Blows-a-Bellows #2

by Steve Winick
Reprinted From Dirty Linen Magazine #61 (Dec '95/Jan '96]

Since our last foray into the world of bagpipes [Dirty Linen #59], I have received many a disc of piping from various traditions. Before going on to the purer piping albums, let me tell you about a great new CD. Most people will be aware that I nicked the title of this article from a defunct and greatly missed English group, Blowzabella. Blowzabella included some of the finest musicians in England, among them Jon Swayne, Paul James, Nigel Eaton and Andy Cutting. From the first they were a fresh and invigorating presence on the scene, basing most of their music on a powerful sonic concept: the combination of melodies and drones. This focus determined the band's basic instrumentation of hurdy-gurdy, melodeon, woodwinds and (mais bien sûr!) bagpipes.

Most of their recordings are only available on vinyl, but now there's a CD, entitled simply Compilation [Osmosys Osmo CD 001], that features a generous 75 minutes of Blowzabella's finest music. The disc is convincing evidence of their development over the nine years during which they recorded. The three tracks from their earliest foray into recording, 1982's Blowzabella, sound delicate and a little tentative. As the group matured, it developed a denser, richer sound by adding more bass and percussion instruments and by playing with harmonies, counter-melodies and syncopated rhythms. The tracks from their third album, Bobbityshooty (1984), sound more playful and spirited than the straightlaced, dance-oriented melodies of their first two LPs. By the fourth album, released in 1986, the sound was dense enough for them to classify it as a Wall of Sound. The first medley on Compilation from this landmark LP sounds rich and nuanced, like the taste of chocolate mousse.

The last two Blowzabella albums added vocalist Jo Freya to the fray, and she can be heard on one track of Compilation, drawn from the 1988 album, A Richer Dust. By the last album, Vanilla (1990), the band was experimenting with all sorts of sounds and textures, from driving bass-lines to sampled ambient sounds and effects; "Spaghetti Panic" is a good example of this tendency. Even so, they had lost none of their ebullient feeling and lighthearted verve; a medley of "Jan Mijne Man" and "Go Mauve" and the single tune "Horizonto" will have you tapping along. If you have a slew of old Blowzabella LPs that are being irreversibly eroded by styli (like I do), then you need this disc.

From England it's a short hop to the Celtic countries, where much of the world's best bagpipe music is to be found. Scotland is the country most strongly associated with the bagpipes, and the 1983 LP A Controversy of Pipers was a landmark in Scottish piping. Now the Controversy is back as a shiny CD [Temple COMD 1008] and it's lost none of the magnificence of its earlier incarnation. The title alludes to a real controversy surrounding the use of pipes in Scottish folk bands. In the 1970s, the folkies figured out that, by amplifying their other instruments, they could incorporate a Scottish smallpipe, or even a Highland pipe, into their sound. The result was a flowering of bands such as the Battlefield Band, Ossian, Whistlebinkies, and the Tannahill Weavers, and ultimately an enrichment of the piping community, but nobody knew exactly what would happen at the time. In the 1970s and 1980s, Iain MacInnes notes, some pipers feared "that bagpipe-wielding charlatans with no real knowledge of the music would be mistaken for the genuine article." By the time Controversy came to be recorded, however, there was no evidence that this was happening. Indeed, the pipers on the album, who had all played in folk groups at one time or another, were all also outstanding soloists and master musicians. The pipers in question are pipe major Iain MacDonald (who played on the Battlefield Band's second album), Jimmy Anderson (The Clutha), Duncan MacGillivray (The Battlefield Band), Dougie Pincock (The Battlefield Band), Rab Wallace (Whistlebinkies) and Iain MacDonald (Ossian, The Battlefield Band). The tunes they present are varied, including standard Scottish marches and dance tunes, but also other styles. Two highlights are a set of spirited continental European tunes played by P.M. MacDonald and Pincock, and a tense, emotional piobaireachd lament played by Wallace. This stands up both as a look at what was going on in the piping world in the early days of "bagpipefolk" and also as plain great listening.

