“Blessed are the Children…”

It takes a lot of optimism (or lunacy) to get on my bike early morning and cycle 8 miles to go busking in -1c. The ice on the roads has not thawed in the early morning sun, and I always imagine my front tire being slip-out in front of me on black ice.

When I get to Carlisle I find my busking spot has been taken by a young lad who obviously has a shorter distance to travel than me. He is a singer/guitarist, and although good, he is loud, no amplifier for him! I turn by bike around and go to my other spot.

This 2nd spot is taken by a homeless boy who is asleep on the pavement. His arms and legs are sprawled out; even though he is in a sleeping bag he has managed to take up more than half the pavement. The people walk around him, leaving him to his sweet dreams!
This view reminds me of the war in Syria for some reason. When I see the bombed houses and people being pulled from the rubble I notice the way the public always rush with broken bodies in their arms to the ambulances. The scene of the homeless boy reminds me of this because “no one is lifting this boy to safety”. There are no ambulances to take him away, no place of rehabilitation. It reminds me of how war can make people come together, were as peace can divide us. I do not grudge him his sleep, I move on into the centre of town.

In the centre of town there is the Salvation Army Band playing Christmas carols. I can not play in the area “Humbug…humbug”. I don’t know why but each year I am reminded more of the books by Charles Dickens, Dickensian Britain I call it. It would not surprise me to see children begging next year, or Scrooge shuffling along disappearing down the back-streets with his I-phone in his hand.

That is where I am heading, down back alleys to find my final spot for busking; if that is taken then it has been a wasted journey. To my surprise it is empty. Normally another singer/guitarist stands there, he has been there for years and I have given up going there for that reason. He gets there early and stays there all day. There are only a few spots to play without amplification, and if they are taken there is no chance to play.

I set up, it is cold; I am not sitting in the sun, and my hands freeze first, so I put my fingerless-gloves on. I play on and I finally loose myself in the music, I do not notice the people or the surroundings. I warm up and the world stops spinning.

After a while I notice I am invisible, or it feels like that. People walk past me, oblivious to me or the music, I hear them but they do not hear me. There is no recognition I am there. Maybe it is all a dream and I am not playing in the freezing cold, maybe I am still in bed asleep? I think of the homeless boy and I wonder am I similar to him?

Then I see life, and I know it is life as someone acknowledges me, I am not an illusion. Life, (she) skips along the pavement, each skip in time with my melody’s rhythm. Later on I see 2 others skipping along too, I do exist, it is not a dream!

The skippers are children aged between 7 to 10 I would say, and they acknowledge things that their parents have forgotten. Again, I am reminded of Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present. It is like I am looking at things past, unable to interact, just an observer.

Over the years children have been an excellent audience. They all have individual characters but they also have a “type”. First, there is the Shy Type, they stand back, they look scared, and they are shy to put their parent’s money in the box. When they approach me they freeze and go rigid, their parents have to come and take their hands and help them to approach me, and some children are so frightened they start to cry or hide their faces in their parent’s coat. Often the money stays in their hands and they have to be led away.

Another type is the Less Shy, they are given money by their parents and they come over and drop the money in the box, they smile or they look amazed at the instrument, they skip off, or show their love of music in some way. They are happy and they enjoy the moment. These are the majority of children, as I think the children love live music if it is not too loud. There has been one exception to this as I remember one child holding her ears and crying with fear on her face…she was in her own world then I think.

The third type of child is the Confident Child. They have a mental age of 30 in 10 year old body. They are totally independent. They have a will of their own and are financially savvy; they have sussed the world out already. I have seen them, walking behind their parents, until they are in front of me, they stop and open their purse and drop a coin in, they smile and walk off with an air of superiority. They do this as they know what they like and what they do not like. They do this because they can.

For all the “types” of children, they are in their own universe, sometimes it is a good universe sometimes it is a bad one, but they are a joy to observe. And it is nice to be observed too.

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The Battle of the Somme

When I got into town to busk on Saturday I noticed a lot of soldiers collecting money for “Remembrance Sunday/Poppy Day” this year it seems a bigger event than normal; more soldiers, more news items about the human sacrifice, more programmes about the Wars and especially World War 1… more reminders about war and death.

I made my way to my busking area passing homeless people on the streets; one was a young lad who was hugging his sleeping bag with a cup of coffee someone had given him. He was not asking for money he looked too tired.

The weather had gotten colder, the mild air being replaced by a stillness that had a cold edge to the climate. When I got to my place, where I normally busk there was a women packing up her clothes into bags, she was moving somewhere else. I wrapped up warm as I played my concertina, jumpers, hats, fingerless gloves.

With all the army lads and lasses around collecting for the Poppy fund I did not make much money that Saturday. I live off what I earn, it is my job… but it is not a very stable job, my ‘office’ is draughty, and my security is non-existent. I do not think the homeless person was making any money too, but I think the army made lots.

I played a tune called “The Lark in the Clear Air” it is a beautiful Irish melody I heard in the 80s, it is a song melody played on a mouth-organ and I heard it being played on a LP with the same title. I followed that melody with a Highland bagpipe melody called “The Battle of the Somme” a 9/8 melody which was written about the Battle of the Somme in WW1; the melody is a bit tricky on the concertina (especially in a cold wind), but I think that melody was a good one for a day like that Saturday; with the Poppy Day Remembrance Sunday approaching and the presence of the military and remembering what the wars were supposed to be for…

When I finished busking I packed my things away and I noticed my body temperature dropping very fast. I began to shiver and shake, my muscles tensed up and I could not control my teeth chattering. I was ok while I was busking, but when I stopped I began to lose feeling, my hands turned purple and I could not walk straight.

As I walked, trying to warm up I noticed the boy in his sleeping bag, fast asleep on the pavement, his feet nearly blocking the march of the people as they passed by him. I kept walking and shaking, not warming up at all. In town I noticed the army were still collecting money and having a good laugh with their friends. Also lads and lasses wearing t-shirts and tank-tops in temperatures quickly dropping as the winter’s sun had set, getting ready for a night out.

I went to the public toilets and put my purple hands under hot water for a few minutes, then went to have a cup of coffee and I tried to remember what the wars were about…

Violence and Busking

What do you do when about 10 boys come at you in a menacing way? That is what happened to me last Saturday while I was busking? I heard lots of shouting then as they turned the corner they all started chanting and singing and stamping. It reminded me of a Soweto tribal gathering. Slowing advancing towards me in unison, all I could do was put my head down and continue playing. When the noise got too much and when they had circled around me I stopped playing. One of the boys wanted money, he looked into my bag and demanded £1 for to buy a drink. I said I need the money for a coffee as I was cold; it had been a cold day.

Women say men are not very good at multiprocessing, but when it comes to getting your head kicked in we are not so bad really. I answered questions that were rapidly aimed at me:
“Is that your bike? Give me some money? Can I have a go? What is that? I am going to steal your bike?” etc.

You have to think fast. If you are aggressive or rude then you will have a pack onto you, with your face beaten and your instrument taken or broken. I was sitting down, so a kick to the head was easy to do. In fact I was consciously aware of that kick or punch that never came.

I have always been good at talking my way out of trouble and it was not the first time that a group had menaced me like this. One time a group of football hooligans came my way and I got hit on the head by a passing blow while I was playing my pipes. The funny thing was his friend said “don’t do that you idiot” and then gave me a few pounds, so I got paid for being hit.

That Saturday as I talked with this gang, who were on their way to the pub. I dodged their comments and eventually they got bored, then the magical words I longed to hear came “leave him alone” and the danger had passed. One boy aimed a kick at my bike and walked off. They hung around before going to the pub. I packed my things away and made my way into town. If I was still there when they came out of the pub I do not think they would be tolerant.

Group violence on the streets in becoming more of a problem these days; before it was individuals giving me a hard time, or a couple of boys, but now it is gangs and not only boys, but girls too. I remember one time a group of about 15 young adults came out of the Technical College at lunch time, came through the alley where I was playing pipes and started calling me names, then some dropped over the wall at the other side of me, and started to call me names too, I was boxed in. One boy threw some liquid over me. It was turning ugly. I always believe the best form of defence when verbal diplomacy has failed is to run; I could not so the final resort is to “attack” so I did. The cowards ran off, I got one and beat him over the head until he squealed. I packed up and went home.

I have been threatened a lot by homeless people who tend to think that a particular paving stone is “theirs”. They can have it is not precious to me. But they can get aggressive especially if they are mentally ill. I have been threatened with violence in the same way as a young police officer would threaten me “when I get back if you are not gone you will be in trouble”. For me there is no difference in character except for the clothes they wear. One homeless man called “Geordie” threatened me in such a way, I felt very strange about this man, as though there was something seriously wrong. I left the area, and then 2 weeks later I saw his picture in the local newspaper, he had murdered a homeless man in the nearby park.

The other people who bother me are junkies, they are harmless but they want money. I do not give them any; drunks are more forceful (it is the nature of the drug I guess) and they try to take it. But generally I keep my head down, play my music and do not look at anyone. And 99.9% of the time I am left alone.

Village Hall Ceilidh

The Solway Band, did a Ceilidh at Beaumont Village Hall, the band consisted of: 1 baritone English concertina; 2 treble English concertinas, a mandolin, a bodhran, whistles, a bouzouki, 2 guitars, 1 fiddle and 3 vocalists…in total 13 instruments, played by 5 people (I played one of the English treble concertinas and mandolin).

The “calling” for the dances was really clear and instructive and the people enjoyed themselves, some had never done these dances before and it was encouraging to see some young people attend the ceilidh. I was beginning to wonder if the local village dances were beginning to die out as the older generation gets too old to attend, but the young couples who attended enjoyed themselves and hopefully they will return.

I grew up with these villages dances, I did not attend that much because as a teenager I thought it “un-cool”, but my parents went and they were a familiar social event in our area. I am not confident with the dances (we never had a caller) so it was left to us to work it out ourselves, which is difficult to do; and another reason why I never went to these dances is that I never had a girl my age to dance with, they were not interested either. The young men who attended last night did have a girl to dance with and they had a go at all the set dances including the waltzes.

