The Summer is Over…Long live the Autumn

One could say the “summer is over” all activities seem to have stopped and I find myself being “back at work” which for me is making small-pipes and busking. But I can still write about the various activities I have done over a month or so, some of which were a welcome change: a travel to Orkney (a birthday present to myself); sailing once more after a period of 3 years; going to Piping Live 2015 in Glasgow; and a trip to the Isle of Arran (my last visit was when I was 21, a few moons ago!), and where my small laptop got a wash in seawater and decided not to work again (the laptop I had used on many of my previous blog entries R.I.P.)

There was a new insight into my electric bike which I will add to the review blog. I will be reworking my Dinghy Cruising Association articles for the blog, as I think they could be of some use to those who wish to cruise the Solway Estuary.

Over the next few days/weeks I will be writing several blogs on these topics and others too, such as: folk sessions; a new Small-pipe workshop which will be in October; and unintentionally learning an old instrument, the recorder! An instrument I hated when I was at school, but I find myself starting again.

So the summer might be over but let’s look forward to the autumn!

The Nayanban – The Iranian Bagpipe

The Persian bagpipe is becoming more popular, possibly thanks to the internet, this once little known instrument is gaining more interest in Europe. Generally one player popularizes an instrument…becomes a well known name and gets all the attention, concerts, fame and money!
But, it does not mean they have the final say on the instrument, music, or style… but to many it is.

Leila, visited her country and chanced upon a Nayanban musician in Isfahan, Iran. Being Iranian she could converse with the player and learn a little bit about him. This is her story really, I am just including it as i think it is a wonderful story and a chance to Ethnomusicology working both ways.

The Nayanban is a bagpipe from southern Iran, near to the Persian Gulf. The “red arrows” on the map indicate the areas where the instrument is popular: Bandar Bushehr to Abadan, along the coastal area. These are port towns and possibly this instrument was imported from across the seas or it was exported from these ports to other countries?
The area is also near to Iraq and Kuwait, big oil producing areas, and there is also a lot of oil on the Iran side of the border too. During the War between Iraq and Iran (1980-87) this area received a lot of bombing and invasion. A lot of local people (Bandari) moved north to escape the bombing and they took their culture and instruments with them. A lot of the migrants settled in an areas close to Isfahan,  especially in a town called Shahrekord (South West of Isfahan).

This nayanban player Leila met was called Behnam Rahimi, from Baghbahadoran, which is close to Shahrekord, he came to Isfahan to play on the streets to earn some money; but unlike buskers in Europe who would play on the busy streets, shopping areas, city centers, and commercial and touristic areas, Behnam plays in residential areas far from the “madding crowd”, his streets were quiet, walled enclosed, no passers-by or shop-keepers to move you on! His audience were behind their walls, inside their homes or peering from their windows.

The instrument consists of a bag, 2 chanters in a single stock, no drone. The 2 chanters have the same tuning, the player’s fingers cover both chanter at the same time and play the same notes. The music is highly rhythmic, more for dancing I imagine than for singing. Behnam, told Leila that he was later to play at a wedding where there is generally dancing; but before the wedding he was “busking”… not ‘on’ the main street of the city, but ‘behind’ the main street, in quiet roads, lanes, drive ways. People would hear his music, and like his music and come out and pay him.

you can hear him playing the Nayanban here 

Byocycle City Speed Review


I do not normally do reviews of things I buy, but I chose this electric bike after a lot of research, but there was a lot of info I could not find online or via the shop, so I thought to add to the reviews that are currently on line.

I bought this electric bike online, I did not see it or try it out before hand, a risk? Yes, as to send it back would cost… but the reviews were promising. 
I was looking at two bikes the Byocycle City Speed and the Wayfarer, both had similar spec and both had good reviews. There was very little in the way of videos, the Byocycle Cameleon had a few videos but the city speed was poorly documented. The Wayfarer had a couple of good videos which showed durability. The Cameleon looks the same as the City Speed, in fact only a few of the components are different if you compare them, but there is a big difference in price. 

