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More to it than I first thought

Of all the sounds to be heard at Le Son Continu, the piping festival held annually in July at La Chartre, in Central France, the sound of the boha from Gascony is, in certain respects the most exotic. In part this is because its chanter uses a single reed and, in part, because of its “contra pipe,” recognizable to anyone familiar with bagpipes of Eastern Europe, especially those associated with the Carpathian Basin. This pipe, lying fast adjacent to the chanter, has a single tone hole struck by the right pinky for both harmonic and rhythmic effects. My informant concerning this instrument, Monsieur Yan Cozian of Soustons, says there seems to be no ideal word for this changeable pipe which, by definition therefore, is not drone even though it can function as one. I think it could be argued that it is a regulator, though “contra pipe” seems more or less current in discussion of it in both Eastern and Western contexts.

The obvious question that arises in connection with this charming bagpipe is how, with its single-reed chanter and other organologic features associated with bagpipes of the Carpathians, it ended up on the Atlantic Seaboard of Southern France. Yan Cozian believes, largely by evidence of the metalwork designs on the oldest surviving, historic instruments of the region, that they were brought to the area in the 18th century by travellers from Eastern Europe; apparently there is other, ancillary evidence for these migrations as well. Another, less convincing, theory holds that the boha is native to Gascony, that its single reed is evidence of its early and indigenous evolution in the region which, because of geographic isolation, was cut off from developments in the world around it and so the instrument remained as it always had been. Yan, who corresponds with several makers of Eastern European bagpipes, said that one of his Hungarian friends told him, point blank, that the boha is their bagpipe!

For a week in January this year I had the privilege of taking several lessons with Monsieur Cozian, retired professor of music at the Conservatoire des Landes in Southwestern France, boha maker, author of a tutor and collection of tunes for the boha, an organiser and enthusiastic participant in several local folk music and dance groups, as well as an exponent of the Gascon language. Yan took care to impress upon me two different approaches to playing the regulator pipe which, as mentioned above, may be used either for harmonic accompaniment or more for rhythmic effect. To accustom me to using it for harmonic accompaniment, he instructed me to keep time with my foot and to change the pitch of the regulator alternately at the beginning of each bar of music. Upon demonstrating a little facility at this, he had me change the note of the regulator with each beat of the music. Feeling encouraged after a couple of lessons, a few tunes, and some home practice that yielded rudimentary control of these first assignments, Yan proceeded to explain that the sound and character of the instrument, especially when playing for dancing, comes about by more of a purely rhythmic application of the regulator. What had seemed relatively easy at once became much more difficult when, while playing a simple jig, with the usual six quavers to the bar, I was instructed to play a counter rhythm on the regulator by, for example, changing its pitch in a rhythm of alternating quavers & crotchets. It all amounts to making the right pinky act independently of all the other fingers — the ones playing the tune — and it’s not at all easy because, of course, the right pinky is supposed to be involved with the playing of tunes, too — or always had been in my experience up until then! The right pinky can also do duty on the chanter, closing its tone hole to sound the bottom leading tone — with or without stopping the regulator at the same time.

The accomplished make all of this look easy and, at a local pipers’ club meeting toward the end of my stay, I heard several bohaires play whose right pinkies seemed entirely liberated to embellish, harmonize, and percuss ad libitum. Good examples of such playing, on bohas and sundry dudas and gaidas, can, of course, be found online; though possibly to many readers the music of the boha, the tunes themselves, will prove more accessible than those of its Eastern European cousins; and who knows but what some practical, technical experience on the boha might not be, in effect, a sensible gateway toward exploration of its Eastern relatives.

I like this photo because it has the date — Happy New Year 2020 — in the building the local pipers’ club shares with anther group — dance perhaps... I can’t remember...