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The Bagpipe Society

The Amazing Airbags (plus more!)

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Amazing Airbags is the premier band of young pipers in Belgium. Led by artistic director, piper and teacher Birgit Bornauw, the album showcases the talent of a group of 9 to 14 year olds. Birgit, with Benjamin Macke, have chosen and arranged a good range of music for the ‘pipes that is just right for the young players – enough challenge to make sure they try some different techniques and time signatures (schottische, jigs, reels, waltz, bourrées…) while being fun to play. It’s a happy and consistent album full of familiar tunes from the opener, Konvulstionslten to J’ai Vu le Loup as the finale. Bravo the pipers – Astrid Lobert, Daan Samson, Dries Debersaques, Elsa Collet, Hannelore Valentin, Iana Vanlokeren, Simon Van Rentergem, Tijl Van der Meersch, Wiebe Vanlasselaer, Wolf Smeets and Zera Sevin – and bravo the parents for driving them to lessons on many a cold and rainy night. Bravo Birgit Bornauw (‘pipes) and Benjamin Macke (accordion) without whose teaching skills and ideas this would not have been possible. Hurrah for the pipe makers too – Arie Dedekeyzer, Frans Hattink, Jon Swayne, Olle Geris and Stephane Douchet. It’s a tough call whether to bring in some “grown-ups” to augment the sound on a project like this, to provide a rhythmic and harmonic framework for the ‘pipes, or just let the children be and sound as they do. They went for the former approach and Tister Ikomo, Jo Zanders, Aurelien Tanghe and Anxo Lorenzo have a done a cracking job with a deft touch and plenty of joie de vivre.

I enjoyed listening to this album and hope some of the students keep going with their piping as adults. While I have your attention though, I’ll attempt an overview of bagpipes in Belgium and their social and historical context. In doing so I know there are many readers who know far more about that story than me. My connection started as a small child entranced by a painting of bagpipers by Pieter Breughel the Elder. I went on to play bagpipes, including an early encounter with a set of Flemish ‘pipes, I now live in Belgium and my observations are mostly subjective.

Let’s start with a bit about how Belgium supports its cultural traditions. How was this album / project possible? Birgit Bornauw’s job is made more do-able because the Belgian federal and regional governments support the teaching of arts and music outside formal education settings such as schools and conservatoires. Anyone from 6 years old upwards can participate in a weekly class and learn a wide range of arts and music subjects and skills. As well as jazz and classical music this is inclusive of Belgian folk music for violin, diatonic accordion, hurdy-gurdy and bagpipes. Arts centres across Belgium participate in this scheme. To find out more, de Academie in Ieper ( is a good example of this art-for-all initiative. Belgian folk festivals, arts centres and organisations also stage workshops of course, as well as concerts and dances that do much to promote Belgian folk music including bagpipes. A special mention should go to Muziekmozaiek in Gooik who are notable for doing as much for jazz as they do for folk. (

So why does a comparatively small country such as Belgium do this? I’m not sure anyone could ever get to the bottom of the complexity of Belgian culture, certainly not me, but from the Reformation in the 16th Century onwards there has been a struggle for separate Flemish and French speaking identities in what is now called Belgium – as well as for a combined federal identity - involving trade, religion, music and ancient cultural traditions. They’ve too often been walked over by larger neighbours so, maybe, deep down they’ve always known that you have to fight for your right to party and keep cultural traditions alive for future generations. If I stepped out of the door now and asked the first person I met what tune they like to hear on the bagpipes it would still be Amazing Grace, not Onder den Toren, but, there’s a strong piping scene here based on a rich, complex musical and bagpiping history, high quality bagpipe makers and too many good players to mention.

