These ain’t yer grandad’s bagpipes

Scotland’s traditional instrument has a new breed of fans—and a very different songbook
TF Eliz/ Chad Sengstock

When it came time for John Walsh—a two-time world bagpipe champion—to pick out his first competition tune, he simply leaned on tradition. Almost half a century ago, the then-13-year-old from Yorkshire settled for a “dyed in the wool” military number: the kind of crusty, no-nonsense ballad sure to tickle the judges’ fancy. Then, clad in regulation kilt, hose and ghillie brogues, he did his best on competition day to play it with nary a bad note. This spring, the 2010 bagpipe competition circuit will kick off; but by the (ear-splitting) sounds of it, things will be different this year.

The House of Edgar Shotts & Dykehead Pipe Band, a 15-time world champion, has been writing its own songs for competition. Finlay Macdonald, instructor at Scotland’s stately National Piping Centre, has drawn crowds with his jazz-funk rendition of Bulgarian Red. “It’s not the old standards that I grew up with,” affirms Walsh, who handcrafts bagpipes in Antigonish, N.S, where he now lives. “Bagpipes are finding their way into all sorts of places they’ve never been before.”

Yes, bagpipes are back, albeit somewhat changed. The revival started in Scotland, where traditional bands began spicing things up—abandoning what one British writer recently described as a culture whose “only index of musical value is absolute fidelity to a pre-existing canon of traditional tunes, memorialized and ossified over the centuries.” Bagpipes have since appeared on some unlikely and far-flung stages. In the past few years, bands like the White Stripes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have used them in performance. Aspiring pipers have wooed audiences on YouTube with a cutting-edge canon of carols, including AC/DC’s Thunderstruck. And once-little-known pipers have drawn international acclaim—like Pittsburgh’s Nick Hudson who, in 2009, was touted as the U.S.’s “only graduating bagpipe major” when he graduated from Carnegie Mellon.

American musician Tobin Bawinkel saw nothing odd about incorporating the pipes in his Midwestern punk band. Historically, “bagpipes were used for war,” he explains. So “they work for aggressive music.” In 2000, after founding the band Flatfoot 56, he began looking for something “different” to give them an edge. One set of bagpipes later, his band was reborn as a “Celtic punk and folk-tinged hardcore band from the South Side of Chicago.” Fans, Bawinkel says, are “stoked”: “As soon as the bagpiper walks out on stage, the crowd just flips out.”

Alternative piping is “not a huge scene,” Bawinkel admits. But Flatfoot 56 isn’t alone. Canada’s Real McKenzies also give a nod to Celtic punk, with “jacked-up traditional Scottish ballads.” Almost every genre has proved willing to absorb the bagpipe. Gunhild Carling, a Swedish trumpeter-trombonist, calls her bagpipe work “bluesy.” Then there’s Gael Warning, a “progressive bagpipe-jazz-aboriginal-fusion band from North Carolina.”

This reimagining was taken a step further by Hevia, a sultry Spanish bagpiper known best for his 2007 album, Obsessión. Hevia helped popularize a kind of electronic bagpipe that he now plays in concert: an instrument that does not need to be blown and whose range can exceed three octaves (compared with nine notes on a Highland pipe)—and that may or may not have actual bags. Purists may balk, but some seasoned players have been won over: “I actually practise on one,” Walsh admits. “It’s a bit easier.”

For B.C.’s John Johnston—or “Johnny Bagpipes,” as he is known professionally—the revolution has been a long time coming. The self-described trailblazer says he started playing rock ’n’ roll on the bagpipes 35 years ago. “It was way before its time,” he says. “I got shunned.” Still, he forged on after getting a tongue-lashing from his pipe major when he was discovered playing Van Halen’s Eruption. Today, he’s a stand-up comic who uses the bagpipe as the mainstay of his routine.

Some of these new ideas have come full circle—to Glasgow, where the most basic competition rules are being rethought. Even the way the players traditionally stand during performance—in a circle, with their backs to the audience—is being debated; the old guard says the players need to stay focused on the pipe major, while the young folk say it’s time to engage the crowd.
Of course, there are some who will refuse to be charmed. When asked if his children are eager to follow in his musical footsteps, Walsh just laughs. “Not a chance,” he says. “Wild horses couldn’t make them play.”