Nancy's Travelblogue

... there isn't a train I wouldn't take, no matter where it's going. -- Edna St. Vincent Millay

Location: California, United States

Sunday, December 06, 2009


Yesterday occurred one of the most extraordinary events in the Bay Area: the 7th annual Drone Magic International Bagpipe Festival. Each Christmas season instrument maker and musicologist Ferenc Tobak gathers bagpipes, bagpipers, and and bagpipe music lovers like me for a grand celebration of this weird music that is part of the musical tradition of almost every culture throughout Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia. And what do these musicians have in common? They love hugging goatskins!

This year's festival started off with a lecture demonstration by bagpiper and musicologist Sean Folsom. Sean has made bagpipes and bagpipe lore the focus of his musical life since he switched from jazz and rock in 1970. It was the Scottish pipes that stole his heart.

Sean filled us in on the origins and evolution of the instrument. The antecedent of the bag-pipe is -- quite obviously if you think about it -- the pipe, such as those pictured at the top of this post. According to Folsom, the pipe originated in the kingdom of Sumer (now modern Iraq) a good 3-5 thousand years ago. It was the Romans who added the bag.

The Romans are responsible for dispersing the instrument, and the Christians are responsible for repressing it. Sean told us that nearly all early Christian music is vocal, because instrumental music was too closely associated with pagan practice. So the bagpipe survived for about 500 years as a shepherd's instrument in all the regions that the Roman Empire touched.

There is much more to the history, but let me fast forward to the 20th century when the bagpipe had all but died out in most areas. It was considered dirty, yucky, and generally old fashioned. Then came the revivalist movement, of which both Sean and Ferenc have played a big part. Ethnomusicologists convinced old village musicians to bring out their old bagpipes. These scholars admired the bagpipes, repaired them and and recorded melodies. And young people took interest. Bagpipes are becoming cool for Generation Yers as evidenced by the young players at the concert last night and by my favorite Celtic band Seven Nations.

Sean owns 55 bagpipes from Great Britain, Italy, Croatia, North Africa, and Armenia. He pulled them out of his suitcase, one by one, and demonstrated -- the tone, the different kinds of construction, and the story behind each one. He could have been the Pied Piper. The audience was fascinated and definitely in the mood for the concert which followed.

Ference Tobak (whom I wrote about in this blog August 29, 2009) is himself a gifted musician, instrument maker, and ethnomusicologist. Each Christmas season he produces this event. Last night's concert included piping traditions from Spain, Sweden, Scotland, England, Bulgaria, Hungary and Greece. Each musical tradition is entirely different, the only similarity being the limitations of the instrument itself. The Bulgarian group entertained us with a caroling ritual followed an animal blessing consisting of guys dressed in animal skins as you can see in the photo.

And how did I get interested in bagpipe music? I guess it's in my blood. My father is a second generation Scot. Though music in general was not a part of our family life, when bagpipe music came around -- at the Scottish Games or occasional touring groups -- we'd end up there -- my mother in agony and my father and I in bliss. Those days are gone and so is my father, but I try to make it to the local Scottish Games so I can to listen to 100o pipers gathered on the racetrack playing together Scotland the Brave. Tears come to my eyes every time.

Here is a selection from the concert on YouTube

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