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My Swedish Bagpipe Journey

I can’t actually remember when I discovered the existence of the Swedish bagpipes. I wish I could and I wish I could say it was a defining moment. It’s the same with the nyckelharpa – these are instruments that I have always known about, in some small corner of my memory somewhere they have always existed. It was finding out that Olle Gällmo and Erik Ask-Upmark were going to be at the Blowout in 2013 that really prompted me to get a set of Swedish Bagpipes. I had just discovered that you could play Swedish bagpipe tunes on the borderpipes and suddenly there was Olle and Erik coming over to England and at that moment I realised that I had to have a set of Swedish bagpipes. My whole life has been a long path of discovery going deeper and deeper into different music and along the way finding out a lot about myself. The Scottish smallpipes brought me closer to my Dad’s Highland pipe music and the nyckelharpa brought me closer to Swedish music. The addition of the Swedish bagpipes finally drew together these two different strands – my Mother’s Swedish music and my Father’s piping.

You’ll notice that I generally call the instrument the Swedish bagpipes. This is because I speak Swedish and the word säckpipa - just means bagpipes. My Dad played the Scottish Highland ‘säckpipa’, so for me the word isn’t synonymous with the Swedish pipes. If I were to be talking about my Scottish smallpipes to a Swede I would call them Scottish små säckpipa. But everyone who’s not talking Swedish will know which sort of pipes you’re talking about, so I think I am alone in this linguistic twist. There are several other dialect words that Swedish bagpipes are also known by such as pôsu.

When you decide to play the Swedish pipes you have to find out about them and where to get them from. As a Swedish speaker I didn’t find it a daunting task, so I found myself at the website of Olle Gällmo. This was the most amazing gold mine of information. Olle’s site explains the history, how to play, who makes Swedish bagpipes, gives examples of music and even has video links. I’m sure that everyone ends up at this website. Olle has created an amazing resource for us all here. I drank all of this in and learned a good many tunes from his site.

The pipes that I bought that year were by Alban Faust. My main reasoning behind this was that I’m a bellows piper and I wanted a set of bellows pipes and I knew that Alban made bellows pipes. I had my Swayne bellows measured up and sent the dimensions off to Alban. Some several months later I flew over to Sweden to visit family and fetch the instrument. They felt quite different to any of the other pipes I’d played, a much bigger bag and slightly different holding position. I will admit that I haven’t learnt a separate fingering system – I use my good old SSP half-closed fingering and it works superbly.

So what makes the Swedish bagpipes different? They are essentially a smallpipe with the same mellow sound. The single drone has a split cane reed in it as you’d expect, but the chanter reed isn’t the usual double reed, it is also a split cane reed. This has two interesting effects. It means that the pressure exerted from the bag has exactly the same pitching properties on both drone and chanter. This means that you can’t use bag pressure to fix slight pitching issues. You need to make sure it’s in tune. The second is a grace-note technique.

Several people have asked me how I manage to get the melody note to disappear – how does that staccato sound happen. It’s the same as the Scottish Smallpipes – you ‘blip’ from your melody note down to the six-finger note. This works very well on the SSPs – but there is something magical about the Swedish pipes. Because the chanter and the drone are both a split cane reed the timbre is exactly the same and as long as the pipes are in tune, the note really seems to disappear. This is a really strong feature in most Swedish bagpipe tunes and I try to put it in wherever possible.

This brings me to key. I play the Scottish Smallpipes in A and also the Swedish bagpipes in A. This means that the tonic is the six finger hole on the Scottish Smallpipes. On the Swedish bagpipes the tonic is in the middle – it’s the three finger note. What makes it confusing is that the drone is still the six finger note, in this case the E.

What I find exciting with the Swedish bagpipes is this C natural – the minor third, (of course if this was a set of SSPs I would be calling it a minor 6th). The second finger hole note has two little holes instead of one and a little rubber band covers up the top of these to create the minor 3rd. (Or it can be removed and then the scale is the same as the Scottish smallpipes). I love this minor 3rd – a lot. I never remove the rubber band.

What is peculiar about the Swedish pipes and particularly enticing for me is the way the drone interacts with the note. The drone has to be E (the dominant). The tonic has to be in the middle of the scale, it doesn’t sound or feel the same if the tonic is also the drone. Although I have done some looking into exactly what mode this would be called I decided that it was a wonderful mode and it wasn’t all that interested in what it was called. (Sacrilege maybe, but I just love playing the instrument and am more interested in practising then in researching modal terminology).

The key was the biggest draw for me. I love the minor polskas and there was a particular key that I love on the nyckelharpa – the G minor polska, a lot of these are really slängpolskas, where the beats are subdivided into even semi-quavers.

Some of them however are the triplet polska and I think that these are much, much older and are indeed old bagpipe tunes. Once I’d put some of these old tunes onto the Swedish bagpipes it felt that they belonged there. They made sense on the pipes in the way that they hadn’t before.

It can be hard to find good makers and I can only talk about the two makers that I know. I mentioned Alban Faust earlier, but serendipitously I took receipt of a new set of pipes on the morning I began to write this little article from my good friend Börs-Anders Öhman. I first got know Anders as a cow horn maker, (obviously he doesn’t make the horn, the cow does that, but fashions them into wonderful musical instruments). Anders is a descendent of the last piper; Gudmunds Nils Larsson and adheres to some of the old ways of making his pipes. Although as a black art I couldn’t possibly comment on what we saw in the making shed when we visited for fika (coffee and cinnamon bun).

I am now happily wrestling with overcoming ‘bellows pipers elbow’ as I learn to use a blowpipe with my ‘internal bellows’.

There are now a few of us that play the Swedish bagpipes in the UK, maybe six or seven? We’ve set up a Facebook page, so if you’re reading this, are a Swedish pipe player and haven’t found your way to the group yet come on in, we’ll stick the kettle on -

Vicki Swan – and Börs-Anders Öhman -