World stage beckons for piper Fraser Fifield

Piper and saxophonist Fraser Fifield. Picture: Contributed
Piper and saxophonist Fraser Fifield. Picture: Contributed
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PIPER and saxophonist Fraser Fifield is building musical links around the world, writes Jim Gilchrist

Edinburgh Folk Club, New York’s Carnegie Hall, Mumbai, Buenos Aires... it’s all grist to the mill for piper and saxophonist Fraser Fifield, whose diary has been packed since the turn of the year. Having cropped up at least three times during last month’s Celtic Connections – including the ecstatically received 80-piece orchestral tribute to Martyn Bennett which opened the festival – he spent a week at the beginning of this month playing in India with renowned percussion guru Zakir Hussain, while the day I spoke to him he was due that night to play a gig at Edinburgh Folk Club in his long-standing partnership with folk-jazz guitarist Graeme Stephen.

Further globetrotting beckons but, most immediately, he is looking forward to a Reels to Ragas tour of the Highlands and islands as part of the Red Note Ensemble, along with London-Asian tabla player Kuljit Bhamra, violinist Jackie Shave and cellist and Red Note founder Robert Irvine.

Fifield first worked with the Scottish contemporary music outfit during Aberdeenshire’s innovative sound festival last autumn. “It went well,” he says, “and it’s still fresh in the memory to pick up where we left off, developing some of the material we played then and also introducing a couple of new things.”

He enjoys the intimate scale of the group as a musical unit. “When one hears the term ‘ensemble’, you assume it must be a significant size of group, but it’s really just the tabla player, a violinist and cellist and me, so there’s plenty of room for all the musicians to say their piece; it’s not as constrained as some contemporary classical activities might be.”

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Fifield, an accomplished player of the Highland and border pipes as well as saxophone, whistles and Balkan kaval, finds his piping combines naturally enough with Indian music. “The bagpipe scale fits in some ragas and not with others.” A uniting factor, he agrees, is the drones which underpin both bagpipes and Indian music. “As a piper, you do hear intervals in relation to a root note, so that’s definitely common ground.”

A distinguished composer and producer in his own right as well as an acclaimed percussionist, Bhamra is far from being the first tabla player with whom Fifield has collaborated, and the beginning of this month saw him in Mumbai, along with some other leading Scottish, Irish and Breton folk musicians such as fiddlers Patsy Reid and Charlie McKerron, to form the “Celtic” contingent in a revival of the Pulse of the World collaboration which Hussain, a long-standing world music hero, premiered at Celtic Connections a few years ago.

While in India, Fifield found himself piping at an early morning concert commemorating the Carnatic Indian mandolinist U Srinivas, who died last year. “I played at seven in the morning, just before a 15-piece version of Shakti got on stage. It was quite an experience to play a couple of pipe tunes as part of a concert like that.”

The Pulse of the World show, which also involves Indian violinist Ganesh Rajagopalan and flautist Rakesh Chaurasia, will tour 15 venues across the United States later in March, including the Carnegie Hall and two nights at San Francisco Jazz Centre.

That’s only the start of Fifield’s global peregrinations. At the end of last year he was awarded an artist bursary by Creative Scotland which will see him return to India as well as visit West Africa and South America. His first stop, in June, will be Buenos Aires, where he’ll meet up with a player of the bandoneon, the tango-powering Argentinian accordion.

Now 39, and based in Edinburgh, Fifield has said in the past that despite his wide-ranging musical and, increasingly, geographical wanderings, the piping he learned growing up in Aberdeenshire has been a touchstone and that remains the case. “I certainly enjoy going back and playing a 2/4 march now and again. It sounds clichéd, but if music is a universal language, everyone has their own accent and I got mine growing up with bagpipes and saxophone. Rather than going back to that, however, it comes with you, and when you speak to, or play with, people from whatever part of the world, they’re going to hear that twang, but they should be able to get what you’re on about.”

Reels to Ragas runs from 6 to 10 March at the Mission House, Harris; the Ceilidh Place, Ullapool; Universal Hall, Findhorn; Victoria Hotel, Glenbuchat and the Big Shed, Tombreck. For further information see www.rednoteensemble.com and www.fraserfifield.com