Bag of tricks: Piping Live!
As the annual festival of Piping Live! kicks in, Claire Sawers finds there are plenty of fans on hand to debunk the aging myths about bagpipes
In Germany they’ve got the doodlesack; in Sweden, the säckpipa; and in Italy, the zampogna. Nearly every country in Europe has some version of the bagpipe, giving the instrument a range and diversity that stretches way beyond that lone piper standing in his kilt on Princes Street, squeaking out ‘Scotland the Brave’ for tourists in ponchos.
Roddy MacLeod, director of Piping Live!, the international festival that attracted 25,000 visitors last year to Glasgow, thinks people will be surprised at how vast the modern day piper’s repertoire is. ‘Everyone has heard a piper playing ‘Highland Cathedral’ or ‘Scotland the Brave’, he says. ‘But new music is written for pipes all the time – from all around the world. Modern technology also means pipes can now be recorded and balanced with other instruments without drowning them out, so we’re seeing more experimental styles cropping up. The festival was set up six years ago to bring those styles together.’
So this year, the week-long programme welcomes a pipe band from the OC, California; an Indian-Celtic fusion group; a ‘Celtinavian’ duo from Sweden and 16,000 other pipers from New Zealand, Pakistan, Canada and beyond. ‘I like the idea that people get to experience all that’s on offer,’ says MacLeod. ‘From lone pipers to traditional pipe bands, as well as more ‘rock’n’roll’ variations like the Red Hot Chilli Pipers or energetic bands like the Peatbog Faeries.’
MacLeod admits that bagpipes haven’t always enjoyed the coolest of images. He started playing the bagpipes when he was ten and growing up in Glasgow. ‘I didn’t exactly broadcast it. Back then I might have got a slagging, even just for wearing a kilt.’ But now, not only are kilts sported proudly by Scottish men, bagpipes are enjoying an image revamp too. Bagpipes have shown up on Eminem’s radio-unfriendly Scottish rant ‘Bagpipes from Baghdad’; on industrial death-metallers Cromagnon’s ‘Caledonia’; Korn’s tartan-metal anthem ‘Shoots and Ladders’ and the White Stripes bagpipe-guitar battle, ‘St Andrews’. And they are particularly beloved of Americans who want to bring a bit of spectacle to live gigs too; see this year’s T in the Park where the Yeah Yeah Yeahs brought the East Kilbride bagpipe band onstage or Madonna’s Reinvention tour where she enlisted Lorne Cousin to pipe in a leather kilt after spotting him play at Stella McCartney’s wedding.
Edinburgh’s Rob Calder, aka the ‘bagpipe busker’, can vouch for the bagpipes’ international appeal. He’s just finished a coast-to-coast tour of America, relying on hospitality from bagpipe fans along the way. ‘The reaction to bagpipes, 90% of the time, was great,’ he says. ‘Most piping heard in the US is through pipe bands at Highland games, weddings, funerals and the like. That is, the more formal stuff.’
Although most of Calder’s requests were for ‘Amazing Grace’ or the Marine Corps hymn, he thinks there is huge scope for piping to move into more contemporary areas and attract new audiences. ‘It’s great to hear the pipes in modern music. I don’t think it will ever rival the guitar or piano – it’s an instrument that resonates when people hear it from time to time, so should be used in moderation for its biggest impact on the mainstream public.’
As for their sex appeal, Calder reports that bagpipes had a strange magnetism. ‘I have been subject to wandering hands up the kilt, photographs, propositions, telephone numbers on $20 bills. A wedding ring even found its way into my bag. So yes, bagpipes seem to impress the ladies …’
Piping Live!, various venues, Glasgow, Mon 10–Sun 16 Aug. www.pipinglive.co.uk