Although I have not had my bike long (a few months) I have been on long bike rides, around trip of about 25 miles to and from the boat. The trip involves quite a lot of hills and gradual climbs and the weather is not always good. Today for example I had strong icy winds in my face and heavy showers. The roads I cycle on are farm roads, tractors often produce cracks and pot holes and generally uneven surfaces, so not the ‘typical’ conditions that the info uses for getting the most out your battery. The spec say the battery will last between 20-30 miles on flat terrain with no head wind! 
I generally cycle everywhere, I do not drive a car, I have had no interested in learning to drive, and I try not to use the bus or the train if I can help it. Cycling is my chosen transportation, good for a lifestyle, fitness and low cost. The bike I was looking for had to be practical and useful to the distances I needed it for. It is not for a pleasant ride on a Sunday…
This morning the battery was fully charged and I had little luggage to carry. I learned a few years ago not to cycle up steep hills. I get off and push the bike up. This is not laziness but it saves the chain and it stops lactic acid building up in the muscles, by using other muscles it leads to a less painful experience. I only do this a few times as I cycle to 25 mile round trip, generally I cycle. 
On my way to the boat I peddle as much as I can, I use the “peddle/motor” option when I need it on gradual hills and when I get tired legs. I try and be in 3rd gear when I use this option as otherwise I am pedalling for nothing, as least in 3rd I can add to the motor.  When I am not using the peddle/motor option I knock it off. 
By the end of the 12 miles I was feeling tired… this is not because I did not use the motor enough, but I think because of the weight of the bike one is pulling the equivalent of a loaded trailer, when you come off the peddle/motor option the bike slows down, you feel the weight underneath you, and you feel your legs having to push that weight along. It is like riding through treacle! 
Coming back from the boat I try out the “motor only option”. As my legs are tired I need to rest them on certain parts of the journey. Also when you use this option you can peddle and not use the battery. I prefer this as I can have more option depending on the terrain. 
By switching from ‘peddle/motor’ option (by holding down the button on the control box) it automatically switches to the ‘motor option’, I can access the motor while peddling by slowly moving the throttle leaver next to the hand grip. This can be unsteady to achieve the right amount, so I press my thumb into the hand grip and rotate my thumb next to the throttle, I can get minute variations to suit my leg requirements.  When I release the throttle again it feels like I am cycling through treacle, the weight of the bike is apparent. You need the motor for this bike… it is too heavy to go long distances without it. 
The lights are very good, very bright and penetrating, the front light is turned on/off by the control box on the handlebars, it is connected to the battery. You need to have the control box set on ‘motor option’ mode otherwise you will be peddling all the time whether you want to or not. The back lights are not connected to the battery, but they are good lights.
I like the bike stand it is useful, I like its sturdy frame especially when I fly down the hills, there is no shaking of the frame. 
After the ride I noticed the 3 green lights indicating the battery strength was still on green (all 3) so I have not used a lot of battery to achieve my 25 miles. I will keep experimenting how to use the bike more efficiently, maybe increase the usage of motor only on this hills and give my legs more of a rest.

bunji the folded bike together it is a lot easier to transport.

Galician and Border Fingering – Cross Fertalization

Often when we learn an instrument we learn ‘patterns’ for our fingers to use on the instrument, this is an aid to learning an instrument and memorizing tunes. We become accustomed to these patterns and form them into a ‘tradition’ which develops into a certain regional or national style. But, what is important is the ‘sound’ to play the melodies as they should sound and achieving the sound should be more important over technique.

Finger Chart for the Highland, Scottish Small-pipes, & Border Bagpipes

I have deviated from the normal ‘tradition’ on the Border pipes, I am adopting a different tradition of fingering the chanter. This mainly concerns the top A note which is fingered traditionally with the bottom hand oxxx and with the top hand xoo o (oxxx xoo o) this is a Highland bagpipe style, which in my opinion is a different style of music to the Lowland piping tradition. 