If you have never been to a village dance in the north of England then you might think it is a bit strange. The village halls are often in their original condition, some are old, over 100 years sometimes, made of stone but often they are wooden from about World War 2; I guess they were used to re-unite communities after the war. They were the centre of social events in those days with them being used for fairs and country dancing, bingo and dominoes and “tea and cake” social events, and later on discos and band rehearsal space…everything under the sun; our local one is still being used but not as much as it once was.

As a teenager I booked the hall to practice punk music with my band, and I went to a few New Years Eve celebrations, but the hall always felt “old fashioned” for me, not of my generation. If I was a teenager then, the people who attended regular must have been in their 40s, now they are not dancing and a lot of these halls are being used for other things, less strenuous exercises. I play sometimes for a Playford Dance group near to Penrith, and that hall is used for a variety of other events and people travel from miles around to come and take part, so it does not represent the village community any more.

I joke about it being like a scene from “Miss Marple” and I am just waiting for the murder to happen, but it is like that in a way, the tables are covered in flowered patterned table cloth, the event has a raffle mid-way through, and everyone “mucks in”… they get involved, it is a D.I.Y social event, less to do with technology and more about “holding your partner and having a pre-techno tête-à-tête”. It works for some and I guess it would work for a lot more if it was “cool” to do so.

To be fare the village hall is having a face-lift, the old ones are being knocked down and replaced by an architect’s vision of how a village should look like. This happened to the village close to us, the new structure cost millions and it reflects the changing face of village life… that village no longer has a post office or a village shop but they have a 21st century space-age designed village hall.

The ceilidh we played at was to raise funds for a new building, an architect will come and survey the area, then other businesses will be called to take the planning further, and this will lead to other fund raising events to pay for it all, all so they can build a new hall over the old hall. I guess the locals are hoping for the village social life to continue for many decades to come, but I wonder that in 20 years time when the older generation has passed on, will the young be there to continue the tradition? Or will these halls become a “glint in an estate agent’s eye?” we will have to see…

Scottish Small Piper’s Barbecue

Scottish Small Piper’s Barbecue is held on the Sunday after Piping Live. This was the 2nd time it has been run and it seems to be getting stronger. The Glasgow small pipers meet every Tuesday at the Piping College and work on tunes. Once or twice a year they have a big meeting where they all come together to play tunes and to have a barbecue in the Park not too far from Central Glasgow.

It was a relaxed atmosphere, with a mixed group of small pipers from a Highland/Lowland bagpipe backgrounds to total beginners. It was a mixed group of musicians also, with guitars, flutes, whistles, saxophone, and a Cajon. I was the only Border piper there but it gave the music a ‘top edge’ to the overall sound.

The LBPS book repertoire was on show, which was a good idea; I ended up buying Mat Seattle’s new manuscript of the possible repertoire of Geordie Symes, which looks a good read and some excellent tunes.

We had been sent several tunes to learn and we all played them together on the day. It went quite well considering we were all from different musical backgrounds. There were lowland tunes as well as Highland and even Spanish tunes.

A choir came along and sang a few popular melodies, and also individuals led a session, then it was back to the small piper’s to run through the set once more.
We are pleased we went and we will go next year, and I will try to go along to the Tuesday nights session also.

I came away feeling that small pipers and Border pipers should meet more often in localized sessions, and then to have a bigger meeting throughout the year. we meet too seldom and we rely too much on the internet to communicate our music.

Piping Live 2017

This year at Piping Live we saw good performances from such diverse countries and regions as Italy, Sardinia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Brittany, Northern Ireland and of course Scotland and northern England (Northumbria).
In the morning I went to the Clasp competitions and listened to the hypnotic melodies of the pibroch, not everyone’s cup of tea first thing in the morning, but it appears to be mine.

At noon the Street Cafe concerts start and this is where we let the different acts wash over us. I like the way the Scottish highland performances are followed by the international acts. I guess some would be happy with wall to wall highland piping but I prefer a variety.

I recorded all of the performances with the intention of archiving them for 5 or 6 years, then to put them online. My reason for this is to let time pass. To let the performers change their style, progress with their music, or even let the band’s break up, reform etc. Very often band’s do not think to record themselves to keep an audio archive, but this can be quite beneficial especially if you think of it like a CV. So by letting time pass you can see a band’s or a musicians progress. I have been coming to this festival for over 5 years now so I will be putting the recordings online soon.

I did not go to the World’s pipe band’s championships this year, due to the high ticket prices, I fall into a pricing category of concessions but i could not prove it, so i would have to pay full price. a few people i spoke to commented on the high prices and it would work out a lot of money for a family, and for me who came via Spain and spent a week in Glasgow I have reached my budget by the end of the week. It would have been better to have a cheaper price so all could go and if it is cheaper than more would go.

The week is not over yet on Sunday there is a Small pipe and Border pipe meeting in Glasgow I will be playing in that.

To see a listing of the acts and events that were at Piping Live 2017 have a look at the programme at this link
https://pipinglive.co.uk/events/

Rothbury Folk Festival 2017

I have just returned from Rothbury Folk Festival (in Northumberland), a really good festival with a lot of different music going on. The session on the Friday in the Queen’s was good, a nice mixture of Northumbrian songs and instrumentals.

Saturday was a good day for me as it started with Northumbrian Pipe music at 10am and all through the day there were opportunities for NSP playing, with the session after the competitions and later that evening with a session in the Coquetvale Hotel.
Fewer pipers there this year, but Saturday was still the main day for piping.

The weather stopped the open air concerts but the music continued in the Mart and by all accounts it was really good there with concerts and dances until the early morning.

On the Sunday I went to my first Ceilidh and observed (I did not dance, to the relief of the others) what went on. I had never been to one before, although I have started to play for a Playford group.

In the afternoon there was more sessions and in the evening also in the Queen’s.
Monday we left and are looking forward to going to more Festivals this summer.

Concert: Newcastleton Folk Festival

I decided to have a theme for this year’s concert at Newcastle Folk Festival. Last year at the Friday night concert, I played a random set of tunes from the Peacock Manuscript. But this year I wanted to select different “variation” pieces of Northumbrian music played on the Northumbrian Small pipes.

These variation sets, are long pieces of music; similar to having 5 or 6 melodies added after each other. They are very characteristic of old Border Northumbrian melodies. There are suggestions why these variations came to be added after the main piece of music (the A and B sections of a melody). Some say they are for dancing, for the musician not to be bored; some say they are for listening, as in a concert environment and the player can express their virtuosity and skill.

Whatever the reason these variations can be simple or complex, often long in length sometimes having 25 sections; or as little as 2.

The old manuscripts have variation pieces in them: Dixon, Peacock, and Bewick are the manuscripts I chose to play from.

I started the concert with a reason why I chose to do the variation pieces. This was because 2 years ago I was sitting in a session listening to a friend of mine playing a variation piece on the Scottish Small pipes. As I was listening a man learned across to me and whispered in my ear “it goes on a bit”. He clearly did not like these long pieces of music. It is an expression I have heard before, especially from non-musicians. They do not understand why it is so long, or what the tune is trying to convey to the listener.

People have a short concentration span, 3 minutes on average, as long as a pop song; after that their mind goes onto other things. The variation piece needs concentration to listen and understand it properly; or the audience needs activity as in dancing. These melodies more makes sense when one is playing for a dance; it can get very boring to play the same melody over again, often 15 times while the dance is going on. It makes more sense to keep adding parts so the musician can keep an interest and therefore put some life into the playing.

The comment, made by the man in the session, kept in my mind for a while and I mused upon its reason and solution. “How could I make these traditional pieces of music more understandable and digestible for the listener?”.

In the concert at Newcastleton, I began with a very simple variation piece, Peacock’s “Highland Laddie”; mentioning that the 2nd part of the tune, is another melody called “Butter’d Peas” also from Peacock with the parts changed around. Instead of parts C and D, as in the Highland Laddie, they become parts A and B in Butter’d Peas.

With this example I began to mention my method for other variation pieces. I said “I began to chop up the variations into A and B parts, to make them more easily remembered, as well as giving them a life of their own, then when I had mastered the 2 parts, I joined them onto the variation piece once more”.

To demonstrate this I played Dixon’s “Highland Laddie” mentioning that I missed out the last 2 parts as I found it was “enough for me to play”. I wanted to say that musicians should play what feels comfortable to them, what they like and what they consider appropriate. There is no law that you must play all of the variations. Pick out the best parts and play those.

My next example was Bewick’s “Blackett O’Wylam” where I played all of the parts; followed by Peacock’s “Newmarket Races” where I only played the first 4 parts.
The next melody was Bewick’s “Sir John Fenwick’s” where I played all of the parts, and lastly I played Dixon’s “New Way to Bowden” where I played all the parts.

The concert was recorded and I will upload the recording at a later date.

Newcastleton Workshop 2017

It was my 3rd year running the Small pipe workshop at Newcastleton Folk Festival (always the 1st weekend in July). This year was different as a lot more people attended; in fact more people than sets of pipes. No way can I cater for everyone, I brought 5 sets of pipes and the group was good enough to double up during the workshop. I estimated 9 people came, as well as 3 others from the festival that had some role to play. 9 I thought was a nice size. I began by giving a talk about the construction, maintenance; and technique of blowing up the pipes; bag pressure; finger styles used with the small pipes, and bellows technique etc. and then a demonstration of what I hoped they would achieve from the workshop… to hold a note steady for 3 minutes.
Then I gave out the pipes for the students to try.

It is difficult to cater for the different age groups and sizes of the students. I made these pipes with my own body size in mind, but a young girl was there and she found them too big, and adults with a large waist was pulling the blowpipe out of its stock and due to the increase of girth. I am not sure how to cater for all the different sizes of people? It is a case of redesigning the pipes for workshops, something which might be difficult; and I guess, if they had more time, it would not be necessary, as they would master the correct position.