Highland pipes may be better known, but Ireland can boast the most highly developed pipes in the world, the uillean pipes. Unlike the Highland pipes, the uillean pipes are a chamber instrument with a two-octave range, made for playing indoors. This makes it relatively easy for the pipes to blend with other instruments in small ensembles. The pipes could even theoretically be featured in a duet with an instrument as delicate as a concertina, although nobody has been brave enough to attempt this pairing on a recording. Until now, that is. Tommy Keane, one of Ireland's best pipers, and Jacqueline McCarthy, a London-born but Clare-bred concertina player, have teamed up to create The Wind Among the Reeds [Maree MMC CD 51]. Accompanied by Alec Finn, the guitarist and bouzouki player who performs with the band De Dannan, McCarthy and Keane play jigs and reels with subtlety and style. Most of the tunes are played as duets, but there are exceptions that add the richness of variety: McCarthy plays a few solo tunes with great lift, and Keane puts in some solo time on the tin whistle and on the pipes. Keane's solo slow air "An Caisdeach Bán," played on the pipes, is a highlight, as is a trio of unusual jigs contributed by McCarthy. Keane plays his pipes legato and more or less ignores the regulators, which is good for blending with McCarthy's squeezebox; on the reel "Peggy on the Settle," McCarthy's concertina supplies the regulator part to Keane's chanter. The dry sound of the concertina works beautifully when combined with the drones and the chanter of the uillean pipes; it's a wonder this combination has not been recorded before. Finn's sensitive plucking is appropriately suggestive and gentle, the perfect finishing touch for such a fine album.

Brittany is another country with a very active piping scene. The most common form of traditional piping in Brittany is the couple, a pair of musicians who together produce tunes for the frequent festoùnoz, or nighttime dances. The biniou, one of several bagpipes native to Brittany, sports a very shrill chanter and a single drone. The bombarde is a mouth blown, double-receded pipe, similar to an oboe, that plays an octave below the chanter of the biniou. A pair of pipers dovetails the playing of these instruments so that the biniou's solo lines alternate with lines played by both musicians together. 1995 is a year with a bumper crop of biniou and bombarde releases; no fewer than three of them have found their way to me in recent weeks, all excellent albums made by talented, award winning, and very traditional sonneurs par couple.

Pierre Crépillon and Laurent Bigot have won many awards for their couple playing, among them the coveted biniou/bombarde championship and the Per Guillou trophy. Their new CD, Dreuz Kreiz Breiz [Keltia Musique KMCD 56], features traditional dances, marches, hymn tunes and song airs from inland Brittany, interspersing the livelier music with more somber melodies. Some of the tunes are old chestnuts, others were collected for the first time by the performers. One 12 minute track takes us on a geographical tour of the Breton interior, giving us a gavotte from each of several places en route. Two of the tracks include drums, which add a stronger rhythmic element to the melodies. Otherwise, it's mostly very traditional couple music in arrangement and playing style. Notes in French and English accompany this one, so it's the best bet for anglophones who can't read French.

I think my favorite of the three couple albums is Youenn Le Bihan and Patrick Molard's Er Bolom Koh [Gwerz Pladenn GWP007]. Le Bihan and Molard, individually and together, have been in some of the most important bands in the hybrid "Breton folk" movement, including the Alan Stivell band, Gwerz, Skolvan and Pennoù Skoulm. Like Crépillon and Le Bigot, they are champions in the art of sonner par couple. They have been innovators and explorers of music; Le Bihan's invention the "pistoñ," another oboe pitched lower than the bombarde, has become quite popular among Breton musicians, and Molard is recognized as a master of the Highland pipes and the uillean pipes as well as the biniou. Yet they are also capable of playing in a very traditional Breton couple style. Mostly, the music on Er Bolom Koh shows this side of their playing, although the pistoñ and the uillean pipes are both featured as well. Like the previous album, this one features marches, dances, and song airs played by master pipers, but their playing has a mellower sound than that of Crépillon and Le Bigot, and they have been recorded in a way that puts less emphasis on the drone. In addition, they use pipes in several different keys to ensure a more varied sound, which holds the attention better.

Evit Dañsal [Arfolk CD 432], by Daniel Feon and Jil Lehart, is similar to Er Bolom Koh. It also features excellent pipers and a relatively mellow sound. Like Dreuz Kreiz Breiz , it can cause ear fatigue due to the biniou's drone, especially if you listen on headphones, but the music is absolutely wonderful. Much of it is traditional dance music, but there are a lot of original melodies by Feon as well. For inspiration, they have drawn on various sources: other pipers like Etienne Rivoallan and Jorj Kadoudal, singers like the well known Morvan brothers, books like Jean Michel Guilcher's excellent La Tradition Populaire de Danse en Basse Bretagne, and even composers like John Dowland. They have put these various sources together with their own creativity, and made a lovely and inspiring album of sonner par couple. This CD features less in the way of liner notes, so if you want to read about the music, consider the other two first; if you feel you already know enough and want to listen to tunes both old and new, this might just be for you.

