Cristina Pato credits her female forebears for her mastery of the bagpipes

Though once nicknamed “the Jimi Hendrix of the bagpipes,” Cristina Pato always has taken a female focus.

Born in Galicia, an autonomous community in northwestern Spain, Pato specializes in the region's traditional folk music, inspired by the area's ancient Celtic history. She performs on the gaita, or Galician bagpipes. From childhood, Pato has played the gaita, following the example of her three older sisters and her mother. At 19, she became a world-music sensation with the release of her debut solo album “Tolemia” (1999) — the first ever by a female gaita player.

At the Ravinia Festival, Pato will join a group of guest soloists for Golijov's Rose of the Winds (2007) with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conductor Marin Alsop on July 30. The program is part of Ravinia's Breaking Barriers Festival, which Alsop curated and which celebrates diverse artists and leaders in classical music today. Other soloists featured in the work are Kayhan Kalhor on kamancheh, David Krakauer on klezmer clarinet and Michael Ward-Bergeman on hyper-accordion.

Commissioned by the CSO, Rose of the Winds received its world premiere in 2007, with Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble joining the CSO, conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya. (Pato performed at those concerts as well.) After intermission at Ravinia, Alsop will lead the CSO in Bernstein's Kaddish Symphony.

Pato credits her female family members for leading her to the gaita. “My mother comes from a big family. Her family consisted of 10 sisters and two brothers, but only six of them survived childhood — six sisters,” she said in an interview with NPR. “And I am the youngest of four sisters, and everything I have become is because they were there before me.

“Growing up, in my mind and in my home, there wasn't such a thing as a female something. We were just people doing what we loved doing. I always felt that I was incredibly lucky to have all those references at home. The women of my life, the women I admire, gave me the strength and the resilience to pursue my path in whatever I felt passionate about. I feel indebted to all of them.”

After moving to the United States, where she studied classical piano, Pato continued to feel the pull of folkloric music and the gaita (footnote: in Latin America, especially Colombia, gaita is the name for a traditional flute).  

In Galicia, the bagpipes remain deeply steeped in tradition. A natural at improvisation, Pato needed to make her own kind of music. “I was trying to just tell people, this is what I am, and it's not like I don't care about what you think about what I do with my instrument, but there is something about what I do with my instrument that keeps me going.” For her second album, she turned more eclectic and soon was bestowed with the Jimi Hendrix nickname —  in part because she dyed her hair green in homage to her homeland. “Green is really the color of Galicia, and green is really the color of my village,” Pato told the New York Times. “I like it. It’s no big deal.”

Eventually she met Ma, who later invited her to join his Silk Road Ensemble. “All of a sudden, working with Silk Road, I found the connections between the two worlds I've been living all my life.” As an ensemble member, Pato has met “people that you have never imagined of working with and maybe putting together instruments that you would never think that would work together, like a Galician bagpipe and Japanese shakuhachi.

“To me, Silk Road is the metaphor of the 21st century society, or at least to the wish I have for the 21st century society.

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