Another comment was that the bellow of a student was pinching into the student’s wrist, indicating that I should put padding around the edges of the bellows like the Irish piper’s bellows. I should have pointed out that the shape of the bellows is traditional and there was never any padding on the bellows cheek. What could be happening is that the posture of the student was not correct and this put the pressure on one side of the bellow, making the other side to rise and cut into the wrist. It is a case of the “beginner is always right and the instrument is wrong…” errrr no! If a student spent more time getting the basics right then they would see that the basic technique is important. They all seemed to be in a hurry to play…but without these techniques you cannot play.

To be fair on the student, what is required from them is nearly impossible, to master a technique that would normally take days to master. They have just over 1 hour. It is a tall order for anyone.

Another comment was that my pipes are quiet. Well small pipes are relatively quiet, I think what might be happening is that they hear pipes being played in a session, a Border pipe or a Scottish small pipe made by a highland maker (possibly the Reel pipes,) which are made for a Highland player, and these require more pressure and give out more volume, and they think all small pipes are the same, which they are not. My pipes are intended to give a quiet sound as I do not want 5 pipes playing loudly in a small room. They are meant for the student to listen too, but ideally not for the other students to hear them.

Another point I noticed was that the student wanted to play the chanter. So they ignored what I was saying in the introduction, that “if you can keep a steady pressure and play a steady note continually for 3 minutes, you have advanced a lot”. They immediately went for the chanter and seemed to think the pipes were at fault because they could not get a good sound. These things are natural of course, who would want to play 1 note for 3 minutes when more notes are there to try? But next time I might just start off with a chanter without holes, just a piece of tubing would have been more useful and if someone can get that right then give them a chanter to try. Most had difficulties in holding the chanter anyways, so it would be one less thing to worry about if the chanter was left to dangle and not to worry about covering the holes.

Over all I think the workshop went well. I improved my delivery to the students, and I learned more about how to present the small pipes as well as dealing with a bigger crowd.

Workshop: Newcastleton Folk Festival

This weekend, there will be a workshop (3rd year running) at Newcastleton Folk Festival in the Scottish Borders. It is for beginners, showing the basics of playing (bag pressure, holding a steady note etc.) how getting started on the small pipes. Some sets will be available for people who want to have a go, or bring your own if you want to start. More details will be given at the Festival Office, but the workshop will be on Sunday morning, about 10am and will officially last 2 hours (but in practice it continues!).

“Play Something English”

It’s all becoming a bit too much. Brexit and the media have released in people a bigotry that was hidden. A few occasions in the past 2 months I have gone busking to be faced with a mindless ignorance that comes from people who are prejudiced against foreigners.

These people seem to think the instruments I play (English concertina and the Border Pipes or the Northumbrian Small pipes) are foreign instruments and therefore I am foreign too.

The latest encounter happened yesterday. A young couple (who had a Lancashire accent) came up to me while I was busking with the English concertina. “Where are you from” he said. I replied I was from Carlisle. “O’ good as if you are a foreigner I would not give you any money”. As he said those words I pulled a face of disapproval, he noticed this and said “O’ I am not racist” he thought for a second and came back and put 1p into my box, he must have felt guilty!

Another occasion was when 4 kids, aged roughly 13-14, came past me while I was playing the Border pipes. One girl did not like the sound of the pipes and was shouting at me to stop, then screaming at me to stop, holding her hands over her ears and screaming, she kept on saying “play something English”. The 2 boys with her began to get annoyed so I decided to stop. I told them that with all their screaming they had no idea that this instrument was from this region and the tune I was playing was from Northumbria. They were actually de-crying their own culture. I told them they should get to know their own culture and music before they open their mouths.

Ok, they are young, bored teenagers, and as they hung around I learned that they had nowhere to go, and had no family as such; so they were looking for mischief. One other girl egged on the screamer to throw a pint glass of water over me, but she threw it on the ground instead in front of me.

Another experience was again when I was playing Border pipes and 2 young boys walked past and shouted “play something fucking English”, again I was playing a Northumbria melody on an instrument that was native to my area. These sorts of comments happen a lot.

A couple of years ago I was playing the Northumbria small pipes when 2 police men stopped me. One had a London accent the other was from Carlisle. The Londoner was obviously looking for a promotion, or to make his mark. He said derogatively “which country is that instrument from” I said “country or county? The Londoner looked confused, and that’s when the Cumbrian said to him “these are Northumbrian Small Pipes” the Londoner looked embarrassed and they both walked away.

When I sit and play the majority of people like my music. But when they approach me they always mouth the words “it is nice”, like I cannot understand them, some look at me as though they want to speak to me but feel I cannot understand English.

I can only draw from this that they see a busker and they see a foreigner. To tell you the truth I feel like a foreigner, as I do not recognize the prejudices that are on our streets these days.

Bandcamp: CDs

I have been re-looking at my Bandcamp site. It takes a lot of time to edit it.

I have re-mastered (as they say) the Border pipes CD “O’er the Dyke” and in doing so, it was like finding a lost manuscript, hidden in my archives. I had to re-understand what I was doing all those years ago while recording that CD, using the equipment I had back then. No such thing as DAWs as today, I used to record using a normal computer and its own sound programme. 2 computers to create 1 CD.

Technology moves so fast and now it is easier to record, edit and publish a CD using 1 computer and 1 programme. It takes a lot of time of course, days, weeks and months… but the actual recording can be done a lot quicker.

I have been working on 2 new CDs.

The 1st CD is of the Northumbrian Smallpipes: looking more closely at the Dixon manuscript, with their complex variations. And also I have been looking at various non-British melodies from Sweden, Spain, Belgium and France.

The reason for the mix of styles is a reflection of the countries that have influenced my music of the past 20 years. A CD has to be representative of what I am playing now, and what I am playing are melodies that are directly part of my life. Since I spend a lot of my time in Spain researching the bagpipe, I play a lot of Spanish bagpipe melodies, and since I visit Sweden I have collected 1 or 2 tunes from there… and so it goes on.

The 2nd CD is a concertina CD, with a doubling up of a mandolin on various tracks. The mandolin I started to play again after 30 years break. These tracks are a reflection of my busking activities in the UK and various duets I have been involved with in Spain. The style also covers a range of UK and Spanish melodies that work on the concertina (not all of them do work!). I had to learn a new repertoire on the concertina recently as one of the notes stopped working, so instead of transferring the existing melodies onto a new pitch, I learned a new repertoire in a different key.

These CDs I hope to have finished in December and January.

Northumbrian Smallpipes

This years Newcastleton Folk Festival (2016) was enjoyable for me, I played various pipes (Gaita, NSP, Border and Scottish Smallpipes) and played at a few concerts and gave my workshop on the Smallpipes.

I was asked to play at the opening concert in the Church, part of it was video’d. I played for about 30 minutes and I really enjoyed the atmosphere. The melodies are all traditional Northumbrian/Border mainly from the Peacock manuscript (1800)

Melody: Si Vas A La Romeria

This is a recording of a melody I did in 2015, in the UK. I was practicing an Asturian melody on the Galician chanter. The melody is called “Si Vas A La Romeria”; I learned it at Casa de Asturias, in Alcala de Henares, Spain. It is my own interpretation of the tune, and I guess I am putting a British “accent” on it… but I hope it is recognizable to the original!

“What is that?”

If you are reading this from outside of the UK you might not get the full weight of the statement when I say “it was sunny today”! A little bit of sun can make all difference, especially when one is busking with the gaita.

In the center of Carlisle this weekend there was an European Market, stalls mostly selling different foods from various countries/regions of Europe. Sadly, the music coming out of the stalls was of the nondescript type… so I took myself away from the center and down a back street. I took out the gaita and played…

Since I play mainly Asturian melodies these days I was scratching my head when I had exhausted my repertoire, but it is amazing how melodies that have not been played for several years come back quite effortlessly. I often remember another tune when I am half way through playing a melody, which makes me to quickly continue onto the next melody. In this way I can play one tune after another, with little break between melodies, with only a quick tune-up and off I go again.

Melodies popped into my head from Catalonia, Sanabria and Galicia, and I have been learning several Northumbrian melodies from the Peacock Collection that go well with the Galician chanter. Sometimes people stopped me and asked “what instrument is that? It is better than the bagpipe!” well there is a bag, and there is a pipe/chanter so how can it not be a bagpipe? but they mean the GHB anything else is not a bagpipe in their eyes. I have had this for years, when I started playing my NSP they used to ask the same questions, but today they know what the NSP is all about (a sign of progress I guess) but the definition of what is a bagpipe still needs some work!

I started playing at 12.15 and I stopped playing at 15.45, I did not repeat many melodies with in my set, but I began to get tired and I thought it was time to go home when I saw a big black cloud coming straight for me. It had rained once or twice while I was busking, but I continued playing through it and it quickly dried up. This one looked more substantial.

A nice way to spend a Bank Holiday, I hope I can do more like it…

Bowness-on-Solway Folk Session – and Full Bilges !

It was a wet night that I went down to the folk session at Bowness-on-Solway. I packed my concertina into a big black bag and cycled the 12 miles along waterlogged country roads. The weather in Cumbria has been particular wet these day (if oyu have been keeping an eye on the news you will have seen the flooding). I expected a bit of flooding on the roads so I was prepared to slow down and judge the situation, but as there was no moon and it was very dark I could not see the pieces of road that was underwater…the section of road which I was not prepared for.

Getting to the session I was a little late as I had to make a call in to see Sadaf. She has been sitting on her keels for 7 weeks and had been checked only a few times. She was ok, and has been ok amazingly over the weeks with all the flooding and rain. She leaks water above the sea-line from an unknown spot, it is rainwater and generally there is a trickle in the bilges, but because of the amount of rain we have had she has been full.

When i got there she was full too. I was surprised to see how much water had gotten into the bilges. It was not up to the cushions, but up to the floorboards. The only difference I could see that could account for the increase in water, was the front cover/plastic had blown off and rain was getting in from the fore section…I do not know from where?

Bailing her out took some time, each section had about 2 big buckets of rainwater to sponge out, and there was 5 sections. The area underneath the cockpit was dry! So I am thinking the leak is towards the front of the cabin. I will have to make some checks.

