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The Bagpipe Society

Beer and Bagpipes

We played in Cassel (French Flanders near St Omer) at the beginning of April as part of a short tour of Belgium, the Netherlands and northern France. We weren’t sure what to expect – all our other bookings were clubs or house concerts, but this was an ’estaminet.’ Unfortunately, the Collins French dictionary doesn’t contain the word ’estaminet’ so we turned up not quite knowing what we’d let ourselves in for.

It turned out that estaminets are something of a French Flemish institution! The best way of describing it to a British audience is probably as a micro-pub – although the Flemish have been doing it for a lot longer than we have. There’s a small food menu and a large beer menu (the Flemish take their beer very seriously) and most estaminets have only one room which tends to generate a very convivial and friendly atmosphere.

This particular estaminet is called Le Kêrelshof and is a particularly fine example of its ilk, with great local food and superb beer. We played our usual set of mostly English songs and tunes but in between songs Chris spoke to the audience in French. Between spoken French and English repertoire we went down well and made a lot of friends!

I had noted that Cassel had a bagpipe festival and had hoped to make a sufficient impression to get a booking for the following year, as I assumed that we were too late for a booking for the 2017 festival which at the time was only two months away. I’m very pleased to say that I was wrong! The patron Denis was very complimentary about our set and insisted that we come back for the festival later that year. He would have us back at the estaminet as part of the fringe and he was good friends with festival organiser Patrice Heuguebart so would put in a good word for us and get us on the bill as well sorting us out with a few other appearances around the festival.

So we found ourselves back in Cassel on the first weekend in June. It’s a really lovely festival with a nice mix of big stage events, dances, talks, sessions and a market on the Sunday. The festival takes over the whole town of Cassel and pretty much everything is free. It seems that Cassel is host to lots of different events throughout the year – as Cassel Cornemuses was winding down they were setting up for a moto-cross event!

I think the highlight of the festival for me was finding out that the English border bagpipe is generally known to the French and Flemish as ‘Le Jon Swayne’ (even though mine are by Sean Jones).

Over the course of the weekend we played a few estimanet gigs, sat in on some lively sessions, went to a talk on the Flemish bagpipe tradition by Belgian bagpipe master Jean-Pierre Van Hees (which stretched our French to the absolute limit!) and generally soaked up the atmosphere. We finished the festival at a grand bal with top Flemish band Wör in the town hall who then joined us for a session at Le Kêrelshof with a few other musicians until about 3 in the morning.

Cassel Cornemuses is a fantastic little festival and I would recommend it to anyone. However, my two pieces of advice to Brits would be a) if you are vegetarian then go for self-catering and b) speak French. After that it’s sausages, beer and bagpipes all the way!