The bagpipe goes by many names and takes many forms all over the world. But whether it's a dudelsack or a gaida, a cabrette, a musette or a veuze, all bagpipes have certain basic features. First, a bag of animal skin (there's more than one way to do this). Next, a source of air, be it lungs or leather bellows. Finally, at least one pipe (usually more) fitted with a single or a double reed. Working on this basic model, pipemakers have been experimenting, modifying, and redefining the instrument for centuries. Although it is known in many of the world's cultures, it is perhaps nowhere as popular as in Europe. The Celtic countries, in particular, have been very fond of bagpipes for years.
Scotland is the country most people associate with bagpipes. Their huge, shrill three-droned mouth-blown Pib Mor, or Highland Bagpipe, is a world-renowned emblem of the place. Since a single piper can play loud enough to damage most people's hearing, the Scots have devised a most hospitable spectacle for tourists: sixteen pipers all playing together, backed by all manner of loud and raucous drums. This ensemble, known as a pipe band, produces some of the national (and, dare we say, nationalist) music of Scotland. On the pipe-band scene, few stars seem to be rising as quickly as the Drambuie Kirkliston Pipe Band. Named after an ancient village and an alcoholic beverage, the Drambuie Kirkliston band have risen quickly from grade 4 to grade 2 in the world of competitive piping, and have just released their first album, A Link with the '45 [Greentrax CDTRAX 084]. An ambitious project, it chronicles in music the Jacobite rising of 1745, Prince Charles Edward Stuart's attempt to regain the throne of Scotland and England. A rousing set of marches, jigs, strathspeys, reels, hornpipes, laments, and even a brief piobaireachd, the album sets out tunes that relate either directly or indirectly to the events of the '45. "Johnnie Cope," for example, is named for the general whom Charlie defeated at Prestonpans, while "Wae's me for Prince Charlie" is a sad old tune that laments his defeat. The album is satisfying on many levels; the band is staffed by fine pipers and drummers (of both genders, I might add), and the playing is as precise and clean you could want. In addition, the tunes that have been chosen are in many cases favorites among Scottish music enthusiasts; Jacobite material has always been popular with performers and audiences alike. Moreover, many of the tunes are brand new compositions by various band members. Finally, the presentation of the album, which is easily followed thanks to a brief history of the '45 included in the notes, makes for a very interesting release.
Across the sea in Brittany, musicians have adapted the basic idea of the Scottish pipe-band to the native musical tradition of sonneurs de couple, or piping pairs. Traditional piping pairs in Brittany consist of one piper who plays the biniou-kozh, an extremely shrill one-droned bagpipe, and another who plays the bombarde, a double-reeded shawm or oboe. For the purposes of most Breton pipe-bands, or bagadoù, the biniou-kozh has been replaced by the Scottish pipes. The bagad thus has a bagpipe corps, a bombarde corps and a drum corps. The pipes play continuously, while the bombardes play every other line (or, sometimes, three lines out of four). This gives the Breton bands an added richness and resonance and a distinctively Breton flavor. Bagad Kemper (photo at top of page) is the most successful competitive bagad in Brittany; it has won thirteen championship titles, more than anyone else. The members of Bagad Kemper have every right to be proud of their latest CD, Lip Ar Maout [Keltia Musique KMCD 50]; it's the best pipe-band album I've heard in ages. It is a fabulous recording, including live performances from their thirteenth championship victory in 1994 at Vannes and Lorient, live performances from the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow, as well as pieces specially performed for the album. Several tracks feature guest musicians like flute player Jean-Michel Veillon (Barzaz, Den, Pennoù Skoulm, Kornog) and guitarist Gilles Le Bigot (Barzaz, Skolvan, Kornog). They are innovative and fresh in their choice of material, instruments and arrangement. In addition to the usual Scottish and Breton marches and dances, they include a set of Gallo music from francophone upper Brittany, played on unusual C minor bagpipes, a Yiddish Klezmer tune played by the bombarde section, and several Bulgarian dance tunes on which the whole band (plus their guests) cut loose with astonishingly fiery playing. State-of-the-art sound engineering by Brian Masterson allows the flute and guitar to remain audible among the massed pipes and drums -- no small feat, this -- and helps this album achieve greatness.