The Bowness folk session begins at 8.30pm and I just got there in time, the musicians were there and the pub was nice and warm to dry my coat. It is nice and relaxed, playing a mixture of southern English, Northumbrian, Scottish and locally penned songs/tunes. The songs are dominant and the guy who writes them was getting good responses to his humor. Besides the local musicians a guy called Steve came with his guitar to sing: and some tunes were played from the Playford’s manuscript.

The session ends roughly when they sing the “Haaf Netters Song” with audience participation, is has become a bit of a ritual there.

The session ended about 11pm.

Then the long cycle home, with the rain in my eyes, somewhere along the route I got a puncture, but the tired stayed up enough to get me home. I could hear the roar from the sea as it raced into the estuary.

Small Pipe Workshop in Hexham

The Small pipe workshop went really well last Saturday in Hexham (Northumbria). The students engaged with the exercises very well and I think got a lot out of it…well I know they did. I got good feedback from them and the boss of Core Music, who ran the event. I would like to do more events there, and do a follow up workshop for the Small pipes, as I feel the students wanted to go further with their playing. They managed to get a regular bellow technique; they got 2 drones in harmony and the beginnings of a steady chanter note, not bad for 3 hours. Northumbrian/closed fingering was popular; I guess Scottish Small pipe fingering is more popular over the border. If lessons could be held regular then I feel they could advance quickly.

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!

Busking and Begging

When I finally emerged into the tunnel it was late morning. I had not intended to go playing at all, but I positioned myself underneath the arches, where there is a good echo, and played Northumbrian small pipes. I play to practice, to play melodies; I gave up doing it for money long ago when the money dried up. I keep my brain active by playing all the tunes I know. This is an ever changing format, new tunes come and go and I revise them all the time.

These days I am memorizing Peacocks tunes, I hammer them into my memory by playing them over and over again, busking helps to play them well, as it is a performance, and I have to get it right. It is good to play new tunes, it refreshes the set, and it puts new life into an old rehearsed format. I rework the notes, rhythms, and style. I play them fast, slow and everything between, a reel becomes a hornpipe, a slip jig a jig then becomes a waltz… a hornpipe a slow air… I am free to improvise.

As the morning wore on I noticed out the corner of my eye another busker with a guitar standing at the other end of the tunnel, I cannot hear him, but it is cheeky. Normally a busker would not be down here standing so close, there is not the space for 2 musicians. In fact I have never seen another busker there for many years. No one goes there, it is not a good place to make money and it is dirty and dark. But he was singing with his guitar, moving positions, and stopping a lot. Then he was gone.

After a break at 2pm I went back to play a little more. I get tired from standing, and I play until I cannot stand much longer. After a few minutes I notice a few meters away a man, it is like he is on his holidays with a carrying case and bags. It looks like he is arranging his case, but he sits on the floor and there he stays.
He is homeless, he is begging, he just sits there a few paces away.

What to think? This is not the first time a homeless person has sat in this tunnel while I am playing. On one occasion it was nasty, the person had once threatened to “stick a knife in me” if I came back, and a few days later he had knifed another homeless person in the park. Others have told me to “fuck off”, but only this one had sat. I played on. I noticed a couple of his friends hanging around; a man passed and whispered “careful of your case”. Things where turning serious. I played on. No abuse, no threatening movements only silence, only looking on … waiting. As time went on more lost people where hanging around. The park is well known for homeless people at night.

I was called a “beggar” in the early 80s while playing. Thankfully those days are gone; I think people realize playing music is not an easy thing to do on the streets. And I have only had abuse from drunks and drug addicts this then. I guess some people see me also as a “beggar” as a “homeless person” but I am neither.
In the end I moved off, I had played enough, this man was turning a dirty tunnel into something else… something where music is not welcome. I better quit while I still had pipes to play.

I packed up and passed him. I thought him a fool; he chose a place where he would make no money… I was making it. He could have gone to the other end, but he sat in the dirt and dog piss, where he would make nothing while I was there.  When I passed him he looked at me and I at him, he was the type who did not look after himself, a drunk and waist.er Let’s hope he gets lifted and put into a home… like so many others who had sat in his place. It is cruel to be kind as that is no life for anyone.

 I wandered into the center of town, a large merry-go-round was pumping out music… was this the reason why the other busker had come down to the tunnel, to escape the noise? I heard a brass band playing amongst the noise, then they stopped, a police man had stopped them and told them to move… recorded music is ok but live music is not. They were 5 people from Rumania; they looked confused and lost, wandering off down the street with nowhere to play, it was time to go home.

Rothbury Folk Festival 2015

The weekend started on the Thursday before the weekend by going through to Newcastleton, getting up early morning and going to Hexham and playing Northumbrian small pipes for 3 hours in the shopping precinct. Luckily there was not much disturbance and I played ok and got some good responses… always a bit uncertain as Northumbrian pipes in Northumbrian can be a bit like teaching English to the English! Before we left Hexham I visited a music shop (also music co-operative) where I knew they held workshops, I asked about holding my “Small pipe workshop” there, I had a positive response.

Then onto Rothbury Folk Festival, we got there about 5pm set up the tent and headed off for a session in the Queens Head pub. Due to a lot of background noise I opted for the Border pipes tunes.

Saturday was a quick listen to the town pipe band, then the Andy May Trio on the village stage, then off to the piper’s competition in the hall. It was full of people and a good turnout of performers. This year there was Border pipes competition. Listening to the Northumbrian pipers beginners and intermediate performers I noticed a lack of “drone tuning” therefore the pipes sounded horrible “TUNE YOUR DRONES TO THE CHANTER”  it is basic stuff, the judges need to be more strickt about this.

After the duets we headed off to a small room above the Newcastle pub and played a few sets. It was funny really as Border pipers sat in one end of the room and the northumbrian pipers sat in the other end… they did not mix… of course they were friends, but musically there was no common ground. Different tunings (A verses F) loud and soft… except for a few tunes in G (one G border pipe and some had G Northumbrian).

Then off to the Queen’s again for an evening session. This lasted until about 01.30am for me then I wandered off back to the tent. Then a strange thing happened about an hour later I had strong car headlights on my tent, voices calling out “are you in there”. One of my fears in a car/tented campsite is that I get run over by drunken drivers. This seemed to be happening with a car nearly on top of me. I stuck my head out of the tent and there was a police car. They kindly shone a strong beam of light deliberately into my face and asked me “I had seen Andy, who wears a green arm cast?” I replied to the negative. There had been a police helicopter above wakening everyone up and I guess the infrared camera had singled me out as I walked home.

The Sunday was a good small session in the Queen’s lots of varied music and a mixture of styles and instruments and song, I played Northumbrian small pipes more here due to the lack of background noise.
An excellent weekend.

Newcastleton Folk Festival 2015 (review)

I had a different, and in many ways a better festival this year. I did not attend the sessions like I normally do. I found last year a bit frustrating with all the noise (drunks not music) and a lack of places to play (for quieter instruments) all added to me walking aimlessly around. This year was different the organizers had added new venues to the places to play, one was a “quiet room” not in the main square (away from the pubs) but where you could have a tune. Also there were fewer drunks there this year and possibly less musicians (?) so I could find places to play.

I found the marquee empty on a Saturday morning so I played my Northumbrian small pipes, I played and played and slowly people began to sit down, after 2 hours of playing the tent was getting full, a few more musicians arrived and added more… then I left, found another piper and played on the grass (Border pipes and Scottish small pipes) and spoke to some people about the festival, piping and things in general. I met with a Northumbrian piper and had a few tunes together.

The after-hours sessions were great, songs and music, which went on until the early hours (got to bed 3am both nights) and on the Sunday night the “survivors session” we finally got out at 5.30am… and excellent sessions (I even sang while playing the pipes… a rare occasion).

The workshop went well, 10am to 12.30pm was useful to the students and myself (I even got a hug off one of them) what was apparent was the lack of contact the individual pipers had (isolation) and no advice or after care help; something they found the workshop was useful for. After the workshop we chatted and played until about 4pm!

I learn a lot too about my pipes and the adjustments I need to make, but the comments about the pipes were good and positive. I will make some mouth blown pipes too incase they will be needed. I will look for more festivals in the future and other venues to attract the students.

Completed Small Pipes for Newcastleton Folk Festival 2015

There are 7 completed Small pipes for the Newcastleton Folk Festival. I have covered most of the bellows with a fabric except for 2 of them.

Bubinga chanter, cherry and cedar drones. The bellows were donated by a friend this is the only item that I did not make.

Indian Red Wood chanter and drones, the deeper colour on the chanter is due to oiling. The bellows I made in 1994 in Lithuania

Bubinga chanter and drones, cedar wood decoration on drones

Cherry chanter and drones, walnut wood decorations on drones

Bubinga chanter, cherry drones with Indian red wood decorations

Indian red wood chanter and drones, cherry wood decorations on drones, cedar wood decoration on chanter

Cedar chanter and drones, this was the first bagpipe I made in Spain in 2014

Bagpipe Society Blowout, 2015

It was my first time at the ‘blowout’ (Polesworth, Tamworth, England) in a beautiful surrounding of the Abbey. Each piping culture has its traditions and this was a new tradition for me. Here there was a different style and feeling about the music, pipes, people and events, perhaps a more European style or perhaps an ‘English” style. I say English as it is a reinvention of a tradition that died out. And the reintroduction of the tradition has established a very firm and loyal group of people to their type of music.

I was expecting a heavy influence of French music, but I was surprised to see a good mix of styles in the form of workshops and concerts: Northumbrian/Borders; Occitan from the French Pyrenees; Hungarian; Irish; Welsh… these music’s were played on a type of bagpipe that I have a problem in naming.

They call it a “Border pipe” but I cannot see where their border is exactly? The majority played a type of pipe similar to the French/Belgium bagpipe: mouth blown or bellows blown, conical bored chanter, 2 drones, over-blown into a 2nd octave. Not so loud, plastic reeds, no African Blackwood in sight (made a nice change too) therefore the sound was mellow, perhaps they could call it a “French-Anglo Pipe” as the makers are English and the pipe is modeled on the French/Belgium style.

