Review: The Pibgorn Tunebook by Keith Lewis

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It is ten years now since I published my own collection of tunes aimed specifically at the Welsh piping community - Y Pibydd, 117 tunes for Welsh pipes - and that is long since out of print, so it is perhaps time for another. Into the breach steps Keith Lewis, Welsh bagpipe and pibgorn player and maker from the Swansea Valley with this collection of 95 Welsh tunes, mostly traditional but a handful by himself and piper Jane Ruel plus some others that have become firmly fixed in the Welsh traditional music scene.

I’ve known Keith for years and he comes at

Welsh piping from a very different direction than

my own. Having been a prominent member of the

Welsh clog dancing group ‘Dwy Droed Chwith’ and

founder of Pontardawe based bagpipe group ‘Pibau

Bwrlwm’ he has been much more involved in the

general Welsh session scene and prefers to arrange

tunes so that they can be played in a mixed session rather than changed to suit the pipes more. This approach is very evident in his treatment of tunes that originally have greater compass than the single octave of the pibgorn.

The book contains 95 tunes in total, thirty of which are also in my own volume - but of these 30, eleven are in very different forms to those in ‘Y Pibydd’. So it’s not just a rehash of my own book and if you have any interest in Welsh music, ‘The Pibgorn Tunebook’ is well worth getting.

It kicks off with some advice for novice pibgorn players - Keith does quite a bit of instructional work with the instrument via Welsh traditional music developement organisation TRAC - so I guess this is mostly who the book is aimed at. One thing I found strange was his advice on how to play the pibgorn - “individual notes are not tongued as in most other wind instruments. The pibgorn is like a bagpipe with you acting as the bag. So a gentle continuous breath is needed.” Well you can certainly play a pibgorn like this, and I’ve even seen one player (Stephen Rees of Crasdant) playing using circular breathing. But why no tonguing? Not every note certainly as that tends to sound ridiculous on a pibgorn, but a bit of judicious tonguing to punctuate the tune sounds really effective.

There are also a number of errors in the scoring of some of the tunes which I found a little disappointing, the worst offenders being ‘Suo Gan’ where there is a whole bar missing from the second part of the tune (the missing third bar should be a repeat of the first), and ‘Ty a Gardd’ where the sevenths are shown as naturals when they should be sharp.

All the tunes are written for an instrument with a single octave D to D. For some reason they are all scored in G with any C#s included as incidentals. It feels a little strange but once you get used to it, it is simple enough to follow.

The first section of tunes is of sets of tunes Keith has been playing for years with various groups. This section shows a bit of Ceri Matthews’ and my influence as it contains quite a few tunes in different modes to the originals, eg. Galar Ffrancod and Jig Arglwydd Caernarfon, both in aeolian mode rather than ionian.

After this initial aberration we’re

on to sections of tunes for session

playing. First is of jigs, slip jigs and

quickmarches (21 tunes) followed by

one of waltzes (5) before the book

finishes with 26 reels, hornpipes,

marches and polkas. I’m not really all

that sure about the value of dividing the

tunes up in this way as Welsh

traditional music doesn’t tend to group

into such distinct divisions as for example, Irish or Scottish music does. Take jigs for example - yes they may well be all in 68 time, but don’t depend on there being the regular 32 bars. Many of Keith’s examples are, but there are also 16 bar jigs, one of 20 bars (Bets o Llansanffraidd) and one of 28 bars (Robin Ddiog). The reel, also is not really part of Welsh music though there are a few tunes that may be considered a bit reel -like. One such is perhaps Y Lili, the version given here being an interesting halfway house between the Welsh version I know (from Ceri Matthews) and the version played by Dave Faulkner.

To sum up - a worthwhile addition to the Welsh pipers repertoire. Oh, and incidentally, Keith is currently carrying out research in the National Library of Wales for a book on Welsh music that has been collected from bagpipers. Authentic Welsh pipe music if you will…

The Pibgorn Tunebook is available from Keith Lewis, 67 Brecon Rd., Ynysmeudwy, Pontardawe, Swansea SA8 4PD, for £7.50 including p&p. or contact him at keith357lewis@btinternet.com

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