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Promoting the Bagpipe Revival since 1986

The Bagpipe Society

The Music of Migration

Everyone should have a fundamental human right to listen to their culture’s

music, and make their own if they want to. It’s part of who we are, and room needs to be created for it everywhere, especially in cities.

**Palestinian Bagpipes and Musical Freespace

I was with a bunch of musicians aboard a traditional bragozzo sailing boat of the Veneto in September, circumnavigating the perimeter of the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale at the Arsenale. They were playing as they sailed, as a protest against the pavilions at this year’s Biennale; its theme was Freespace but it said nothing about the crisis of live music, song and dance in our cities. They were in Venice for a conference, Towards a Radical Politics of Musical Spaces and Musical Citizenship (1). There has been a tectonic shift in global urban culture, with shrinking spaces for free musical expression in Britain. The old community pub culture is being replaced by an imperialist coffee shop culture where people are isolated with online social media, listening to pre-recorded music on headphones. You cannot sing in a Starbucks. In London, street music is controlled through licensing, often limited to solo performers; unlicensed buskers can be fined £1,000 and their instruments confiscated. Privatisation and enclosure also silence voices; a people’s choir in the rich university city of Cambridge can’t find a space to rehearse. And while religion in British cities used to be Christian and choral, churches are in decline and all community singing is gone; Islam thrives in those cities, but regards music, song and dance as haram.

When we disembarked in Venice, the musicians posted a Manifesto for Musical Freespace on the front door of the Arsenale, addressed to the world’s architects, urbanists and planners. It had a novel proposition that, in our present migration crisis, there should be planned, safe and serviced spaces for music, song and dance for migrants and refugees, a ‘music room’, or anyway room for music. Because music, song and dance are vital areas of empowerment, they are part of the foundation of personhood, and should be included among internationally recognised human rights.

Many refugees are currently trapped on the Greek island of Lesbos, where the Moria camp has become a prison, a location of horror and violence, as shown in a recent BBC documentary (2). A few miles from Moria, the road doglegs at the water’s edge, where there is a tiny harbour and a blue and white fish shop displaying its wares. The owner, Nikos Katsouris, is a fisherman, and his little boat still sits in the harbour. Next to the shop is a small warehouse packed with goods donated for refugees who are still arriving by the hundred from the Turkish mainland.

There is also a restaurant, where Katerina, his wife, tells volunteers that the principle of the restaurant, called Home for All, is to invite people from the Moria camp (who are ‘guests’, not ‘refugees’) into the peace and tranquillity of a Greek home (3). Long tables are laid with white tablecloths, plates, glasses and cutlery, and volunteers cook good food in the kitchen at the back. Twice a day, at 1pm and 5pm, a minibus fetches guests from Moria. When I arrived, the selected groups were Afghan families with young children, and Eritrean women in traditional costume.

Katsouris used to play the bouzouki in rebetiko, the urban blues of Greece, although he hasn’t touched his instrument for 15 years. At Home for All, there is now a space created where the guests can make their own music, away from the grim atmosphere of the camp. A local music teacher works with young Afghan musicians, who compose songs and make basic tracks. Via WhatsApp, the tracks are sent to a studio in Afghanistan to be mixed down into a finished product. Time and space is also set aside for women from the camp to sing and dance in a safe women-only environment. This is the music room in action.

**Bagpipes in Palestine
“Fill your pipes with air and pretend that you are actually playing, even though you only have one reed between you” Abu Wassim

Kassim Aine’s office was on fire when I went to interview him in Beirut; there had been an electrical short circuit, and there was a fire engine and billowing smoke. He still managed to direct me to a school for Palestinian children that his national welfare organisation runs in the nearby Shatila camp (where rightwing Lebanese Christian forces killed 2,000 Palestinians in September 1982). When I got there, the children were in the hall with their instruments — ney, oud, violins, qanun — to give a little concert. They sang Palestinian songs, then the dance teacher brought a troupe of boys and girls onto the floor for an energetic and enthusiastic dabka (dance). Surprisingly, the teacher’s pulsing music was played on Scottish bagpipes. I was in Lebanon to carry a set of bagpipes, bought with a donation from students at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, London), to the Bourj al-Shamali Palestinian refugee camp in the south. I knew there was a Palestinian bagpipe band in Bethlehem (which came out of the Boy Scout tradition, dating back to the first world war), but had no idea of the significance of the pipes.

Abu Wassim, who is an inventive driving force of educational activism in the camp, met me at the checkpoint. He said that with high unemployment and dropout from school, there is always a danger that children will drift into drugs or violence, or towards fundamentalist organisations. He believes music is crucial to creating a unifying sense of discipline and community among the young. Since bagpipes are part of the cultural heritage of Palestine, he had set his heart on putting together a bagpipe band in Bourj al-Shamali, against all odds.