The makers present (selling their pipes) were in the main hall alongside a Society stall, a flute maker, an Occitan maker. Zampogna maker. There was a 2nd hand section of music books, CDs, cassettes…

One of the workshops I attended was a ‘beginner’s workshop’ to sort out teething problems players were having. This was very informative as it gave me a chance to see how the workshop was structured (with relation to my own workshop); I was also looking for some advice about my Spanish gaita as it was sharp in the bottom notes.  It came apparent that the information was only for a select type of pipes from a select few pipe makers. A general knowledge was not there of conical bored pipes.  The Society was open to all pipes but in reality (at this blowout in particular) only certain types of pipes were represented. Sometimes it felt like if you did not have a bagpipe from a certain type of maker then you were excluded from activities and advice, there was no advice about the Gaita. Also it presumed that because I had “asked the question” that I did not know anything about pipes or conical bored pipes, and I was told to go and “ask (someone) and you will find that the pipes are fine” (meaning “it is you who is wrong” well it seems I know as much as the person who is giving the advice, as he did not know either, a little condescending I thought).

The only sessions available were in D or G, G being the more popular of the 2. G pipes are common in French music, a large bass G. Which is fine, they sounded beautiful. But there are other pipes and I would have liked to have seen a session where any type of pipe could have been played… a few people had brought their sackpipa (key on A minor), , Spanish gaita (C),  , I had with me bagpipes in A minor, C, A major, D, F, and C minor… but no G. I did attend the Irish workshop which was in D, but others I could not. This did not lesson my interest. Other pipes present were a Welsh Pibgorn (D), Leistershire Small pipe (D), Italian Zampogna and there was a Dudy from the Czech/Slovak regions.

The D session on the Saturday was titled “English Session” this apparently is a new occurrence as only English melodies are played (I did not know this at the time and I played a Catalan melody which was met with a silence). After I realized my “mistake” I tried to play along with the English melodies, which there was a lot of. This was the biggest surprise of the weekend, a firm selection of English tunes were being played by all. The Northumbrian tunes came at the end of the night when they had played out all the English tunes. This is great as it establishes a firm melody base of for an English tradition, and leaves the Northumbrian tradition a little apart (which I feel is more accurate as it is more akin to the Scottish/English Border tradition).

Another surprise for me was the Occitan music and bagpipes. 2 makers from the French side of the Pyrenees were offering their instruments for sale, CDs, workshops and concerts. It was a music I only knew a little about (and only recently). They seemed to have a cross-over from the Catalan and Aragon side of the Pyrenees with the Sac de Gemecs (made from a fruit wood, a type of apple) and the Gaita de Boto (complete with snakeskin and girls dress). But also they had their own type of pipes a very large bagpipe in F with a large drone with a knitted “flecco” (decoration). A shepherd’s bagpipe without a drone, deep sound, sad sound, lovely (I had heard this on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees). And the Boha bagpipe with the drone apart of the chanter which can play 2 notes… (Therefore is it really a drone?). Also there was a variant of this having 2 melody pipes and 1 ‘drone’ built into the chanter, single reeds, polyphonic sound.

In the sessions I heard the Welsh Pibgorn, a dingle reeded instrument, 1 octave mouth blown with a distinctive sound, a beautiful decorated horn cut away at the bottom of the chanter, with cylindrical bored chanter.  Their melodies were not dissimilar to a Breton tune, in a minor mode.

The Hungarian duo (pipes and hurdy gurdy) were fantastic players, (I had seen them at the Piping Live Festival in Glasgow a few years previous) tight in their music and ‘tuning’ (an important lesson for us all). Played beautifully with traditional and composed pieces, improvisations and structured parts. The pipes were not so dissimilar to the Occitan Boha. With the Hungarian ’suggesting’ that the Boha was taken from their pipes. They look similar… but who’s came first is a question too far…

My final observation of the weekend was that there is a danger of the “small pipes” becoming obsolete in time due to their quiet nature. Those who had them were drowned out by the conical chanters. This is a reflection of what is happening in sessions too all over the country. If you are “not heard”, why play them? The highland pipe makers are increasing the volume of the “session small pipes” but not so with pipe makers (although there are exceptions). Perhaps the small-pipes need to become more assertive, and insist the venues, meetings, and festivals are predominantly ‘small-pipe sessions’ the same way the ‘English Session’ has become?

Half-Long Pipes: Dixon Melodies

Since 1991 my Half-long pipes have never played correctly mainly due to excess of air needed to keep a pressure in the bag suitable for playing.

Recently I have done some modifications to the drone bore (narrowed it), chanter holes (made them smaller) , and used larger bellows; the result being a in tune chanter of 440c in the key of A, a bag pressure which is slight, and a bellow action that does not have me flapping around like a scared bird.

I have been concentrating on a few melodies to get me back into playing them in a public environment. The melodies are taken from the Dixon manuscript (1733), which is written for the Border pipes.

The titles are:
“Jack Lattin” playing the variations from 1-8;
“The New Way to Bowden” with variations 1-5;
“Mock the Soldier’s Lady” with variations 1-4;
“Dixon’s Highland Laddie” with variations 1-5;

Newcastleton Folk Club

Newcastleton Folk Club is on every 4th Tuesday of the month, just over the Scottish Border. I have been going for a few months and enjoying it a lot. There is a nice mix of singers and instrumentalists, with a mixture of ballads, modern songs, humorous songs and the odd poem.

The musicians always have an element of piping as one of the organizers (Dave) is a small piper, and has been introducing the larger French-Anglo pipe and the Swedish Sackpipa into the mix. I play my Northumbrian and Scottish Small pipes, and this time I was joined with a fiddler and guitarist. There are a few guitarists generally to accompany songs or to perform solo. Other times there have been Irish pipes, mandolins, mandolas, and a whistle.

There is a rotation of music, so everyone gets a chance to play/sing. This week I played 3 sets on the Scottish Small pipes, the first being composed of 2 Lowland Scots tunes “Now Westlin Winds” and the “The Gallowa Hills”; the second set was made up of 3 Northumbrian tunes “Neil Gow, Chevy Chase, and Frisky”.

The next set of tunes was on the Northumbrian Small pipes, I played 2 tunes called “Bonny at Morn” and “Fairly Shot on Her”

The last set was on the Scottish Small pipes, which was accompanied by a guitarist and violin player. The tunes were “The Rowan Tree” and the “When the Battle’s O’er”, 2 Highland pipe tunes.

To Record or Not to Record… that is the question?

Talking to Liz (the organizer of the Newcastleton Folk Club) we discussed the pros and cons of recording the folk club session. This prompted me to write my thoughts on recording music in public, whether it is a session, concert or festival.

Personally, I do not have a problem with it. I have been recorded, videoed etc. before, some have asked permission, some have not. It is always nicer to ask, not for the permission, but to make contact with the performer. Some occasions do not permit this (concerts, festivals) others do (buskers). The microphone placed in front of someone changes the dynamic of the performance. It puts a ‘barrier’ between you and the performer and it put the performer under a certain ‘obligation’ to ‘perform, thus creating a ‘false’ situation, and it can often take away the true, honest, heartfelt performance one is after in the first place!

So what are our motives for recording at all? Most who record will probably not listen to their recordings. Some might occasionally listen to them, and some will record for a reason. Very few we imagine record to make any commercial profit from it. Most will up load a few pieces of music on to Soundcloud, or Youtube… and others might listen to it in their own homes.

So why are people not willing to be recorded, or are ‘afraid’ of being recorded? Are they afraid of the internet? Are they afraid of being ‘used’? Is the material that they are singing or playing really ‘theirs’ in the first place? When we are playing/singing a particular tradition (folk, traditional, world, ethnic) we are passing on what we have learned and loved. Why should not we pass it on to a bigger audience? If someone thinks you are good enough to be recorded and put up on the internet then is that so bad? Perhaps we give too much importance to social media, it is just a video after all… it is only a recording?

As an ethnomusicologist I have recorded in many situations, solo performers, festivals, official paid recordings, ‘secret under the table’ recordings… etc. I have recorded for years, I have always recorded music. My first experiences of Newcastleton Folk Festival in the 1980s have been recorded, and I recorded others who are now dead and gone. This is the main reason why I record as events and people pass away, and styles change and repertoire change. I find it very interesting to listen to my recordings years later; I find it very interesting to other peoples recordings, the early bagpipers of the 1900s recorded on wax cylinders for example.

Of course there are ethics to do this… but if your intension is to record your event, to capture your experiences then one should do it. So how should we do it? If I had a Folk Club I would make it known that occasionally these events will be recorded and photographed… not all the time, not to put people off… and occasionally it will be uploaded with the person’s permission… when it is ok to do so for the performer for the context of the occasion.  If this is known to all then they can choose to say “I do not want my recording publicized” and that is fine, end of story. It is cutesy to be asked but if the performance is in the public domain (pub, festival, concert) then I think it is ok to record that event, to archive it for history.

If anyone is really interested in music then who would not want to know what traditional music sounded like in 1733 or in 1843? I know I would, how would a Half-long bagpipe sound in 1733 playing the Dixon manuscript? For them it would have been normal but today, we have no idea what that tradition really sounded like? Today we have an opportunity to tell future generations what it sounded like, why loose that opportunity? You might think “the BBC and Virgin are recording it all” but that is not the point, they are not recording everything and they are not making it ‘yours’ by physically recording you are making it personal, you are a part of it all.. You are adding to a tradition, helping it, preserving it.

Small-Pipe Workshop Update at Newcastleton Folk Festival

The progress is slow but sure, I have 6 bellows at the moment, some have been donated (one by David, the organizer of the Newcastleton Folk Club, many thanks to him) and others I have made; so there will be at least 6 sets of pipes on the day for beginners to use.