Not all bagpipes are full of hot air (though it may be that all pipers are!). Some prefer cold air, or cauld-wind, as the Scots say, and are thus blown by bellows and not by mouth. The Northumbrian smallpipes are a good example. They produce a mellow, high-pitched and sweet buzz that's quite distinctive, and a whole new generation has come to be interested in their sound. One of the most innovative and exciting Northumbrian pipers playing today is Kathryn Tickell, who a few years ago was awarded the honor of being appointed as the official piper to the Lord Mayor of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Today, she's more of a rebel, playing both pipes and fiddle in the context of a contemporary acoustic group, the Kathryn Tickell Band. Two of their albums, The Kathryn Tickell Band [Black Crow CROCD227, 1991], and Signs [Black Crow CROCD230, 1993], are worth hearing, particularly for fans of an upbeat, light sound. The group's first album begins with a virtuosic display of solo piping, as Tickell adds more and more grace notes to the same melody, and then introduces the band, which includes guitar, bass guitar and accordion. The album is a juicy collection of traditional and original tunes played with verve, imagination and spice; Ian Carr's use of overtones to create a crystalline, harp-like sound on "Out on the Ocean" is an old trick, but one put to terrific and sensitive use, and Lynn Tocker's quietly resigned accordion playing on the lament "Dargai" is woeful and appropriate. Tickell is at the heart of most of the group's arrangements, and her robust fiddling on a set of Shetland and Scottish reels is almost as spectacular as her quick, staccato piping. On track after track, this debut album establishes the Kathryn Tickell group as a force on the English folk scene. Signs is more experimental than the band's debut, putting more jazz riffs and pop touches into their tradition-based sound. The band creates an appealing acoustic brew this way. Syncopated rhythms, busy chord progressions, and drums and percussion added by guests help it achieve its progressive flavor. On the other hand, Tickell's pipes and fiddle, Karen Tweed's accordion and Carr's lead guitar all remain, for the most part, inside the traditional forms of Northumbrian music: jigs, reels, hornpipes, laments, and so forth. The exceptions include a Greek tune, a Cajun waltz, Irish polkas, and a soulful bagpipe rendition of Ornette Coleman's "3 Wishes"; look out, Rufus Harley, here comes Kathryn! This album showcases a varied and interesting repertoire and four major talents. It may be a bit out there for strictly traditional tastes, but forward-thinking bagpipe fans should love it.
The most complex of bagpipes are the Irish uillean pipes, also a bellows-blown variety. A new disc, The Drones and the Chanters, Volume 2 [Claddagh Records CC61CD], showcases some of the freshest piping talent from Ireland on these mellow parlor-pipes. The original LP The Drones and the Chanters [Claddagh Records, 1971] featured such legendary pipers as Seamus Ennis, Willie Clancy, Dan O'Dowd and Tommy Reck. The grand old man of that album was Leo Rowsome, the young whippersnapper was Paddy Moloney. The aim of Volume Two is to show what has happened in the world of piping since the original volume, and it does so reasonably well. It features such pipers as Ronan Browne, Micheal " Briain, Sian Potts and Gay McKeown from Dublin, Joseph McLaughlin of Derry and Robbie Hannan of Holywood, Co. Down. The best known player here is undoubtedly Liam O'Flynn from Co. Kildare, founder of Planxty and pipe soloist in the orchestral works of Shaun Davey and Bill Whelan. The connection between this group of pipers and those on volume one is clear: the older group served as teachers and models for the latter. Practically all of the pipers on volume two studied with Ennis, Clancy, O'Dowd, Reck, and/or Rowsome, or at the very least cite these pipers as important influences.
A comparison of these two albums reveals interesting trends. The first volume featured a description and explanation of the pipes, because there were relatively few pipers in Ireland at the time and it was impossible to assume that the audience would understand the pipes' workings. Since most people in Ireland know the basics today, more space can be given in Volume Two's notes to discussions of each piper's style. The first volume featured an almost exclusively Dublin focus; the new album features more musicians from other areas, including two from Northern Ireland. This indicates both the spread of the pipes and the increased communication among pipers from all over the island and indeed the world. But Volume Two still does not thoroughly represent the changes in Irish piping in the last two decades; one of the principal changes in piping in recent times has been the use of the instrument in bands like Planxty, The Bothy Band, and Moving Hearts, as well as in orchestral works, in ensembles like the Chieftains, and even in pop music. Pipers like Davy Spillane, Finbar Furey and Paddy Keenan have been and will be very influential on the next generation of pipers, and some of their more modern style of music should at least be acknowledged in a footnote. Still, as far as the solo piping tradition is concerned, this is a fine compilation and a useful introduction to some important talent. (Steve Winick / copyright 1995 Dirty Linen Ltd.)
Part two of Blows-A-Bellows will appear in Dirty Linen's November issue, available on newstands or by subscription.