I have been playing Border/Northumbrian melodies using the traditional fingering for a number of years it suits it well, but there are characteristics of the Lowland music which make this fingering of the top A note cumbersome and problematic. There are many ‘jumps’ in Lowland music from a high A down to a lower register, and this can cause a lot of hand ‘waving’ on the chanter (The Highland bagpipe style uses a closed finger technique that lifts multiple fingers off and on the chanter) as the top hand opens so closes the lower hand. It can be messy, especially if the melody demands a quick run or semi-quaver ‘jumps’.

I have been learning the Galician bagpipe for 3 years and they use a different fingering for the high A note, (oxxx xxx o) all fingers closed and only the thumb hole open. It is this technique I have been adopting for the high A on the Border pipes.

At first it was to put the chanter in tune with itself as it was a bit sharp on the top A, so instead of taping or gluing the hole I changed finger technique. Another reason why I used this Galician fingering was I fitted a Galician Bb reed to my Border chanter. I scraped the reed so it was softer to play and could sound a top A in the traditional Lowland fingering, but I found it gave a good high A in the Galician style too.

There are a lot of quaver notes in the Lowland repertoire that ‘jump’ in quick succession e.g. AaAbAcAd. This could mean playing oxxx xoo o for the high A then playing ooxx xxx x for the low ‘b’. I have found it easier to play these notes by using the Galican style oxxx xxx o for the high A then ooxx xxx x for the low ‘b’. this makes life a lot easier.

If you know the fingering style of the Northumbrian Small Pipes then you will know that this style of playing uses a totally closed finger technique, one finger is lifted off then replaces before the other is lifted. So jumping from a high to a low note is not a problem. This Galician high A position is similar in style to the Northumbrian as only the thumb is removed while the rest of the fingers stay on the chanter.

Of course there is no evidence that this finger style was used in the tradition of Border piping….but there is no evidence to prove it was not used either. The music certainly allows for an easy way of playing these ‘jumps’. and the Galician high A is one solution. In practise, I tend to mix these 2 finger styles, depending on the melody, some runs require it others do not.

In the Border/Northumbrian tradition at least there has always been a healthy innovation, without it the Northumbrian Small Pipes would never have evolved. It is easy to imagine these innovations coming about by influences from outside of the Borders through the numerous ports, commerce and migrants/visitors/travellers, as well as closer to home though journeymen, after-all tunes travelled and it is said that the Northumbrian Small Pipes were influenced by the French musette. .

There are numerous bagpipes which use the ‘closed fingering’ style as the Border pipes, some more closed than others…but this style is not wholly a Scottish fingering technique. The Asturian Gaita uses a crossed/closed fingering not unlike the Border pipes. Both are conical bored chanters and a 2nd octave can be reached by the same technique of the Galician high A fingering position.

Gaita Sanabresa in Zamora

Wandering through the medieval streets of Zamora, Spain, we came across a folkloric group dancing and playing Gaita Sanabresa.

The Fiesta was in aid of married women all over Spain, a sort of weekend long celebration. The colourful costumes of the women and loud resonating gaita made the streets come alive with tradition and feeling. Traditional music in its natural setting always makes it relevant.

Gaita de Boto and Ney – Snakes and Reeds

As it was a holiday in Madrid we thought to go and get out into the nature for the day. Our choice of area seemed to be the wrong one as it was heavily industrial with rubbish spoiling the river bank and the river stinking from the chemicals from the nearby factories. This did not stop the wild life from inhabiting the area though, birds and rabbits ran to hide as we walked along the rivers edge. We were walking near to the airport and every 3 minutes planes came over our heads on their way to land. I was getting a little disillusioned as the track came near to the motorway and then it ended with a gate saying “private”. We sat down and ate then headed back the same way.

What interested me was the size of the reed (cane) beds that lined the river bank, and also which grew away from the river and close to the motorway; they grew very big and a few were thick enough to cut , dry and to make open-ended flutes (nai and neys) as well as cane reed flutes.

As we walked along the path we saw a movement a few steps in front of us, a snake slithered down a hole, it was quite large, fat and light green. I am interested in the Gaita de Boto, the gaita from the region of Aragon that sometimes has a snake skin covering the chanter and drone. Green snake skin suddenly came to my mind and how it would fit nicely over my chanter!