I would also like people who already have a set of small-pipes but do not play them/cant play them, but wish to do so to come along also, it is all about getting you started, sorting out the beginners problems that we have all gone through. So if you know of someone who has given up trying to play or has a set in the box at home which have been put away in frustration ! encourage them to come to the workshop.

Players who have Northumbrian sets we will be using the big drone at first (the D/C drone) this will be compatible with the sets I am making in D. Scottish Small-pipers are generally in A or D so a harmony can be achieved… all this can be sorted out, the workshop is about bellows technique, bag pressure, keeping the instrument stable, getting all parts in harmony, and obtaining a scale in tune with the drones, and if there is time left a melody

if you wish to contact me regarding the workshop or anything to do with piping can do so at tilbsuk@yahoo.com

!

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 

Gaitas at Christmas

The cold is affecting the gaita, it takes about 15 minutes to warm the reed up and to settle the drone reed, until then it is unstable. 

When it settles down I start with a mix of Asturian and Catalan melodies, a few from Zamora and I am now slowly introducing melodies from Galician and Northumbria. 
The melodies are well received by the general public, whether it is the new sound I do not know but they seem to like the melodies, which is encouraging. 
I am playing a Galician chanter in D, this is bought in Madrid and has a high pitched sound. The reed is constantly changing due to the damp and cold, so I have to alter it until it becomes stable, but when it is stable it has a nice contrast with the bass drone. This drone is from a Highland Bagpipe, the big bass drone, it sounds a D (440c)… , in fact I bought this Highland bagpipe in India in 1995 while I was there researching music. There is a metal tongued drone reed but it does not seem stable in the beginning, probably due to the large bore size of the Highland drone…  I need to make the bore smaller. 

I added “fleco” to the drone… a typical decoration that the Spanish bagpipes have. The drone sits across my arm (not over my shoulder) like the Border pipes; I did this because the drone was being scraped against the wall so it was not practical for playing.

Gaita in Sanse (Madrid)

Last night, coming back from the city of mega-stores that are just outside the city of Madrid, we were sitting on the bus heading back to Alcobendas, when my friend suddenly pulling me off the seat and pushing me towards the door. I was a little surprised but I went with the flow. Once on the streets in an area commonly called ‘Sanse’  she led me back up the street and I thought maybe she wanted to return to the mega-store complex that we had just come, but there was method in her madness and very good reason it was too, as on the street corner there stood a busker playing Galician pipes. She had spotted the player while passing and was so excited that she could not tell me in so many words.

He played a gaita with 1 drone over his shoulder and by the look of his ‘open-fingering´technique a Galician chanter. We spoke with him and it was a Galican bagpipe. The single drone variety is an older type, very similar to the Asturian gaita, Gaita de Fole (Portuguese),and gaita Sanabresa, but what makes it different is the finger style as the Asturian gaita use a ‘closed fingering’ not so dis-similar to the Scottish bagpipes. The bottom hand has certain notes closed, whereas the Galican (and others mentioned) use open-fingering and plays like a Pennie-whistle.

He was from a village just outside of Madrid and he came to do some shopping and afterwards was busking. It seemed an odd place to busk on the corner of a noisy street with buses and cars passing but the volume of the gaita cut over all of the traffic noise. He found out that I was from Northern England and then played “Danny Boy” and Irish song/melody then “Amazing Grace” and Scottish melody/song. He played a Galician melody which he said was also internationally well know which it was but I am not sure its title. The internationalism of the music and instrument is becoming more common, people are getting to know each others music and instruments thanks to these international folk festivals, radio, travel, and people taking the time to play on the streets and share music with everyone who passes, and yes, he made some money too.

The Border Bagpipe Practise

In view of a forthcoming concert in Catalonia in July I connected the Border pipe chanter into my mouth blown ‘hybrid’ bagpipe bag to practise some tunes; it sounded ok after adjustments to the Galician reed. The bottom notes sound strong and clear, but the top notes sound croaky and not distinct. I took the glue out of the 7th hole (which made it play a flattened 7th note) and practised cross-fingering the 7th to get the flattened note, this allowed me to obtain a sharpened 7th with open-fingering as some of the melodies I am learning require both notes. I played Border tunes mainly in 9/8 a few slow airs from the “Border Bagpipe Book”, then I finished the day with melodies from Bewick and Peacock. With the one bass drone (cane reed) sounding just over my shoulder the chanter and the drone blended beautifully together…a joy to play.

New Melodies for the Border Pipes

I am beginning to learn new melodies on the Border Pipes for the concert in Catalonia in July. I normally play a mixed bag of melodies from Peacock and Bewick with a few Highland tunes as well as the occasional European melody, but now I am concentrating on music from the Scottish and English Borders from the “O’er the Hills and Far Away” (ohfa) and the “Dixon Manuscript” tune books, these tunes have a very different feel to the Northumbrian as they have the flattened 7th note (a G natural, with my A pipes), and the use of notes fall easier to the fingers.
The melodies I am working upon now are:
“An thou were my ain thing” (Dixon)
“Green Bracken” (ohfa)
“The Lad that Keeps the Cattle” (ohfa)
“Gallowa Hills” (ohfa)
“Now Westlin Winds” (ohfa)
“Kelso Lasses” (ohfa)
“The Wedding O’Blyth” (ohfa)
“All Night I lay with Jockey in my Arms” (ohfa)
“Stool of Repentance” (Dixon)
“Dorrington Lads” (Dixon)
“Gingling Geordie” (Dixon)

Making a Scottish Small Pipe Chanter

My need to play indoors in Spain requires me to have a quieter chanter that has a flattened 7th note. My Northumbrian Small Pipes have a sharpened 7th and my Border pipes have both but they are too loud for a small room with neighbours. So I bought a hard wood called “Santa Rosa” a deep red wood, beautiful colouring that slowly turns a darker colour as time passes. I began by boring the wood end to end with the lathe, and achieved nearly a perfect bore with only slight wandering of the drill bit.
Then put it in the lathe and turned it down to a workable size.

Turned piece of Santa Rosa Hardwood


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.

Penrith Concert 20.12.11 Final Night

The Final night of the Penrith Concert was a lot better than the previous night. The audience were more livelier, laughing and participating with the performers, also the performers were in a better mood, livelier and more energetic, I do not know why and who was influencing who?
I changed my set that night, I included 2 different melodies to the first set of tunes: Chevy Chase (a Border Ballad tune)  /Mallorca / Hexham Races. These are tunes that I have played for years but they are also tunes I am sure of and are probably know to the audience. 
When I play I tend to do 18th century melodies which are not very popular but I thought tonight to ‘play to the audience’ and to get used to performing on stage once more, not to compete with myself as I normally do by playing new tunes to an audience who will not recognize them. When I play on the streets it is good to play new and obscure melodies as not many are listening and I can practise these melodies, but I am there on stage to entertain others not myself, so the classics are performed, melodies they can sing a long too and recognize.
On this last night also I felt more confident with the stage and performing. I was changing the melodies and I wanted to play solo, I wanted to ‘play with the microphones’ too, to change the rhythms a little make them more lyrical and expressive.

Penrith Theatre Concert,19.12.11

The Charity “Music Vision” was booked into Penrith’s Theatre for two nights. I was to play a selection of tunes on the Northmubiran Small Pipes in the 2ndhalf. The theatre went back to 1928 and possibly before due to the black and white photographs back stage. The acoustics were good and the stage had ample room compared to Cumwhitten Hall. 

“Music Vision” did their set and other performers came on stage too some local to Penrith, I came on 2nd to last and played the same set as Cumwhitten but with guitar accompaniment. I felt the tunes were beginning to be a little fast for my taste, and it was difficult to hold it back on stage. The tempo of the tunes were good for dancing: waltz tempo and reels etc, but I was after a different sound. The melodies are dance melodies but since no one was dancing why play them as such? I wanted to slow them down and bring out the lyrical quality, the slightly held notes and vibrato using the microphone’s reverb. This I could not to a dance rhythm as well. 

There was a different mood, the audience were a little ‘flat’ no energy and lethargic and I also felt the musicians were too, perhaps after the good response everyone had on Friday it was a little hard to follow. But I felt I played well and the audience clapped a long under reduced steam for my set. Every night is different when performing and I think every audience should not be taken for granted, also there was little alcohol and I think for Cumbrian audiences is a major factor!

Cumwhitton Concert 16.12.11

I was invited to play a small village hall on the outskirts of Carlisle, (UK) called Cumwhitton. The hall reminded me of my early music days of practising on stage no bigger than a postage stamp, tripping over wires and microphone stands. Tables were lay out and the hall could take 90 people (in fact there was well over 100), as people arrived it was clear there would be a lot more and they brought their own drink it was going to be lively.

The concert was in aid of the local Charity “Music Vision” who encouraged people, mainly with disabilities to sing and perform, they did a wonderful thing, and some of the people were severely handicapped but performed with conviction and feeling. The performers were all local, age ranging from 13 to over 65, some suffered from nerves better than others. 

Three school girls opened the performances by playing in a group singing songs and one was playing drums. The other school children who had meant to perform backed out as the school and Health and Safety imposed a lot of rules and regulations, insurance and other stupid laws (shame on them) and I guess the parents did not let them come, how stupid and pathetic can they be? Other singers had good voices, one 15 year old girl sang wonderfully.
There was a poetry reading, songs, solo guitarist, bands, and a Compare who had a more of her body out of her dress than in it. Good audience participation, jokes, moving recitals, and I did my performance on the Northumbrian Small Pipes. The tunes were: Mallorca/Wards Brae; Ye Banks and Braes of Bonny Doon/Believe me If All Those Endearing Young Charms/Bonny Lad; they were well recieved with the audience keeping time by banging on the tables.

Piping Live Festival 2011

In August I attended the annual “Piping Live” Festival in Glasgow. I was more interested in the European performers than the Highland Bagpipes so I recorded the music of Greek, Croation, Spanish and German musicians. There was also music from the Northern Irish Uilleann pipers as well as Border Pipes and of course Scottish pipes. here are a few videos of the events. A song from the Highland tradition played on Scottish Small Pipes.