He said: ‘At first it was really, really hard. We bought one practice chanter. But we had a problem for the reeds. We asked Beit Atfal (in Beirut) to get us some. But they said no, because reeds are expensive and we have to get them from abroad … We took plastic drinking straws, and cut them with scissors, and made our own chanter reeds. The sound was not what the sound should be, but at least it was some kind of sound. When the Beirut people heard us playing, they laughed at us, but we didn’t care. Then, as time went on, we got more bagpipes… But the problem was that we had only one reed between four bagpipes. And we were supposed to be doing a public performance. So I told the children, take some paper and block the tubes of the drones. Then fill your pipes with air and pretend that you are actually playing, even though you only have one reed between you.’

**The work of Satan
There was opposition from fundamentalist Islamic organisations that oppose music, song and dance, particularly boys and girls making music together. Preachers in the local mosques condemn this as the work of Satan.

The pipes first arrived in Lebanon after Black September in 1970, when the Jordanian state turned against the Palestine Liberation Organisation. The Jordanian army had a pipe band trained by the British, and Palestinian pipers quit the army and joined the Palestinian revolution. The musicians say the pipes then became the sound of that revolution.

Makeshift piping in Bourj al-Shamali is a thing of the past, and the camp now has a strong group of 50 boys and girls, with pipers and drummers of both sexes. They have toured Italy and France, and went to the international bagpipe festival in L’Orient, where the town’s mayor presented them with 12 sets of pipes at €2,000 each. The struggle has been long and hard, but as Abu Wassim says: ‘If you believe in music and musical education, then you have to fight for it’. Another music room in action.

**Lebanese Choir
In London, we’re planning an Arabic choir, so it was a pleasure to go for supper with Barkev Taslakian, director of the Fayha Choir, established in Tripoli in 2003. He told me this internationally celebrated choir is the only one doing a capella four-part harmony with Arabic music. For the past decade, it has been creating other choirs, working with young people in camps in Lebanon, where 25% of the population are refugees. It has a project with Syrian refugee children in the Bekaa Valley. Taslakian said newly arrived children were well behaved at first, but as they grew up in the camps they became troublesome and hard to handle; there were knife fights and blood in the intervals of choir practice. All the camp children carry knives. He has his own ways of dealing with it; when he begins to form a choir, his policy is to pick out the bad boys, the most troublesome, and bring them into the choir, even if they have no aptitude for singing, Slowly the choir is formed, and the children gain an alternative to anomie and violence. That is how the idea of the music room works in practice (4).

The Fayha Choir is musically innovative in adding harmony to Arab song, though traditionalists might not approve. This tension between eastern and western ways of doing things is ever present in Lebanon. Not least for Mustapha Dakhloul, 20, who plays the bagpipes in Bourj al-Shamali. He learned the standard pipe repertoire through the Boy Scouts, but felt constrained by their westernised repertoires. I told him I study maqam, the ancient Middle Eastern modal music as expounded by Al-Farabi (5), and he begged me to stay for a week to teach him what I know. There are many scales in Arabic music — rast, saba, ussak (6) — but he lacks this heritage. He felt sad that he only recognised hijaz, the mode of the camp muezzin’s daily calls, ‘in his ear’. Dakhloul is a musical revolutionary who believes in ‘breaking the rules of the bagpipes’ (7). Besides playing with beatboxers and rappers, he and a friend are redesigning their bagpipe chanters to produce Arabic quarter-tones. Exciting new prospects for Palestinian music.

Ed Emery is an ethnomusicologist and organiser of the SOAS Arabic Choir at the School of Oriental and African Studies [SOAS], University of London. Contact:

(1) ‘Musical Freespace: Towards a Radical Politics of Musical Spaces and Musical Citizenship’. See:
(2) ‘The worst refugee camp on earth’, BBC. See:
(3) ‘Greek Couple Welcomes Refugees’ (4) Fayha Choir. See:
(5) Maqam project, YouTube. See:
(6) Arabic Maqam World. See:
(7) ‘Bagpipes and Rap’. See:

Editor’s Note: I came across this article in September via a posting on Facebook by a French friend of mine. The article was originally printed in the December 2018 issue of Le Monde Diplomatique. I immediately contacted Ed to ask if I could reprint it in Chanter as I thought that this project needed wider publicity. I am very grateful to Wendy Kristianasen and Le Monde Diplomatique,, for permission to reprint it here.

**Request for bagpipes for Palestinian Musicians in Lebanon refugee camps.

The visit to the Bourj Al-Shamali refugee camp, as described in the above article, was organised by SOAS Ceilidh Band, as part of our solidarity volunteering activity in Lebanon in November 2018. The musicians that we met there – and in particular their indefatigable organiser, Abu Wassim – asked us in the clearest terms to organise donations of bagpipes so that they can continue their work. Specifically Highland pipes, and preferably pipes of good quality.
If any of your readers have pipes that you would be prepared to donate, please write and let us know and also to make arrangements for delivery. In addition, if you would be interested to join a solidarity trip to the Lebanon camps, we can send you details of the next SOAS trip (Autumn 2020), which you are welcome to join. Email address is above.