For over 22 years Peregrino Gris has been a fixture in the Costa Rican live music scene but with a very distinctive twist. They perform and compose Celtic music. The band has released several original albums that have met with both commercial and critical success. Their energetic live performances are legendary and along with their original music they perform Celtic classics from Ireland, Scotland and Galicia.
My connection with the band goes back to the much-loved Stan’s Irish Pub in Zapote where I had the privileged fun of opening for them on occasion, including at a very rowdy Saint Patrick’s Day Festival. You have not completely experienced Costa Rica until you have done it Celtic style with Peregrino Gris.
I had the chance to sit down with Rodrigo Oviedo of Peregrino Gris and discuss the history of the band, their songcraft and what it has meant to be a pillar of Celtic culture in Costa Rica.
Tell us something about growing up in Costa Rica. Any memorable anecdotes you would like to share from your youth?
I grew up in San José when one could go out and play far from home without worries, climbing trees, walking anywhere and of course playing amateur football with the neighbors. I studied in public school and high school, and later at a public university. One memory could be me and my brother Eduardo playing with toys and creating melodies and songs supposed to be the themes for TV series we invented with those toys.
Another one was when my first guitar came, a gift from my father when I was 8. One of our neighbors had a guitar and he began teaching us some chord shapes, but without knowing the names of the chords or if they were major or minor. Even so, we managed to create harmonies and melodies without knowing the chord names, just playing by ear.
At what age did you know you wanted to be a Celtic musician and what was your inspiration? Who are/were your favorite music artists?
My musical life has always been tied to my brother Eduardo’s, he’s just one year and two months younger, so we played, listened to music and began learning to play instruments together. We began listening to some Celtic music in the 90s and he bought his first Scottish and Irish bagpipes during those years. We had a progressive rock band and at the end of the nineties we began creating music with traditional rock instruments adding Irish whistles and pipes.
That band was our first approach to play Celtic music, but we were not aware that the Celtic folk style would lead us later. Listening to a lot of music, trying to reproduce those sounds and composing music similar to that, began to be part of our lives at the end of those years.
When the year 2000 began we felt the call and we began speaking about making a band with more acoustic and traditional sounds, but as we were playing in the rock band we didn’t begin, I was 30 years old and Eduardo was 29. I have many favorite artists but some of them are Alan Stivel, Liam O’Flynn, Battlefield Band, Planxty, The Bothy Band, Celtas Cortos, Carlos Núñez, Milladoiro and Berroguetto.
What were the origins of your band’s formation and how has the band changed over the years? Is Celtic music more popular now in Costa Rica than it was 20 years ago?
In 2000 a band I was in called Azul Profundo came to an end, and we all took separate paths. At the end of 2000 we really wanted to create a new band. I had some compositions that would be better suited in a smaller format, so we spoke with a violinist friend about the project. He agreed and though some time passed, we began playing in March 2001, first without a name, later under Peregrino Gris.
After a time, we called a percussionist that had played with us in Azul Profundo, and he was very enthusiastic to play with us again. Later our first violinist left for the United States, and we called another musician from the previous band. So, we can say the origins were from that rock band, because we all met and played before together, it was like a kind of transition from one band to the other but playing different music and with another perspective.
I think that of course we have changed: more study, traveling, classes, aging and knowing several musicians and growing as players and creators in this genre. We began as amateurs, now we can call ourselves professionals. I think Celtic music is more popular now than it was before, when we began we found several people were listeners of that music, but only at home and the music was hard to buy here, everybody had to order them from other countries.
Peregrino Gris made the genre available live and for many people it was their first contact with Celtic music. Just viewing and listening to a bagpipe live was unthinkable in Costa Rica and in our first years we had many people coming to see and hear those wonderful sounds live.
Over the years some other Celtic bands formed and we even managed to create a festival with bands from Costa Rica and guests from other countries. In recent years the movement has kind of paused, but when we play live people are still coming and enjoying, clapping, dancing and shouting with the music, so I think the music came to stay. Our band was the first one playing those styles, so of course the influence we had on many people is a reality.
Please tell us about the special Celtic instruments that you play in the band. Where did you acquire them and how did you learn how to play them?
I play keyboards, guitar, accordion and Irish bouzouki in the band. Maybe the later ones are the most special. My accordion was bought online and I had to wait some months for it to be ready from the factory in Germany. Being a keyboard player was an advantage, but I had to change my brain and my muscles to be able to play it.