An Irish Uilleann Piper fresh in from the USA

A Spanish/Galician Gaita demonstrating a rare type of instrument due to its high pitched small drone and untempered tuning.

and 3 young Uilleann pipers from Northern Ireland.

Radio Cumbria Interview

It took a while in getting but I finally got a copy of the interview I did at Radio Cumbria a few weeks back. I include it here. It went well I told the basics i think, about the Northumbrian Pipes, the Border piping tradition we have in the Scottish Borders and a little about the music that is played in those parts. Besides the interview there are 3 melodies and I added some pictures to the interview.

"Radio Radio…"

The recent interview at Radio Cumbria was a recording for annual Robert Burns’ night, which is taking place at the end of January. The interviewer asked me about the Northumbrian pipes the Border tradition of piping and the melody of one of Burn’s melodies “The Banks and Braes of Bonny Doon”. The event got me thinking of other radio sessions I have done. Besides this one, I have another Radio Cumbria interview that was done while busking in Carlisle. A radio presenter came across me busking and happened to have his DAT recorder with him and recorded an interview about the pipes and I played a few tunes, this recording I have put on the end of my 2 CDs.

Another radio interview about the pipes was done in Istanbul, Turkey in the late 90s. I had brought my pipes to Istanbul as I was involved with a few folk musicians and I was spending a lot of time there and needed the pipes to practise and to keep in contact with my north UK roots. I did not know what was happening but one day at the conservatoire a Turkish piper turned up and invited me to be interviewed on a radio programme. I was invited along to the Radio Istanbul studios, which was in a back street in Taksim, and there beside me was another piper. He was Turkish and he played the Tulum, a Turkish bagpipe from the north east of Turkey near Georgia, Azerbaijan and along the Black Sea. It is mouth blown and has no drone, only a bag and 2 melody pipes in one stock and a wooden ‘horn’ at the end of the chanters. The holes in the chanters are not the same so when played it has the effect of having 2 melodies played at once. The radio programme was about these 2 pipes, their comparisons; we both played a few tunes and chatted about construction etc.

Another radio interview was when I was playing in a band in Amsterdam. “The Lonesome Pump Attendants” were a 3 piece band whose members were once in the “Red Aligatorz” a rock-a-Billy group from Cumbria, UK. When the Aligatorz split, the singer and I moved to Amsterdam playing skiffle songs with guitar and t-chest bass. Later the double bass player from the Aligatorz came over and the 3 of us played in Amsterdam for about 6 months, touring all over Holland. The radio interview was recorded in a squat/pirate radio station. A New Zealand biker did the interview with his Dutch assistant. WE performed 3-4 songs and I remember the first song when the presenter asked us to play he did not know how loud we were, his recording nearly blew his speakers!

The last radio interview was with the Red Aligatorz in Carlisle, again Radio Cumbria in the early 80s, with the presenter asking about the band and the gigs etc. I remember it being a lot of fun…but not sounding so cleaver!

Border Variations

The world at 8am is a dark and dangerous place for a cyclist heading for Carlisle on the Wigton road, it is rush hour and it is the main road linking several towns along the west coast of Cumbria with lorries roaring past, cars, vans and one lone cyclist all heading for Carlisle in the dark with rain beating down and an icy wind on my back. I caught the 9.10am bus to Langholm, about 20 miles over the Scottish border, where I was to meet 2 Border pipers for a session of playing traditional melodies of those parts. One piper lives in Langholm and the other comes from Hawick, we play generally from 10am until 2.30pm with a small break where we enjoy a soup and a chat. The melodies we play are a mixture of different tune books but all are traditional Border melodies with variations. I am a new comer to the group and I add my share of melodies from Peacock and Bewick to the eclectic mix. I sight read where I can to join in, I am not so bad in sight reading but I loose my way with the speed they play and the variations that are still unfamiliar to me. The variations are very particular to the Border piping repertoire, sometimes runs and arpeggios are reproduced in other melodies and after playing a dozen or so, one can see patterns, clearly formulating a style to these types of tunes. Often a melody can be found in a different manuscript under a different title, possibly suggesting that a common melody travelled well but that the names were not passed on. The main manuscript to be used is the once forgotten “Dixon Manuscript” brought to light again by Matt Seattle who reprinted it for general use. The style of the melodies are very different to the Scottish Highland pipe tunes or to other melodies from the UK and Ireland, they have virtually no grace notes written in to the score, whether they were played in a systematic fashion is hard to tell there is no reference either way, but the general thought is that they were played in a more “Northumbrian/Border” style with little gracing. When I started playing the Border pipes I found the variations difficult to enjoy, in fact I did not play them, but now I see them as being a part of my tradition, an important part of our ‘style’ and part of my culture. Variations look a little like ‘practise pieces’ one finds in music tutors, as though a pupil learns an instrument and has a series of finger exercises before the main melody begins. On the surface it looks like they are just a series of arpeggios and runs, less melodic and more rhythmic in style, a series of repetitions and an unusual use of the 7th note (flattened or sharpened) that in theory is used as a passing note not an important part of the melodic structure, when played this 7th note should clash with the drones but it gives it ‘its’ sound, the particular sound of Border piping. It takes a while to get use to this sound, these runs and repetitive arpeggio use, but when it does get into your mind and heart it is captivating and it is a window into a lost world into the music of the Scottish borders.

Coming home the wind was in my face and it took me ages to cycle home, when I did I flopped in front of the fire and to pass the time got out the concertina and played some tunes that I had memorized trying to add harmonies to the bare melodies. I play mainly 3rds and 5ths to the main melody notes trying to add a harmony where appropriate.

After dinner I went back to the Border pipes and made some changes that I had noticed in the afternoon: making them louder by opening the reed, trying to get them closer to concert pitch “A” but realising that the top notes were too sharp and so it needed flattened by pulling the reed out but this would make the chanter flatter, it could not be helped, an ‘in-tune’ chanter is better than one that is half in tune! So I will have to make do with a chanter that is just below concert pitch and hope it will not make too much difference. I also tried playing melodies from memory, so building a repertoire. In all it was a good day full of music.

Tuning the Border Pipes

Today I got the Border pipes out of their old battered suitcase. It is a while since I played them and since I am having a session over the border in Langholm, Scotland tomorrow, I thought to get ready and dust of the fingers and try and remember some tunes. Remember I did, it all comes back after a few failed attempts, I played mainly Peacock melodies some new ones too. As usual I altered the reeds as I am trying to get the chanter in tune with the drones as close as I can to concert pitch “A” (440c), this is to blend in as much as possible with the other 3 pipers who will be turning up tomorrow also I wish to play with other musicians in time and the need to be compatible with other instruments is becoming quite important. I have played solo on the pipes for years and although it is very liberating to play what one wants, it can be quite isolating too. I put more thread around the sliding drones to make them air-tight and to stop them double tonguing. I also experimented in holding them, as they are not the most comfortable set of pipes to play. Old photos of the Border Piper have playing them with the drones set neatly across the chest. In practise this is not so easy; the drones are heavy, longer than the Northumbrian pipes, and flop around. I have had them over the shoulder, by far the better position, but a big separation between the chanter (melody) and the drones (harmony) I like the Northumbrian pipes as the chanter and the drones are relatively together blending nicely. I put the drones across the chest but it is very unstable under the bag arm, then I put them underneath the arm that they normally rest upon so they are lying downwards towards the ground with the arm over them. This is the best position as the chanter and the drones are sounding together, but the neck of the chanter was flapping around and also uncomfortable, more experimentation needs to be done. I pushed the chanter reed in as far as it would go, opening the end to make it louder and to flatten the top notes of the chanter. I have always tried to quieten the chanter as think it is too loud, but I now believe (because of playing on the streets and back ground noises) that louder is better to cut above the other street noises. It is a constant struggle between the reed and the chanter to get it right, very frustrating very tiring, all in aid to get it to concert pitch “A”, if I had left the reed the way it was it was a perfect match between pressure of the bag, drone reeds and pitch – a flat “A”, but problematic to play with others. Lets see what happens tomorrow at the session.

"You must be completely insane"

Another puncture yesterday (24.12.10) on the way to Carlisle, continued by bus into town; the city centre had the South Americans setting up their amplification, loud speakers and digital programming all for their pan pipes and drums. They had on American Indian costumes in sub-zero temperatures when they play they drown out everything in the centre of town, no one can perform there, the Christian Bible Basher has to pack up and go, all other buskers are blasted out. A fiddler who comes from Edinburgh retreated down a side street but I guess even the panpipes would reach him there, he has amplification too, a small amp with the bass turned full up and the treble down, it is a nice sound and he is a good player. The South Americans also have their amplification with an extra bass boost; it stops the terrible feedback that often accompanies outdoor amps, but I ask myself is all this technology needed for a few acoustic instruments that have worked very well for centuries in South America, a radio mic was attached to the singers cheek as he walked around the pavement singing to no one; his voice unheard and a deep booming voice from 1000 of pounds worth of equipment. I wonder if it pays them to do it. I slipped my way to my other haunt to find it occupied by the guitarist and his friend singing for beer money, I turned and went to the other edge of town to go into the bowls of Carlisle in the subway. It is a dirty and damp place but has a stream of shoppers coming to and from the centre. I played and was doing ok until a friend I knew stopped and we talked for 15 minutes after that I was cold then I became blue with cold. I spied a ray of sun at the other end and I sauntered over there to take advantage of the glimmer of sun. It helped for a while. A parade of school kids must have gotten out of some x-mass pantomime and for the next 10 minutes I could not hear myself play due to the screams and shouts as they took advantage of the subway’s acoustics. After that I played until I could not feel my fingers and I was jigging about so much I must have looked like a jack-in-the-box. I called it a day when a couple passing said “you must be completely insane”. I packed up and thawed out over a coffee, did some x-mass shopping then caught the bus back to my punctured bike and walked home. Merry X-mass one and all.

