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The Bagpipe Society

Blowout Report 2017

Well – it was as good as ever. But for a little more detail:

We very often have a competition after Friday’s dinner to get us in the mood, and this year the contestants had to play something which related to our first Blowout at Beverley in 1993. The fun began when Julian Goodacre announced the criteria for judging; first historical accuracy, next dress sense, and last but not least, sex appeal. (Well, anyone who plays pipes in public has lost some inhibitions!) There was some good music as well as good laughs, but the winner was Steve Turner who played “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” on an overtone flute. His prize was a CD of traditional dances of Belarus. Not sure how you judge that. We then got down to a great session, with other instruments as well as pipes. Good fun!

I had to miss the harmony workshops led by our Belgian guests Griff Trio, but it sounded good. Caitlin Magi from Estonia then led us through some of their tunes, singing before we played to get the tune into our heads. Like a lot of European piping, it’s not quite what we’re used to, but it’s not too strange, either, and we enjoyed the tunes – it’s what Jean-Pierre Rasle once called “workmanlike music”.

Paul Roberts gave us a very interesting talk on regional pipes in the seventeenth century. His view is that the Pastoral movement, a fashion, indeed a cult, of an (imagined) rural idyll led to lots of types being derived from many different local types of pipe for the gentry. This led to fancier materials in construction, bellows, and a tendency to have complex small pipes rather than the louder ones used for dancing. Think of the Musette du Cour and the sourdeline. The aristocrats tended to have pipers to play for them, rather than be players themselves, but some did have a go: Jean-Pierre Rasle (again) quotes a French account of the strange faces aspiring gentlemen pipers would pull….

The most popular types, he believes, were ultimately influenced by the “Dudey”, which we see in Praetorius’ plates. Its common stock proved very influential in Britain, and we find it in the types we know of – Northumbrian and Scottish small pipes, and the Pastoral pipe, with its descendants. These instruments eventually filtered down to the streets and were used by “folk” musicians, sometimes being simplified or adapted. (It has certainly been argued that the “Irish” or “Uillean” pipes were based on a simplification of the pastoral pipes’ chanter, as were the “half-longs”, whose name is suggestive. The pastoral pipe chanter is long.)

Paul quoted many intriguing references. I apologise if I’ve over-simplified what he said, and I’d like to see the talk in print form. The Blowout isn’t only about the scheduled activities, of course, and there were a few I couldn’t go to. It’s the best venue, though, to see the products of most of the world’s best makers – certainly the British ones! And, of course, it’s the place to get advice and help for one’s pipes, if necessary. There are plenty of pipers playing in the grounds, so you’re never more than a few feet from a bagpipe! The AGM was encouraging. The Society is getting known as a “go to” place for those wanting information etc. We get plenty of on-line visits.

Jane reminds us that she still needs articles for “Chanter”, and to encourage us said she is considering going to full colour!

There is still money for projects, and some members are offering “Come and Try” sessions at Folk Festivals for people who like pipes, but don’t know where to start. I think it was Julian Goodacre – correct me if I’m wrong – who said that he sellotapes up the chanter finger holes before handing a set to an enquirer so they can concentrate on holding and blowing without having to worry about fingering as well. Worth a thought. There are sometimes specific jobs to be done for the Society, and volunteers will be sought when necessary. We re-elected the Committee, and I’d like to take this chance to thank them for all they do for us.

The Saturday evening concert gives us a chance to hear our guests in a great setting, especially acoustically. Steve Turner and Dave Faulkner were excellent, with some 3/2 and 5/2 hornpipes as well as a waltz and a haunting piece from 1625 Lancashire. Caitlin Magi’s toropill piping went down a storm, especially as she got us all singing a drone to her playing. Her performance on a sort of Jew’s Harp instrument was pretty awesome as well! The Belgian Griff Trio ended the concert with some very inventive and powerful piping. The repertoire was based on mostly trad song and played on some fine-sounding Musettes Bechonet, a Flemish set and a couple of Union pipes. Great stuff – as I’ve said before, not quite folk, but taking its essence to new places.

For the Bal we first had Dave Faulkner and Steve Turner, who were very good. They did a wide variety of dances, Dave being a very effective caller in addition to his other talents. Then came The Mystery Band, consisting of Jon Swayne, Michael York and ? (sorry!) on fiddle. Basically a pipe-led group, they also had plenty of different dances, and the dancers had a great time. Two highlights were when the pipers and Terry Mann on drum played in the centre of the dancers, and the wonderful polska by Becky and ? on fiddle, with Jon on clarinet and Mike on low whistle. It all ended too soon, but a session soon started for the dancers while the Blowout’s other regular D session filled up the breakfast room. And very good it sounded.

I very much enjoyed Caitlin’s talk the next day on the toropill. The instrument goes back at least as far as the 1560’s and was used, as you’d expect for dancing and celebrations, as well as to encourage workers in the harvest and in compulsory road work. Players normally made their own instruments, using a seal’s stomach for the bag in many places; hence its distinctive shape, but cow, dog and elk were also used.

As elsewhere, the use of the instrument declined in the nineteenth century, and the last traditional piper died in 1968, but, fortunately, some 149 tracks were recorded from the old players, some as early as the wax cylinder era, so there was a basis to work on. The revival began in the 1960’s and the cultural academy helped the process along. These days lots of girls are playing the toropill, which was not the case in the old days. Caitlin showed some film of her band, and I recommend looking her up on the net. The instrument and its repertoire have been modernised but have kept their character, giving us some very exciting music. Sadly, I had to leave before the final concert again, but I reflected on the way on a very good weekend. I usually mention the food, and Vanessa and friends were on top form. The smooth way the weekend ran is a tribute to all involved in its organisation, so my thanks to you all.

It may have been a Blowout like many others, and hence it all felt so comfortable. But it wasn’t a case of merely marking time. The music and its variety are all maturing, and this year for me was another stage in that.