“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…

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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.

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.

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!

"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.

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.

Busking Through life


I have been busy the past few days editing past photos and videos and putting them on to utube, editing my Myspace pages and now creating this blog. What for? some people I know do not understand this activity. I guess it is to meet others, like minded people. Recently I applied for a job and realized I have very little to put on my CV in the way of work! But, I am busy all the time, I realized what i do it can not be documented in the normal conventional ways, yet it should be documented to show what I do to others, as we are not Islands, are we?
By doing these http://www.sites I am dissecting myself, sorting out myself, compartmentalizing who I am and having to think about who I am and what I am. One of the worst questions to ask me is “What do you do?” I never know what to say! What do I do? I am busy, very busy. This question was asked the Dalai Lama once and he replied “I am taking care of myself”.
When I left school at 16 I knew what I wanted to be, but in the late 1970s life was not so open as it is now. I wanted to play music, but in 1979, UK jobs – professional music jobs, were not recognized, it was a small business then. So I started to join bands and make my own music. I started to busk and I found I could make a little money.
Later on I started playing the Northumbrian Small Pipes, a bellows blown bagpipe from the NE of England, I joined more bands and I got good at my craft. In the 90s I did it full time and I started to do concerts and to sell my CDs. But in my mind it was never a ´job´ as in my ´1970s culture´ it was nver a proper job!
Then, busking was “begging”, to a lot of people, and often I was called a beggar back then. Now the times and attitudes have changed.
now I consider what I do a job! I sell my Cds and I live by it, occasionally I do concerts and Festivals, it is not great money, and each week it is different but it is a job and it is enjoyable.
If you want to see my playing the Northumbrian Small Pipes check out the utube web site at http://www.youtube.com/user/kevnsp