Brittany is also home to many pipe bands. Like the Scottish bands on which they were modeled, the Breton bagadoù (singular: bagad) include Highland bagpipes and drums. Unlike their Scottish forebears, the Breton bands also include a bombarde section. The trend lately has been for recordings of these bands to go beyond the usual pipe band format of marches, dances and occasional airs played by the entire ensemble. There is more soloing, playing with guests, and all around experimentation. An excellent example is Bagad Brieg's Dalc'h Da Noz [Arfolk CD 433]. The band is from a small town in Brittany (the mayor helped with the sleeve notes), but, small town or not, these boys are stylin'! The disc features some relatively standard tracks, but it also showcases some exciting new sounds. "Black Label" is an amazing medley played by two pipers and seven percussionists. There is also a drum solo that uses a full drum kit in addition to the drum corps, and a lot of original compositions by young band members. Even if you don't usually like pipe band albums, you might enjoy this; even the more conservative tracks have a funky, syncopated groove that you usually don't find in pipe bands, something like the Battlefield Band might sound if they had 10 pipers instead of just one.

Less inspiring forays into Celtic piping include Lyrichord's The Bagpipe [LYRCD 7327] and ARC's Best of Scottish Pipes and Drums [EUCD 1321]. Both have their strong points, but neither earns a strong recommendation. The Bagpipe features authentic field recordings of uillean pipes, Highland pipes, biniou-bombarde duets and Galician gaita. Unfortunately, they do not include notes as to who is playing the instruments, or where and when they were recorded. Their usefulness as field recordings is thus compromised. On the other hand, they are not of high enough sound quality to interest the more casual listener. The single track labeled "Canntaireachd" turned out to be mere mouth music, not true canntaireachd (thank goodness for my bagpipe guru, who pointed this out to me). This error is a shame; not much recorded canntaireachd makes it onto commercial releases. Best of Scottish Pipes and Drums features some good pipe bands playing normative (and therefore boring) pipe band music: "Scotland the Brave," "Atholl Highlanders" and the like. There are several unusual and amusing moments, however; one set of Harry Lauder tunes and another of Burns melodies are unusual pipe band fare. There are also a couple of solos, and one track features Scottish small pipes and two electric guitars played by members of the Royal Sutherland Pipe Band. The notes contain at least one error: "Flower of Scotland" is listed as traditional. I don't think Roy Williamson, the deceased and much missed songwriter, would mind in the least.

One of the most fascinating bagpipe releases of recent vintage is Zampogne en Italie [Silex Y225111], a disc of field recordings of the unique family of bagpipes that survives in southern Italy. These pipes are set apart from most west European bagpipes in that they have two chanters; one is played by each hand. They can produce a reinforcement of the primary melody line (when the chanters are of the same length) or a harmonic interval between the two chanters. The chanters and drones of the zampogne are all set together in a common stock in front of the instrument. In all other particulars, the zampogne are a heterogeneous group of pipes. The number of drones on the different types of zampogne varies from four down to none at all. Some are double-reed pipes, others single. Some are cylindrical bore, some conical. Some have open-ended pipes, some are capped. Some are as large as a grown man, so that the player looks as though he is waltzing with an inflatable partner. Others are quite small.

The sounds on this disc are as intriguing as the descriptions and photos of the pipes in the accompanying booklet. Throughout its 76-minute length, the disc provides intriguing samples of various flavors, from the shrill call of the pive de l'Istrie to the mellower tones of the zampogna a chiave. At its richest, the sound of the zampogna can be a chord of five or six notes. This gives it a resonance that many pipes lack. At its most extreme, in the zampogna a chiave, the difference in the chanters makes the pipes sound like an organ, with a melody line and a bass line played simultaneously by different hands. The pipers that were sought out and recorded for this project have a varied repertoire of dances, carols, and other tunes. Some of them are accompanied by singers, others by tambourine, and still others by a shrill oboe called a ciaramelle, much like the Breton bombarde. Although this is a rather specialized and esoteric album for the general listener, serious bagpipe fans, ethno-musicologists, folklorists, and other assorted nerds will find it indispensable.

-- Steve Winick

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