As we know, the roots of the European folk revival goes back at least to the middle of the 19th century when a few individuals who were interested, educated and wealthy enough to have the free time, started to study the history of “ordinary” people. Whether their motivation was anthropological (it was also the time when more methodical archaeological practices began) or a more general interest in history, they collected and published folklore myths and legends, songs, tunes and dances and ensured that “folk instruments” including bagpipes were represented in museum collections. The irony was that they thought they’d discovered something previously unknown, or, at least, something that many of their class hadn’t previously understood the extent of. If they’d bothered to investigate before then they would have “discovered” that working people, particularly in rural areas, always had a rich popular music and folklore culture as a normal part of their daily lives. It’s a bit like Columbus “discovering” America. Try telling that to native Americans. They also discovered what some feared most, that the hold of the church over the population was, in places, a thin veneer under which bubbled ancient pagan beliefs and traditions that should be supressed. Bagpipes were often associated with those ancient fears - what lies beneath or lurks in the depths of the primeval forest. But the absolute positive was that far more would have been lost if they hadn’t collected as they did, as industrialisation and the movement of rural populations to urban centres was rapidly eroding what was left of centuries old traditions.

Chares De Coster’s re-telling of the popular folk tale The Legend of Thyl Ulenspiegel and Lamme Goedzak (1867) placed an ancient story of Germanic “low countries” origins in Brugge. De Coster (who had a Flemish father and a Wallon mother) published it in French. That didn’t please Flemish speakers at the time and because of the story’s connections with the “dutch” Protestant heritage, it didn’t please some of the French speaking Catholic ruling class either. It’s those tensions that are at the heart of what it is to be Belgian. Ulenspiegel is just one work that sparked a renewed interest in folk culture in Belgium and the low countries – and bagpipes play an important part in that story. George Sand wove a story about bagpiping muleteers in Les Maîtres Sonneurs (1853) precisely because the ‘pipes hark back to the notion of Arcadia.

After the Second World War that desire to understand and treasure the fragile ecology of what was left of European “folk” music in the wild gained further traction. This was driven by a broadly socialist agenda intended to reconnect with and celebrate the experiences of working people’s lives and to find a sense of community in that. The modern folk scene still carries that, and all that has gone before, in its DNA.

The detailed and naturalistic depiction of two pipers in the ‘Peasant Wedding’ (Boerenbruiloft, c1568) by Pieter Breughel the Elder is as good a place to start as any. A touchstone for the importance of bagpipes in Northern Europe in general and Belgium/the Netherlands in particular, though sadly no sets or parts of them have survived from that time. They are immediately distinctive with their pear-shaped bag, two drones in a common stock pointing up and forwards and a conical chanter that is longer than many common European ‘pipes of the time – these days they are often made in D (like the cornemuses of central France - 20 pouces / ré) although other keys are available. As a teenager I was mightily impressed with a set of Flemish doedelzak/pijpzak “Breugel” ‘pipes made by Herman Dewit brought to London by my friend Juan Wijngaard. I remember inflating them for the first time and grappling to find the balance point for this strange beast. Trying to play tunes from Juan’s copy of the first ‘t Kliekske album was a precursor to Blowzabella.

Which brings us inexorably to Herman Dewit. He has a great deal to answer for - in a good way. He is like a Flemish Rome as many piping roads lead back to him somehow or other. From the late 1960s onwards he and others took the initiative to encourage people to get involved with ‘pipes and other folk instruments. He also experimented with making ‘pipes, hurdy-gurdies, rommelpots and other strange things that often feature in his wonderfully creative children’s workshops – for which he was awarded an honorary doctorate. The seminal Flemish band ‘t Kliekse (Herman Dewit, Rosita Tahon, Oswald Tahon, Raoul Robyn, Frans Lots and Wilfred Moonen) were unique when they started in 1968 and paved the way for the modern Flemish traditional folk revival. The late great Wannes Van de Velde even had a go at the ‘pipes in those early days. I heard a story that he bought a cheap set of Highland ‘pipes that were not well set up and he made such a terrible noise that Meneer Dewitt made him a set of Flemish ‘pipes. There are so many players that it’s unfair to pick out one but here’s a photo of the inimitable Dirk Van der Speeten, who many readers will know, especially if they’ve had the good fortune to visit his music venue Muziek Club ‘t Ey in Belsele. A fabulous piper with a seemingly limitless repertoire of great Flemish tunes.

