The Bagpipe Society

The Amazing Airbags

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The Amazing Airbags, an orchestra of children aged 9 -14, is a project of bagpiper Birgit Bornauw, Master in Bagpipes at the Lemmensinstituut, Leuven, Belgium, allied with the Academies of Ghent and Ypres. She also teaches in workshops throughout Europe. Here is their story.

Bagpiping is not really traditional in Belgium and it’s impossible to compare it to Scotland or Galicia for example. Today we are playing bagpipes due to the musicians who started to rebuild traditional instruments - which had been completely lost - during the Folkrevival in the ’60 and ’70. Flanders is known for the famous paintings with bagpipers and hurdy gurdy players but there aren’t any surviving examples. However, in the South part of the country, Wallonia, there are the remains of three bagpipes – known locally as muchosa - but without reeds, without players, without any recorded or written music, except from some tunes which should have been played on these instruments according to very old people during fieldwork in the ‘60. The last known player in Belgium stopped playing in 1910.

This is just to show how far we have come. During the revival a new bagpipe was made, in that period the builders tried to create a new local tradition, but today we call it Europipes. The same kind of bagpipe as you can find now in France, Germany, The Netherlands and England… and it took some time to create high quality instruments and players. The first generation of Belgian bagpipers hadn’t any experience, any teacher, any music to play on these instruments. Luckily there were several enthusiasts who wanted to promote this instrument and they started to organize summer courses for traditional music. These courses were a great success and players could meet teachers from abroad, mostly from France. Participants came with their children to the course, this is very important, because these children were the first generation to grew up with this kind of music and instruments and learned to play traditional music from a very young age. The summer course which, without doubt, had the most influence was in Gooik, Flanders. The participants came year by year and became better skilled players. But they also realized that one week in a year is not enough. That’s why the organization (real enthusiasts) started to organize weekly private lessons, given by amateurs. This happened in the ’90s. Due to the 2nd Folkrevival, these enthusiasts started to lobby the Conservatoires and as a result, in 1988, the first lessons for traditional music started in the music school of Gooik. This was a great success and since that time, more and more music schools/academies/conservatories have started to teach traditional music in Flanders. In 1999 the conservatory of Leuven started a course for traditional and barokbagpipe (barokmusette). In 2004 we were the first students with a master diploma for bagpiping and well trained in harmony, rhythm, solfège, history of music and so on…

When I arrived in Gooik, around 1996, there were not yet many young people interested in this kind of music, just a handful of youngsters, but we took over the enthusiasm from the older generation. They supported us very much and gave us all the chances we needed to grow as a musician. This was very important for us. Enthusiastic people attract new enthusiasts and, as a result, the course in Gooik kept growing. Nowadays the Folksceimne in Flanders is quite young and has a very high musical level.

But still, Folkmusic is still only followed by a small group of people, and it does not have a presence on radio or TV. Gathering young players together was important to me so that I could show how good it could be if they are well trained from the beginning, how important it is to play also by ear and just ow nice it is to play together. It was also important to motivate the young bagpipe players and to show the world that all this is happening in Belgium. Some of my students come from musical families and grew up on festivals and summer courses but the most of them didn’t and this didn’t know where to go to enjoy this kind of music.

For me The Amazing Airbags is the ideal way to take children to the world of Folk and to show them other players, other music and so on. As they are trained from the beginning to play by ear and they are used to the idea of jamsessions, they can play with other children of their own age and aren’t afraid to take their instrument to play with other people. By working with the children weekly I can teach them, from the very beginning, all the musical skills that are important to me and so they became very fine players, who are, from a very young age, used to playing together. They are no longer lonesome wolves and that is the big difference from the adults I had worked with until now. It is also my way of continuing the good work from all the bagpipe enthusiasts that precede me. These Amazing Airbag children are learning very fast, with good teachers and they the first generation in Belgium to have this chance and as a result I’m very optimistic for the bagpipe’s future.

I discussed my idea of forming a group of bagpipe-playing children with the Cassel Cornemuse Festival, a bagpipe festival in the North of France. This had never been done before and the organizer gave us our chance on the main stage, in the prime hour slot! I wanted to be sure that we made a great impression and not just “the music school playing on the big stage”, so I asked the leading players appearing at the festival if they would join us for a tune. They agreed all and so we played our first concert with Andy May, Goran Farkas, La Fraternelle des cornemuses and Anxo Lorenzo. It was a big hit! We played a great set and the audience was impressed. I was so proud to be there with these children and it will be a moment in my musical career I’ll never forget. It gave me goosebumps.

Because the concert was such a great success, we thought that it might be great to propose this concept to other festivals, therefore we’ll need a CD to convince organizers. So, in December 2019 we started to record and the CD came out in June, in the middle of the Corona crisis. Sadly we haven’t had a chance to promote our CD and the children will probably be teenagers when we next have a chance to play at a festival, but that seems also OK to me.  At least, I’m happy to have our CD to make them proud of themselves and to keep them motivated during this crisis period.

The Amazing Airbags wouldn’t exist without the help of partner and diatonic accordion player Benjamin Macke, musician and teacher in many workshops across Europe.