The Bagpipe Society

Droning On: Oxford

As is now traditional, I was out playing on the streets of Oxford at the unholy hour of 6am to mark this year’s May Morning. Oxford has a long tradition of May Day celebra- tions: Magdalen College choir sing a hymn from the top of the tower to the large crowd assembled on the bridge below; the pubs fling open their doors while students try and fling themselves from the bridge into the shallow waters of the Cherwell; and the local Morris sides parade a Jack-in-the-Green through the streets. It’s a festive day of madri- gals and the occasional mad wriggle. I misdirect the Hurly Burly Band, a collective of local artists, poets, dreamers and ne’er-do-wells formed just for the occasion, and we play bouncy bagpipe tunes for the assembled throng. We get to dress up, raise two fin- gers to authority and generate a happy spirit of revellion with our rallying cry ‘Up the May!’

This year it was good to see some familiar BagSoc faces in the crowd, Vanessa and Dolly, doing their best to orchestrate a laridé in spite of the chaos. As well as several fiddles, two concertinas, two melodeons, a surdu and a cahon, we had four pipers, one of whom was the gaitero Manolo Panforreteiro, who is in Oxford while his wife studies for a PhD. It’s been a delight playing with such an accomplished and sensitive musician and I find myself envious of the Galician tradition within which he’s been steeped since birth. He started playing as a boy, and it shows. I’m still fumbling with Galician tunes and ornamentation while he picks up my English repertoire on a single listen.

Over a well-earned breakfast, sat outside in the garden in the sun, we started talking about piping in our two countries. Such is its status that in Santiago you can find, on any night of the week, a bar with pipe concerts or sessions. Children look up to pipers as they do, here, to rock stars and footballers. Supermarkets put pipers on their adverts. Piping is sexy. It’s a situation I think we Sassenachs all rather dream of. Not being on a supermarket advert, obviously, but living in a culture where this wonderful instrument and its music are normal, not novelties, ’the news’ not the ‘and finally’ section tacked on at the end to raise a smile.

In Oxford it is a struggle to find a pub willing to host a folk session these days, let alone one involving bagpipes. It’s why occasions like May Morning, and of course the Blowout and festivals like Saint Chartier, are so important. They offer us the chance to be amongst like minds, people who get it, who instinctively understand the potency of the instrument and its music. In terms of promoting the instrument over here we clearly have a long way to go.

That I dream of living in a culture like Galicia is why, perhaps, I stuck my hand up at last year’s AGM and offered to take on the role of Publicity Officer. As we’ve noted in these pages, membership of the Society is falling even as makers’ order books are full. Clearly we could be doing more to fulfil our remit of promoting piping and I’ve read all the suggestions that have come in with interest.

As a start, we have a thriving Facebook page ( bagpipesociety) which I invite you to join, and work on the new website continues apace. We also have a new logo designed by artist Rima Staines, which you’ll see in this edition of Chanter. Rima’s work is inspired both by medieval art and the folk art of East- ern Europe. She keeps a regular blog with thousands of readers and fans across the world. She lives in a Baba Yaga thatched cottage on the edge of Dartmoor, plays Eastern tunes on the button accordion and is a lover of all drone music, especially the bagpipes. All in all, she seemed an ideal choice. I’m delighted with the result, an image that al- ludes to tradition, conveys what the pipes are about, and which is simple and future- proof.

But while the Society can do much more, the hard work of promoting the bag- pipes is something we can all share: in that, I know a lot of you are out there working tirelessly on our instrument’s behalf. To that end I want to announce that we are creating International Bagpipe Day, which will be held annually on the second Saturday in March. The aims are to broaden out the narrow popular view of bagpipes as something exclusively Scottish; to demonstrate the array of different pipes played in Britain and beyond; and to promote the idea of piping as a vital part of our musical culture and as something that can bring diverse cultures together. It will consist of you, the members, putting on concerts, talks, dances, maker’s displays, costumed events, and ’try-a- bagpipe’ sessions, at your local pub, club, hall, gig venue, school or museum. I think it could be big, could generate a lot of media interest, and will be a lot of fun too. So do please put the date in your diary, and spread the word amongst all your piping connec- tions at home and abroad. Let’s make this truly international.

I’ve been playing my pipes on May Morning since 1996, and going out with the Hurly Burly Band for seven years. Hopefully, in another seven, people will simply ex- pect to see English pipes (and the occasional gaita) as a normal part of the proceedings. That’s the aim at least. And while it’ll take considerably longer for pipes to become as integrated in England as they are in Galicia, I think it’s an excellent goal, one in keeping with the spirit of the founders of the Society, and one that we can all work towards achieving. Up the May, and up the bagpipes!