PHOTO Dirk Van der Speeten

Someone once said that there are so many great saxophone players now who play bebop/post-bebop styles to a fantastically high technical level. Yes, but Parker, Coltrane and a few others did it first. It’s much easier to follow a path created by others than to invent a whole genre. And the analogy applies to bands such as ‘t Kliekske, Rum, Kadril and De Velde’s band. There are groups now that probably play “better” but they have all benefited enormously from a small number of people who had the creativity and imagination to go beyond the 1960s singer/songwriter, guitar/vocal folk scene and make old Flemish music sound fresh and interesting for new generations.

After Breugel, perhaps the other, though less well known, iconic image of ‘pipes that are particular to Belgium is this old photograph of the shepherd Alphonse Gheux from the French speaking Wallonia/Wallonie region.

PHOTO Alphonse Gheux

He is playing a Muchosa, a bagpipe very like the Chabrette in central France, with a conical chanter in a common stock with a short drone and a separate bass drone coming from the main body of the bag. They are in Bflat (the best of all bagpipe keys/pitches?) and have a sonorous quality, the sound carries well, partly to do with the pitch, but is always sweet. Find out more about the history at Remi Dubois, Olle Geris and other makers have done so much to bring this bagpipe back into use with instruments of the highest quality. I envy the Muschosa player Pascale Gheux for her great good fortune to be the great granddaughter of Alphonse. I wonder what it’s like to be directly connected through your family to such a rich tradition? She appears to wear it lightly and clearly enjoys her playing with, amongst others, La Confrérie des Muchards de Saint Druon.

PHOTO Pascale Gheux

Bagpipes with conically bored double-reeded chanters with various drone arrangements are, as you of course know, common all over Europe. This fundamental concept for a useful instrument to play popular music on developed in the early middle ages replacing much more ancient pipes with more or less straight chanter bores with single-reeds. The pole lathe has been around for a long time but maybe access to affordable steel tools for woodworking made the difference allowing makers to develop ‘pipes in regional styles, the local variants being akin to dialects of that common “language”. The same can be said about cheese, bread, wine, beer and a thousand other things that express local culture. Although parts of Europe have been periodically at war with other parts for as long as humans migrated out of Africa in the search for space, resources or simple wanderlust, the ubiquity of bagpipes is a reminder that Europeans have always been connected with each other culturally - and more widely with other cultures and civilisations globally. A great sounding bagpipe is a great sounding bagpipe and a great tune is a great tune, despite and not because of where it originated. Some post-war folk revivalists possibly spent more time making the case for a song, a tune, a dance, a story, a bagpipe being from a unique and specific place than celebrating the connections between them. Just because a collector heard and wrote down a tune heard in a particular village is no guarantee that it originated there. To take Border / half-long bagpipes as an example. The name “border” ‘pipes refers to the fact that by the 19th century they were played in northern England and southern Scotland, but there is evidence that they spread from the South of England northwards in the 17th century. So how did they get there? From continental France and Belgium in all probability. And so it is with ‘pipes found in what is now Belgium. The doedelzak/pijpzak is from a family of ‘pipes originating in Germany that found a home in Flanders. Or maybe it was the other way around? The Muchosa is found in Wallonie but maybe it arrived there from central France, or maybe it was the other way around or they came from further afield? Does it matter? The important thing about bagpipes is that they are as inter-connected as the people who choose to play them.

These days a lot of pipers here play ‘pipes in G – as on the Amazing Airbags album - which has been great for me as an incomer. It pushed me to play my Jon Swayne G border ‘pipes more and learn a few of the many excellent tunes to be found everywhere in Belgium. Something I’ll be doing more of, as well as probably giving into the increasing temptation to buy a Muchosa. Well, you can never have enough bagpipes can you?

It’s a pity Chanter doesn’t have a letters page so we can all enjoy some old school magazine letters that start “Dear Sir (or Madam), I was outraged by your previous correspondent’s assertion that ….. etc etc” You can always email me. Lots of love to all you pipers out there in these strange and difficult times.

With thanks to Rosalie Bosteels for helping me navigate the minefield that is Flemish/Belgian culture.