I have reeds cut and drying in our flat for about 1 year, they need sized and experimented with to see if they are good enough to make reeds for bagpipes and to make open-ended flutes possibly of an Arabic style (nai) and perhaps a Turkish ney. The reeds near to the motorway were much better than the river bank examples, being away from the river meant they were a lot stronger, I would return and cut them later on and have a supply for a year.

I had collected a few pieces of cane to take home and as we walked I thought what an excellent place to come for  a day out, I can get my musical needs satisfied in one afternoon: snake skin for my chanter and drone, open-ended flutes from the motorway, and drone and chanter reeds from the river bank!
I did not even notice the air planes any more.

On Stage in Zamora (Spain)

It has been a number of years since I stood on stage alone playing solo. I remembered when I last did it back in the 90s on stage in Vilnius, Lithuania. I have played countless time since then but to stand on stage in front of about 400 people is still a nerve racking event. Playing with others is easier, you follow each other, timing is easier and just to be with another is more relaxing. I have played Border Pipes for years but hardly performed with them on stage and I choose to start the concert with them. My nerves showed for the first set of tunes, but after a while I got used to it and relaxed. When I played the Northumbrian Small Pipes I was back on familiar territory and played my set with out too much trouble.
I do not think it is the ‘standing on stage’ that is the problem with nerves it is the microphones, it can be in a room with friends or solo recording a CD, but whenever I stand in front of a microphone I grow tense, I do not play as I normal; I can not move or walk around. The microphone rivets me to a spot…curse it.

The melodies I played for the Border pipes (BP) were:
Frisky, 
Chevy Chase, 
I’m O’er Young to Marry Yet, 
Bonny Lad.

Except for Chevy Chase, which is a Border Ballad, the rest of the tunes can be found in the Peacock manuscript from the early 1800s.

The next tune I played was Bonny Pit Laddie, also from Peacock, and I played as many variations as I could remember (I think I missed one out). The style of the Northumbrian and (Scottish) Border repertoire is full of melodies with variations and to memorize them is quite a task; I fail each time but I must say I am also getting better at it too, as my playing time increases so is my memory for these variations.

Next, there was a quick change over of instruments from BP to Northumbrian Small Pipes (NSP). These are quicker to tune than the BP and less problematic to hold and to play. The melodies I played were:
Mallorca, 
Wards Brae, 
Gallowgate Lass.

The last two melodies I grouped together into one melody as they are very similar to each other.

The final group of tunes were:
Johnny Armstrong
Welcome to the Town Again,

the first being a Border Ballad melody and the last a dance tune from Peacocks.

The experience was an interesting one, enjoyable and I hope the start of many more to come in the future.
The video is of the first performance on NSP.

My Hybrid Bagpipes

If Organology is a study of musical instruments then musical archaeology is a piecing together of facts about a time and place of that instrument.

My newly made bagpipe would tell of many layers of musical history, and as it stands today, a history that travels continents.

If we start with the oldest first:

The Drones, then we will find out that they came from India, the Punjab. I bought a set of Highland pipes in a small town in 1995. They cost me 18 UK pounds, with it I got several drone reeds and chanter reeds, in fact I bought what there was in his shop. I suspected the chanter would not be in tune but the rest of the pipe I could use for other things. In fact teh reeds fit well in my Border pipe too.
The 3 drones were in a rubber bag, very small, easily inflated but leaked a lot.
The blow pipe had a metal mouth piece which fell off after several years.
With all its faults it did play, and I did use this set of pipes for experiments over the years.
The pipe is made from wood, the chanter is conically bored and not dissimilar to the bore of my Border pipe.
I used the Indian Bass drone in my Hybrid Bagpipe, it plays in ‘Bb’ as well as in ‘A’ and by changing the drones around (removing the middle section) I can also play in ‘D’ with the same reed.
I use the cane reeds I bought in India and they are very good and reliable after so many years.
I use all stocks from the Indian bagpipe too, as well as mouth piece. I have made a few mouth piece tips to replace the metal one I lost. The ‘crack value’ i have replaced recently to make it more air tight.