I had a previous accordion and I self-taught myself how to play it. Later I went to Galicia in Spain for two weeks to learn from a very good folk accordion player there, with an emphasis on the Irish, Scottish and Galician tunes, rhythms and ornaments on the accordion.
My first Irish bouzouki was bought in Spain, but it was really online and it came from Germany. My current one is from a Portuguese maker and I had to order it some months before going on a tour with the band to Spain and Portugal. So I went to the store and picked it up in Portugal. I learned with some videos that friends copied to me, some friends bouzouki players and lately I continue studying with some online courses.
For general information the Irish bouzouki looks similar to a mandolin but is larger. It came from the Greek bouzouki, a very traditional instrument in Greece. In the 1960s an Irish musician bought one and began playing it at Irish sessions. The original Greek shape has a rounded back and the strings tuning is different.
The Irish musicians using it managed to transform the instrument into a flat back one and the tuning and strings gauge was changed too. After some transformations the Irish bouzouki became a different instrument from the Greek one.
What have been some of the most memorable moments in your band’s 20-year career and what have been some of the biggest challenges?
There are many memorable moments, one being our first CD in 2003. We invested much money on that but were not sure if it would sell. To our surprise it only took us 3 months to sell 1000 CDs. That was really surprising and crazy, and as a result we were playing many times over those years, everybody wanted to have our music in their activities and private events.
The concerts were always full as well. Another one could be our first transatlantic journey to play in Galicia, Spain in 2013 which was a dream come true. It was very interesting to play our Celtic music in a place where they traditionally play it.
Galician traditional music is somewhat different from Irish and Scottish, but they are related, and many musicians there know how to play those genres as well, so it was a challenge for us to play in places where people are accustomed to listen and play Celtic music. I think they liked our music since it was original and new to their ears, we even sold several of our CDs there.
What are you doing personally music wise these days as well as with Peregrino Gris?
I have worked as composer and producer for different projects. Last year I composed music for two theater plays and one of them is still in theaters. I am working with a Bolivian singer arranging and recording some of his songs.
And lastly, I am creating orchestrations of Peregrino Gris’ music for a possible chance to be performed with a live symphonic orchestra soon. As for the band we are planning to begin recording new music over this year and of course trying to play in as many places as possible.
What advice would you give aspiring Costa Rican musicians interested in performing nontraditional styles of music like Celtic folk?
We live in a country where we are able to be influenced by many kinds of music and dance styles. Over the years we have known musicians playing African, Arabic, Flamenco and other music, even dancers that dance non-traditional genres. So we cannot be limited to play only the styles that are supposed to be “local”, because we have salsa, jazz or rock as well, and those genres and many more are not traditional Costa Rican. So why not play anything you want?
The first thing is attending the call, musicians always find a style that attracts or suits them more, it can be only one or it can be several. If you think you can learn that style and that you will enjoy it, then try it, that’s it! Listen to a lot of music and learn from the masters. Another thing is that sometimes you see or hear an instrument that is not available here, and you really would like to learn.
So, save some money, do some research and buy it from a store in another country, buy some tutorials or search for good ones online. and that way you can learn to play that instrument that you dreamed of playing. Patience is good as well, you cannot play a bagpipe, a violin or a bouzouki in one year, it takes several years playing to really have an advanced level, and it is important to know that you never stop learning, it is a day-to-day process and it never finishes, but it is fascinating.
Anything else you would like to share with our readers?
Well, it has been curious for us that many people think that we are not playing anymore, some of them even for years. Maybe we need more media exposure or something like that. With the pandemic we stopped performing very often, but we continued working, and since last year we have been playing more and more.
Maybe it is being absent from TV or other media, but here we are after almost 22 years, still playing and continuing our work. So, we invite you to look for our social media in order to know when and where we are playing.
We hope to be performing for many more years and that people enjoy our concerts always.
Catch Peregrino Gris live at these upcoming dates:
- Sunday March 5th, Mundoloco, San Pedro, 2:00 p.m.
- Saturday March 11th, El Muro Art Pub & Comedy Pub, Barro Amón, 8:00 p.m.
- Thursday March 30th, Teatro Molière, San José, 8:00 p.m.