an eloquent way.”

A native of the northwest Spanish province of Galicia, where bagpipes have been a core part of the regional music culture for centuries, Pato also studied piano. “For my mother, having an actual degree in music was very important,” she says. Pato released her first bagpipe album in Spain in 1999, when the style was in fashion. “We gaita [i.e., bagpipe] players became something like pop stars in the world-music tradition.”

Despite the fame and fortune that came with her early successes, at the age of 24 she boldly decided to set aside the bagpipes and move to New York City to earn a Doctorate of Musical Arts in Collaborative Piano from Rutgers University. It was her reputation and ability as a piper, however, that led to playing opportunities in the Big Apple with a wide range of artists, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma (with whom she recorded the Grammy-winning 2009 album Songs of Joy and Peace) and the guys who would become her quartet.

In recognition of her unique talents, Pato was recruited by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities to travel several times a year to the remote Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Montana as part of the “Turnaround: Arts” program. “It targets the six lowest-performing schools in the country, and it has transformed me,” Pato says. “The challenge is to use music and to help turn around a failing school through the arts.”

Pato has also been transformed by her recent immersion in jazz. “There are rules, but there is also freedom,” she says. “It’s a mixture of things I couldn’t find in either classical music or traditional music. The bagpipe is a very limited instrument chromatically and in range, but I love bending notes and playing a glissando. I love reaching for a note that doesn’t exist but making your ear believe that I actually have found it.” —Mark Holston

Photo: Erin Baino

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