The blossom festival parade seemed to drag on forever this year and when our pipe band finished marching, a pit stop to replace lost body fluids was a necessity. There was an added inducement to go for a cold draught when someone announced that the pipe bands were stopping at Rosie’s in downtown Kentville and there would be playing galore.
While I was physically wiped out and a coffee would be more invigorating than a brew, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity of hearing some of the best pipers in eastern Canada. For me, the next best thing to playing the pipes is listening to them. So anticipating some fine music, and ignoring my burning feet, I struck out for Webster Street.
I would like to report that I enjoyed a cold brew and good piping at Rosie’s but I only stopped for a moment. For the first time ever bagpipe music turned me off, literally, figuratively, any way you want to put it; and not because it was being poorly played. The pipers on Rosie’s patio were excellent and it wasn’t what they were playing that made me shun them but how it was being played.
To explain why this was a turn off we have to talk for a moment about the work of piping historian and well-known piper, Barry Shears, of Halifax. Mr. Shears has published two books of Cape Breton pipe music with old photographs and is currently working on a history of Nova Scotia pipers. In his earlier writing Mr. Shears bewailed the fact that the pipes have been pushed aside as a “social dance instrument,” thanks to the increased usage of amplified instruments (i.e. the electric guitar) and the increasing popularity of the fiddle.
While this was happening piping became standardize and written music appeared. This eventually led to the advent of pipe bands and the disappearance of what Mr. Shears calls “learning pipe music in the oral tradition,” that is learning it by the music being sung with Gaelic words or in a form of mouth music. Pipe music played in this old style was more lively and happy and as Mr. Shears points out, much more expressive of the Gaelic culture in Nova Scotia.
The upshot is that much of the pipe music, or so-called pipe music, being heard today is played in a pedantic, mechanical style that is little better than rhythmic exercises. While the pipers playing this music are excellent technicians and are good at what they do, their playing, for the most part, lacks emotional expression.
Many of the tunes pipe bands favor today remind me of someone counting with bagpipe notes. I heard this band or competition style being played at Rosie’s after the blossom festival parade and it was actually depressing; I made a hasty retreat up the road to Tim Hortons.
The new style of piping (as opposed to the traditional style Barry Shears writes about) is entrenched firmly today. There is hope of a revival of the old style, however. Since the Cape Breton style of fiddling has become popular, musical groups here and there are adding bagpipes to their ensemble. The pipes we hear nowadays in these bands skirl out the old jigs and reels in a lively style that was once played a few generations ago in Nova Scotia.
There are many of us older pipers and lovers of pipe music who are happy indeed that this is happening.