It was around 2007 when Neil Reedy and Gonzalo Bernal joined their first band together, a salsa group called Movimiento. Bernal had just moved from Venezuela to the United States, and Reedy had recently moved from Philadelphia to the D.C. area. The two lived in Northern Virginia, and Reedy would occasionally give Bernal a ride home after band practice.
On the way back, the two sometimes discussed music (as musicians do). Reedy, a trumpet and tin whistle player, decided to play Bernal a sample of Irish music one day in the car.
“I thought, ‘Well, he’s from Venezuela, so maybe he hasn’t heard of it before,’” Reedy said. “But he was very familiar with it.”
So familiar, in fact, that Bernal threw Reedy a curveball. “I said, ‘I know a Panamanian musician who did a cover of ‘Danny Boy’ in salsa,’” Bernal said. “I think his brain totally twisted. Then I said, ‘Would you like to start making music together?’”
Movimiento eventually disbanded, but the two came together to form La Unica, one of the area’s only Irish-salsa bands. Or, at least, that’s one way the group describes itself.
“We’ve been fighting on how to describe our sound forever,” Reedy said. “It sounds cliché to say we can’t be defined, but it’s true that we incorporate a bunch of different elements.”
“Celtic-Caribbean” is the latest descriptor adopted by Cory Padin, the lead guitarist for the band. He joined the group in 2011 after spotting an ad recruiting a guitarist for “La Unica Irish Band,” a cultural amalgamation that caught his attention.
Padin had been playing the guitar since he was 11 years old, graduating from the Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts in New York and attending Berklee College of Music in Boston for a year before switching to business school. But like most of the band’s other members, he had stuck with more traditional genres — jazz, funk, R&B, and soul — before auditioning for La Unica.
“I think I kind of wanted something different,” Padin said. “Something completely unique. But Irish music was completely different for me. I had no foundation in it.”
Still, Bernal viewed Padin as a bit of a miracle. The band’s original drummer and guitarist had left a few months earlier, and they still didn’t have a bassist. He and Reedy were limping along, struggling to keep La Unica alive. Bernal put out countless Craigslist ads, he said, but no one responded. Finally, Reedy suggested he try writing an ad in Spanish and seeing what happened.
“And this crazy kid responded to the post in broken Spanish,” Bernal said with a laugh. “That was Cory.”
Padin eventually helped recruit Matt Tredwell, the band’s current drummer, and TJ Turqman, its current bassist. Bernal also described Padin as the band’s “musical director,” an informal title that mostly involves juggling ideas from each of the four members and uniting musical styles in a way that doesn’t feel clunky.
That’s surprisingly easy to do with Latin and Irish music, Padin said, genres that tend to share a 3/4 time signature. It’s not as easy when the band incorporates songs by other artists. One of its most popular covers is “Wake Me Up” by Avicii, a song they’ve adapted to include the fiddle and tin whistle. Most of the band’s other cover songs include just as many modifications. The goal, Padin added, is to adapt the music so that it’s almost unrecognizable from the original.
“We kind of try to breathe new life into it,” he said. “I think that makes it more musically interesting, and it’s something the crowd can connect with.”
Luckily, the band is blessed with a roster of performers who can play a variety of different instruments. Reedy plays the trumpet and tin whistle along with the bodhrán, a traditional Irish frame drum. Bernal is an accomplished vocalist and relearned the violin after being classically trained on the instrument in his native Venezuela.
The band is also looking forward to its tenth anniversary in 2019.
At this point, Bernal said, the group is so close that he once offered to donate a kidney to Reedy while his bandmate was dealing with an extended illness.
“We’re brothers now,” Bernal said. “We trust each other. Really, it’s like a marriage. The trick is to keep things fun.”