The Bagpipe Society

In the Bag - Eric Montbel

From 1975 Eric Montbel recorded the old cabrette players in Paris and Auvergne, and reissued the 78rpm recordings of the master Bouscatel. His research on “chabrettes limousines” allowed him to discover nearly 130 old models and to initiate the revival. Eric was one of Bernard Blanc’s first “musettes 14 and 16 pouces” players, and contributed to their distribution with his groups Le Grand Rouge and then Lo Jai. He toured intensively in the USA and Europe. Eric has been working on the reconstruction of the Italian “sordellina” for several years with Marco Tomassi. Eric lives in Aix-en-Provence, where he teaches ethnomusicology at the University.

What bagpipes do you play?

Musettes 16 pouces, 23 pouces (Bernard Blanc), cabrette (Alias, Ruols), chabrettes limousine and GCM (originals of 18th and 19th century, and copies by Thierry Boisvert and Claude Girard), musette de Cour (17th century, one chanter, copy by Marco Tomassi), Pastoral pipes (Mac Donald, 18th century, copy by Andreas Rogge).

Do you play any other instruments?

I graduated in saxophone as my first instrument, and I play flutes and guitar.

What led you to take up piping?

When I was 18, while playing the saxophone I tried circular blowing and rough sounds. I saw Bernard Blanc playing cabrette in a club, and I decided this was for me.

Which pipers do you most admire?

Traditional ones are French cabretaires Antonin Bouscatel, Victor Alard, Joseph Ruols and Jean Bergheaud. I put all the recordings of Antonin Bouscatel, more than 60 tunes from 78pm recorded at the beginning of 20th century, on line on my website, please check it. This man stays the main influence on my piping, for ever. Contemporary pipers: I love the style and sound of Andy May on Northumbrian pipes, François Lazarevitch on baroque musette, Marco Tomassi for his work on the sordellina, Michael O’Neill from Vancouver for his experimental work on Highland pipes. And lot of friends I do not mention here.

In pop-folk, Pentangle. In Baroque, the harpsichord music of Jean-Philippe Rameau. The cello of Jacqueline du Pré. In 20th century music, Philip Glass. In rock, “Murder ballads” by Nick Cave. It’s more than three?

What three albums are top of your playlist right now?

In bagpipe music, *L’Infinit * by Francesc Sans (Valencia), Cornemuses, Territoires lointains par Jean-Claude Blanc, Ontophony of Michael O’Neill. In pop music, “Eve of Agnes” by Xixa from Tucson, playing with the algerian touareg band Imharan ; and all the albums of Weyes Blood.

If you had your life again, what instrument would you play?

Cello, certainly.

Name your favourite music festival.

Le Printemps de Pérouges, near Lyon (France). We created my two albums “Le Jardin de l’Ange” and “Le Jardin des Mystères” there, playing in the church and the medieval castle, taking the audience for night walking trips for “mystery and mystical murder ballads”…. I loved it.

What are the most memorable gigs you’ve been to (involving pipes or not)?

The first memory coming to me is playing in the World Trade Centre Plaza in NY city, between the Twin Towers with Lo Jai, I think in 1987. Then a concert at the Oaxaca Festival with Lo Jai in Mexico, 1989, with hundreds of Mexican students dancing to our music. And the Mediterranean Orchestra in Sao Paulo, Brazil in 2005, when I was invited as a French musician – with the whole international band playing my composition “Calypso”. International, mixed and weird, to forget identities.

What three words describe your piping style?

Singing, nostalgia, hoping. Let’s say that’s what I try to express in my playing.

Bellows or mouth-blown?

Both, as my bagpipes use both ways.

Cats or dogs?

Cats definitely, because they are the only animals able to domesticate man.


Are there any bagpipes you dislike?

It’s more a question of style: I can’t stand the European neo-trad way of playing bagpipe as an annoying bad flute with a dull sound.

Do you prefer playing, dancing or both?

I’m not a good dancer, even if dance is for me one of the main arts – in any style – and one of my greatest pleasures is to look at people dancing, from Balèti to Tango, from Merce Cunningham to Kpop.

Cane or plastic reeds?

Definitely cane because I hear some uncontrolled high harmonics in plastic reeds.

What’s your greatest musical achievement?

Usually people say the next one, but I’m quite proud of my contribution on the chabrette limousine, from collecting all these old unknown and forgotten bagpipes, all these tunes and melodies, working with bagpipe makers, as my friends Thierry Boisvert and Claude Girard, and giving birth to a new practice. I would not say creating a new tradition (this would be very presumptuous), but I think there are tens of players now, due to this work.

What’s your most embarrassing bagpiping moment?

I was asked by the French embassy to play with an incredible band, a family of musicians playing the shenai in New Delhi, India. We were in the same tonality of B flat with my chabrette, Ok… But once on stage, I did not understand a minute of their way of improvising… I stopped playing, I looked on and appreciated … a big shame for me.

What’s the most annoying question you get asked about the bagpipes?

Playing in a school, a kid asked me if I had a monkey in the bag.

What advice would you give a novice?

An old piper said to me once: “Play happy, ‘cause people are sad”. (« Joue gai parce que les gens sont tristes »).

I love bagpipes because…

Each day is a new reason to love it, the feeling of this strange instrument not created for seduction, but more for the questions it suggests. Especially with the chabrettes and their mystical mirrors on the box. And for the freedom we have to respect rules, and to transgress it at the same time. On the cover of the CD of my friend Jean-Claude Blanc, there are some words by the French poet René Char : “Our heritage is preceded by no testament”. I made it mine.

As told to Andy Letcher