John wrote to me a couple of
months ago asking me to
write about 1500 words for
Chanter. I am a new
member of the bagpipe
society and I am delighted to
have been asked to
participate in this edition.
John wanted me to write
about my new radio show at
SOAS Radio, Bagpipes
Galore, but also about
myself and how I became
involved in bagpipes. I have
chosen a chronical form so I
will start to write about my interest in bagpipes and I will finish by presenting Bagpipes Galore hoping that you will be listening to it in the near future.
For background information, my name is Cassandre. I am French, I spent five years of my childhood in Southborough, Kent, which is where I got my very British accent and I have no ancestral connections to bagpipes. My parents from Normandy and Alsace and neither are musical although they always encouraged my sisters and I to play. Result: two of us are professional musicians and the third is a good violinist.
As for most if not all of us who read Chanter, my brains were completely addled from the moment I tried to play a bagpipe – in my case a gaita when I was 14. I was at my Spanish penpal’s house in Galicia and the grandfgather’s instrument was lying on the bed. I asked to play a tune and as I had already been playing the recorder for 9 odd years, I managed to pry a small tune out of the old bagpipe. It was love at first sight. From that day onwards, I saved every penny I had and on my 19th birthday I was able to order a set of Galician bagpipes from Cristobal Prieto, a young Galician bagpipe maker, student of the great master Anton Corral.
That summer, I set out on a journey where I met many gaiteros, Galician bagpipe players. Ortigueira was the first stop, one of the biggest folk festivals in Galicia funded nearly exclusively by Estrella Galicia. Entirely free, about 30 000 people take over a small village on the Northern Coast of Galicia to celebrate the gaita. I then hit the road and travelled to A Coruña, Santiago de Compostella -where I discovered many underground taverns where bagpipes are played until early in the morning, fueled by glasses of licor café, Galicia’s magic potion: a mixture of coffee, sugar, orange peelings and spirits (called fiery water)- Vigo and even Portugal where I went to a village festival about the gaitero and the burro, the donkey.
I came home my head full of bagpipes. I was studying musicology at the time as well as studying the recorder at a music academy. However, bagpipes had an appeal that classical music did not have and I was not content to keep them just as a hobby. As soon as my musical studies enabled me to, I chose ethnomusicology as a subject and continued to explore the world of bagpipes with a stronger theoretical structure.
After a degree in Musicology at the Sorbonne in Paris – including a year-long trip at the Musikwissenschaftliches Institut in Cologne – I was able to do a master dedicated to Ethnomusicology. My dissertation was about the Bulgarian gaida so I packed my bags once again and spent three weeks in Sofia and Plovdiv meeting many musicians and interetsing people ready to help me with my research. Petko Stefanov, a reknowned piper and bagpipe maker, sold me a gaida and gave me a few lessons. In Sofia I met the Orchestra of the Bulgarian Radio. I stayed in a hostel where the owner tried to set me up with her son -who was living in Germany at the time. In Plovdiv, I met a crazy Japanese piper, Yutaka, who spoke a minimum of seven slavic languages as well as perfect English and played all sorts of Eastern bagpipes including the hairy Polish Dudy.
When I returned to Paris, my head full of aksak (irregular) rhythms and single reed pipe sounds, I met Marie-Barbara Le Gonidec, an eminent organologist, student of Geneviève Dournon, and director of the music and phonetic department of the Musée des Civilisations Europe et Méditéranée. Marie-Barbara put me to work on a classification of bagpipes and by the end of the year I had acquired much knowledge about the instrument thanks to her previous work and I had established an extremely detailed classification of all the different bagpipes I had information about. Marie- Barbara Le Gonidec herself has done a lot of important work on the bagpipes and created the website http://www.cornemuses.culture.fr where much information may be found including an interactive map. Dr. Jean-Pierre Van Hees in Belgium, completed a similar classification with much more information and detail and the publication of his future book promises to be of great interest for all.
Meanwhile, I discovered the French Folk scene on the Quais de Seine in Paris. I already knew I was not going to stay in France forever so I decided to immerge myself in the French culture. It would have very embarassing to go abroad and admit to knowing nothing about French music! I discovered the Cornemuse of the Centre France, fell in love all over again and bought a second hand set that was as good as new. It has never parted with me ever since although I often leave it to rest whislt I go on the floor for a dance or two.
After a year of internships at the European Commission and UNESCO, I decided that I wanted to continue my passion academically and took the necessary steps to come to London. I chose to start my PhD on the Majorcan Xeremies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) which boasts one of the most developped Ethnomusicology centres in Europe and is certainly one of the most active departments I have ever encountered.
Why the Majorcan Xeremies you may wonder. Well, why ever not? I had come across it during my classification and learnt that it was one of the rare bagpipes that had not disappeared completely in the twentieth century thus needing thorough reinvention. It is also very seldom heard of in the bagpipe world and has not been studied academically, at least not in non catalan speaking part of the world. I have chosen to study it through an anthropological angle and I am in the process of understanding which role this instrument and its music have been playing in the social and cultural life of Majorca.
Just like the rest of Spain, Majorca and the Balearic Islands have been influenced by a strong regionalist policy after the death of Franco and the end of the nationalist regime. In addition to this, Majorca has also been extremely exploited by the mass tourism industry and this since the end of the 1950s when the borders were opened to boost the flailing economy. However, despite the importance of Majorca on the touristic scene and welcoming well over 20 million visitors a year, the xeremies has stayed a local instrument and has not been mediatised at all. It is not a lucrative business and from the information I have gathered so far, people mean to keep their music and intruments to themsleves. Can this be seen as a way of affirming their indentity on a small island that is changing ever more quickly environmentally and economically? Is it a way to differentiate themselves from the tourist
industry which has inevitably invaded their lives
in one way or another? I will be spending nine
months in Majorca from October onwards
striving to answer these questions and many
As I mentionned previously, I was asked to write this article not only because I am a piper and a PhD candidate in bagpipes, but because I have created a radio show at SOAS. Before coming to London, I browsed the SOAS website and stumbled across the SOAS Radio page. I decided to create a radio show in order to share my passion with the most people possible and make the knowledge I had acquired readily accessible to anyone.
Bagpipes Galore, as I have called my show, is a series of 20 minute radio programmes which aim to explore bagpipes one at a time. Five episodes are currently online and the podcasts may be listened to at any time:
The episodes give background information about the bagpipes and at least four musical examples are played, from old archives to modern groups including personal field recordings from time to time. I have systematically worked with experts in the respective fields, letting them read my text before recording it in order to give the most accurate knowledge possible to the listening audience. I still have much work to do as over 130 different types of bagpipes exist in the world: from India to Ireland, including Iran, Turkey, Tunisia, Sweden, Poland, Belgium and, of course, England.
I hope, with this radio show, to break the stereotype of bagpipes being exclusively Scottish and military. And over the course of time, who knows, this show may have hopes of an even wider audience, thus presenting a rich world to as many people possible.
Vive la cornemuse!