Sweet Hesleyside

The day started with a flat tire on the way to Carlisle, I did think to walk back home a journey of 3 miles but I decided to get the bus into town and pick the bike up when I finished playing. This effort paid off as I had a good days busking by selling 2 CDs and getting an offer of playing a festival this summer at Cockermouth, Cumbria. It was still cold and people walked by not smiling too much, but there were a lot of people compared to other days. Last minute shopping before x-mass perhaps and a few people stopped and chatted, the odd drunk, and asking what sort of pipes they were? One elderly woman asked if I could play “Sweet Hesleyside” probably the most asked for melody, I had to prise the keys open as they had stuck fast with the cold probably due to the almond oil congealing. I was playing in the centre of town again and there is a noted difference in atmosphere as later I went back to my usual haunt down a small lane near to a church where a steady stream of people walk to and fro to their cars. The interest died off and the money became less, but the sun shone in my eyes and thawed my fingers out. Then I took the bus back to my wounded bike and walked home as the sun went down at 3.45pm, it became bitterly cold after that.

Entertainment for the Public

When I turned up yesterday to play in my usual place there was a young man playing guitar. He had a good voice and played the guitar with sensitivity. He sang modern pop songs and as young boy passed he joined in with the words. I thought this is what busking is all about…entertaining the general public. I play melodies from the 18th century and for many it is a dead art. in the 18th century the tunes I play were probably well know, played at festivities and perhaps the ‘top of the tops’ of their day, now they are forgotten liked by a select few who love traditional music. No one whistles the melodies I play although some old folk can recognise them (I would like to know from where they know them) but that not is to say they do not like the music. I am often surprised who does appreciate this music and instrument it is not only the traditional music lover, the passerby can be aged from 5 to 75 or older, male and female, often they are dressed in normal popular fashion from the big stores, but often I have been acknowledged by punks, skin-heads, crusties, mods and rockers etc. businessmen and homeless, junkies and musicians. They are not all interested in traditional music so what attracts them? For nearly 30 years I have busked and only on a few occasions have I been told that it sounds bad, so why do people like something yet do not generally listen to it? The people who dislike it are just as interesting as the people who like what I do, nevertheless more people like or else I would not be making a living from it!

Frozen Money

It never got above 0c today I was in two minds whether to go busking or not it was extremely cold, a beautiful day with sun but a fog over the fields and icy roads. I played from 1pm to 3pm and was not too cold due to the sun in my face, the people walked passed with not too much interest scared to fall on the slippy pavement. Some threw money in full momentum missing the case and landing on the floor when I had finished the tune I bent down to pick it up but it had frozen to the floor! I introduced a new tune to my repertoire “Sr. Charle’s Rant” a Peacock tune, one octave. It sounds different when played with the Northumbrian pipes compared to the Border pipes probably due to the closed chanter compared to the open ended chanter on the Border pipes. For a time the sun disappeared behind a building and it became numbingly cold and I noticed the difference when it reappeared. A nice cycle home with the sun in my eyes and it coming through the mist over the fields, I got home before the black ice formed on the roads.

Busking

Busking today was a cold affair, we had snow in the morning but the main roads kept clear. I cycled into Carlisle, a journey of 8 miles, went to my usual place but it was so quiet I headed into the centre and started to play. As long as I kept playing my fingers stayed warm but when I stopped I began to get cold. I played for about 4 hours and enjoyed it very much. I have enough one octave tunes in my head to play for 3 hours before I start to repeat them. I dislike repeating tunes. I did not see any other buskers, even the Romanian woman who sits and plays odd notes on her accordion was not there. I actually enjoyed the weather, it was clear and crisp, and the sun shone and altered my drones so much that there were to their full extent on the sliders. I played mainly Bewick and Peacock melodies from Northumbrian. The pipes kept in tune I was pleased with the sound and the playing. Sold no Cds though, everyone wanted to get home, no time for stopping and chatting, it was a rush to get home before it iced over. I cycled home with no problems.

A Return to Busking

I have been busking this past week on the streets of Carlisle. It has been a long while since I last busked but I never forget the melodies and I quickly regain my speed and lost titles come back to me as though they are waiting for me. I only have two places to play as my pipes are so quiet compared with the background noise that seems to be everywhere on the pedestrian walkways. Once a British man stopped to have a chat many years ago, he lived in France and was returning to his home in Carlisle, he remarked that compared to France the background noise was far greater in the UK. I find the general hum of noise quite bad too. when I started to play the pipes were heard in the centre of town, but now I cannot hear myself play, so I retreat down back alleyways and places where there are not many people or mechanical interference, this results in less money and less contact with people, but quality is important and I do not want to be playing when I cannot hear myself. Busking has changed for me over the years. I started playing full time in 2001 and I have continued playing while I am in Carlisle. It has improved my playing greatly and I sell my Cds to people who have an interest and who likes my playing.
I did not speak to many people this week, people where running from the cold. I only saw one other busker too, a young boy who was playing guitar. The cold effects the pipes too, the metal keys are not comfortable to play so I generally play the 1 octave melodies and leave the lower keyed notes to the warmer weather.

A New Look At Old Tunes


I have been relooking at some old tunes I have been playing for a number of years. I had not taking these tunes seriously before because I was playing a set of Border Pipes that were not easy to play so this did not inspire me to learn these tunes. These Border tunes were written with the Border Pipes in mind (whether they are traditionally accurate is debateable, due to them being written in the Key of A major with a sharpened 7th, and not the traditional flattened 7th). I got these melodies off a tutor for the “Half Long Pipes” by Cocks. The Half Long Bagpipes were the name I originally liked, but it has gone out of fashion with the pipers and the “Border Pipes” have become the norm. the Half Long Pipes were basically the same instrument except that the drone system was different, the Border Pipes had a drone system of A,a,a (‘A/La’ bass, two ‘a/la” tenors) whereas the Half Long Pipes had a A,e,a (‘A’ Bass, ‘e’ tenor, ‘a’ tenor) very much like the Northumbrian Small Pipes, both pipes were bellows blown, although a mouth blown version was used in the past.

These tunes were in the Cock’s tutor book for the Half Long Bagpipes which I found in the Newcastle Library in the 80s. They are a bit faded and warn now, some of the ink has detached itself from the paper, but it is still readable and I am once again playing the melodies with a firmer intension of learning and memorizing these tunes.

I practise them on the practise chanter using the Scottish fingering style but with a very limited gracing. I used to study the Highland pipes but only briefly and it gave me an idea of the gracing involved, but I do not use it regimentally like the Highland players, I use it mainly when I think it fits. In the Cock’s tutor there are grace notes used but very little.

Before I relooked at these tunes, I was playing a selection of melodies from the Bewick and Peacock manuscripts with their many variations, but these tunes are simpler, more basic and with very few variations. It was printed in the 1930s if memory serves me right (?) so it gives an idea of the repertoire used before they were broken tradition.

Some of the melodies I have been playing through have titles such as: Sandhill Corner, Sunderland Lasses, Follow Her Over the Border, Brave Willy Forster, A mile to Ride…

It takes me a while to memorize a tune, so I play it over and over for days, my practise chanter is an old style, it was given to me by my old Highland Pipe instructor, it is not in tune and I take the mouth piece off so I can blow it with the plastic reed in my mouth to reach the high notes and to try and keep it in tune, it works fine with a bit of puff.

Heat of Competition


The cold weather has kept me indoors for a few months so I have not been busking, but last Saturday I put on my thermal underwear and headed out to the streets. It was a depressing time, the weather did not help much the sun not creeping over the 1970s monstrosity that is the Civic Centre building. People were not in the mood either; they hurried past not caring not listening and not thinking music. It could not be said for the kids though, they were in good voices as they chanted insults and clattered their skateboards down the small subway drowning out the pipes and peoples voices.
I gave up after a few hours in low spirits and took refuge in our noisy library, I sat myself down in front of the internet for an hour to see what the outside work had to say.

Later on in the centre of town I saw other musicians playing: a man sitting next to his amplifier playing highly rhythmical blues music on his acoustic guitar and harmonica, very catchy and up-beat music it even attracted a small group of skateboard kids – how hip can you get? I liked his playing but I dislike amplifiers, the world has become too noisy, you need amplification to be heard, but by doing so you just pump up the volume so people have to be noisy to be heard over you, it is a cycle of noise. When I started playing the Northumbrian Pipes the world was a quieter place, I used to play in the centre of town just like Mr Blues, but now I cannot as I am too quiet and I cannot hear what I play! “Get an amplifier” people say, no I will not. So I look for alternative areas where to play that push me on to the peripheries. Busking is a periphery type of activity at the best of times, but it seems I am on the periphery of the peripheries (if there is such a periphery!).

A few meters from Mr Blues there was a young chap playing an accordion, luckily he was not amplified nor was he blending in with the Mississippi Blues rhythms either! I stood in the middle of the these two frequencies trying to get a stereo balance and thinking how great it is to introduce to the general public of Carlisle Contemporary music! I try not to make generalizations but last year Carlisle had a swarm of accordion players descend on the town centre, these players played cheap Russian accordions and played them in a Eastern European style, but the problem was they did not play a melody, they improvised notes. They had their stools and their packed lunches they all spoke to one another in their lunch breaks. It seemed like they were learning the instrument trying to play a fragment of melody with one hand and the bass notes with the other but getting bored half way through and then deciding to play something else in a different key and rhythmic structure. To be honest I did not notice these musicians from their musicality I noticed them as they were in all the places where I usually stand and more besides. It was like a family of accordion players had sprouted and were filling the air with discordant fragrances. I luckily found an ‘un-accordionated’ spot somewhere on the periphery but after a few weeks people started telling me of the noise that was emanating from the centre of town and how these accordionists were not making any music or money!
After a few months they disappeared, gone with out trace, one day they were not there any longer and no one ever saw them again until that Saturday when I saw one next to Mr Blues. Later on I saw the young accordionist in a different spot away from the centre still trying to play the ‘1st lesson in the Accordionist’s handbook’! The only other guy I saw that day was a guitarist, a singer songwriter playing to himself at the other end of town. The day did not pick up for me I got hassle off the homeless people and came away wishing I was a banker or from another disreputable profession.