The Bag I bought in Spain in 2011 from a shop in Madrid, it is a synthetic bag which is in a ‘pear drop’ design, not my favourite to hold, I think in the future I would buy/make a bag in the Highland style.
The cover was made by myself and Leila with fabric bought in Madrid and Zamora.

The Chanter/s I play are a mixture of traditions. Originally I got it to play with my Sanabresa Chanter in Bb, I turned a stock for it and connected it to the bag.
I also made a stock for my Border pipes chanter and if I tuned the drones down to ‘A’ I could get a good sound with the same reed
I also turned a stock for my Galician chanter in D, I removed the middle section of the Drone and it played a D drone to go with it.

The beauty of mouth blown pipes over bellows blown is the less time to ‘pick up and play’; and less time in tuning the drones, also with these pipes I have been able to add a Galician reed in all of them, where as to obtain a Border reed or Sanabresa reed is quite difficult.
Another advantage with this system is that I have 3 chanters and 1 bag, which saves space when transporting them and costs a lot less to buy.

Porto in Portugal

A recent trip to Aveiro in Portugal to attend an Organology Conference, we stayed in Porto and I was delighted in the overview of the city. Small streets line the banks of the river, an excellent river for kayaking from Spain which I will attempt later this year hopefully.

A view from the bridge onto old Porto

Porto has kept its old feel, small streets large enough to reach across and touch both walls.

Old Medieval Streets

The harbour showed a history in the stone, and boats were there now for touristy purposes, but it added to a charm of the place. The old traditional boats next to the old harbour walls.

Old Harbour

Long oars were used to propel the boats, but they can not have been for sea voyaging on the Atlantic.

Brightly painted sterns. We did not see any sails in use, but in the summer the boats are used for transporting tourists.

Portugal is well known for its coloured tiles on the sides of houses and churches, and railways stations.

On Stage in Zamora (Spain)

It has been a number of years since I stood on stage alone playing solo. I remembered when I last did it back in the 90s on stage in Vilnius, Lithuania. I have played countless time since then but to stand on stage in front of about 400 people is still a nerve racking event. Playing with others is easier, you follow each other, timing is easier and just to be with another is more relaxing. I have played Border Pipes for years but hardly performed with them on stage and I choose to start the concert with them. My nerves showed for the first set of tunes, but after a while I got used to it and relaxed. When I played the Northumbrian Small Pipes I was back on familiar territory and played my set with out too much trouble.

I do not think it is the ‘standing on stage’ that is the problem with nerves it is the microphones, it can be in a room with friends or solo recording a CD, but whenever I stand in front of a microphone I grow tense, I do not play as I normal; I can not move or walk around. The microphone rivets me to a spot…curse it.


The melodies I played for the Border pipes (BP) were:
Frisky, Chevy Chase, I’m O’er Young to Marry Yet, Bonny Lad.
Except for Chevy Chase, which is a Border Ballad, the rest of the tunes can be found in the Peacock manuscript from the early 1800s.
The next tune I played was Bonny Pit Laddie, also from Peacock, and I played as many variations as I could remember (I think I missed one out). The style of the Northumbrian and (Scottish) Border repertoire is full of melodies with variations and to memorize them is quite a task; I fail each time but I must say I am also getting better at it too, as my playing time increases so is my memory for these variations.

Next, there was a quick change over of instruments from BP to Northumbrian Small Pipes (NSP). These are quicker to tune than the BP and less problematic to hold and to play. The melodies I played were:
Mallorca, Wards Brae, Gallowgate Lass.
The last two melodies I grouped together into one melody as they are very similar to each other.
The final group of tunes were:
Johnny Armstrong and Welcome to the Town Again,
the first being a Border Ballad melody and the last a dance tune from Peacocks.

The experience was an interesting one, enjoyable and I hope the start of many more to come in the future.

The video is of the first performance on NSP.