NEXT month Glasgow once more welcomes thousands of pipers from around the world, and one nation is sending a particularly strong force
IS IT a case of the Empire strikes back, or simply the Scots diaspora bringing it all back home? Early next month some 8,000 pipers, drummers and other performers from home and abroad will converge on Glasgow for the city’s ninth Piping Live! festival, starting on 6 August, a week-long countdown to what has been described as the piping Olympics – the World Pipe Band Championships on Glasgow Green.
Among those homing in on the old country are at least nine pipe bands from Canada, including the mighty Simon Fraser University Pipe Band from British Columbia – which has won The World’s, as the championship is known, no fewer than six times, coming second on another nine occasions – and which has just celebrated its 30th anniversary by releasing its 12th CD, Live from New York City.
Rather like the explorer and fur trader of Scots descent after whom its parent institution is named, the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band is an adventurous outfit that sets its sights high. So when it came to celebrating 30 years of piping, where else should they record their anniversary disc than at New York’s prestigious Lincoln Center? They had, after all, previously recorded a live album in no less a venue than the Carnegie Hall, as the band’s pipe-sergeant and co-founder, Jack Lee, recalls, “and that had been a wonderful experience, so we thought, ‘Let’s go back to New York,’ and we booked the Lincoln Center because it’s such a great venue and recorded the album there in May.”
Lee, who established the band with his brother, Pipe Major Terry Lee, is speaking from Hunter Mountain resort in the Catskill Mountains of New York state. He is teaching at a week-long piping course there before joining the band in Seattle, where they will launch the new album this weekend while competing at the Pacific North-West Highland Games.
Jack, 54, and Terry, who’s two years older, are Manitoba-born but grew up in a suburb of Vancouver steeped in Highland piping. Just how much so was reflected five years ago, he recalls, when his grandmother died. “We had a really wonderful funeral for her in Vancouver. There were 11 pipers, three drummers and one Highland dancer there – all family.”
Lee’s two sisters and his three sons are all pipers, but the gene didn’t pass through his father, who wasn’t a player, but through their uncle and cousins. The vital link with Scotland, however, was his great-grandfather, the Glasgow-born John Ironside, who learned his piping with the Highland Light Infantry and emigrated to Vancouver and then to Seattle in the 1930s. It was his son, Jack Ironside, made an MBE for services to Scottish traditions outside the British Empire, who presented his five-year-old nephew and namesake with a half-sized chanter, and became his first mentor.
Probably the most formative influence on Jack and his brother’s formidable piping skills, however, was Jimmy MacMillan of Vancouver: “Jimmy loved piobaireachd. He taught us all through our childhood and gave us a love for the music and a passion for the sound and the tone of the instrument which has stuck with us.”
That “P” word also emerges when I ask Lee what it takes to maintain a pipe band at World Championship Grade One level. “We have a very strong leadership and our leaders are still very passionate about the band, very committed,” he says. “We have a core of veteran players who are rock solid, and we also have a group of young pipers and drummers who are terrifically talented. And like other great bands, there’s a real feeling of pride, and they know that there are high expectations if they’re to play in the circle with us.”
The SFU’s tally as six-times world champions has been pipped in recent years only by Northern Ireland’s Field Marshall Montgomery band, who took the coveted trophy last year and on a previous six occasions. Historically, the competition was regularly won by great Scottish bands such as Strathclyde Police (the former City of Glasgow Police Pipe Band) who have won 20 world championships and Shotts and Dykehead (15). In recent years, however, the prize has often been borne off the field by bands from northern and southern Ireland – and of course, by the SFUs.
Amid next month’s “Canadian invasion”, the Simon Fraser University band is mounting its largest logistic exercise ever, bringing no fewer than 250 people to Scotland, including two junior bands under the banner of the Robert Malcolm Memorial Pipe Band. Both the SFUs and the junior bands will play in Piping Live’s George Square arena on Wednesday 8 August, along with another Canadian visitor, Alberta Caledonia Pipe Band, while Lee himself gives a solo recital at the National Piping Centre.
Other Canadians flying in include the 78th Highlanders Halifax Citadel band from Nova Scotia and the City of Regina band, Saskatchewan, as well as Toronto Police and the 78th Fraser Highlanders from Ontario (the first overseas band to win the world championship, back in 1987).
Piping Live! embraces far more than band playing in its week-long programme, often featuring bagpipes from beyond Scotland. The opening concert at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall’s Strathclyde Suite on 6 August, for instance, features the Irish uilleann pipes of the John McSherry Band with Michael McGoldrick, John McCusker and Kris Drever, while on Tuesday, quartets from top bands from throughout the world will compete in the Royal Concert Hall’s Strathclyde Suite.
Gaelic song and piping are united in Orain nam Piobairean at the National Piping Centre on Wednesday, featuring singer Kathleen MacInnes and the high-powered group Breabach, while Thursday night has the group Tejedor, from Spain’s Asturias piping territory, in the Strathclyde Suite. Other recitals featuring the indigenous piping traditions of Bulgaria, Estonia and Belgium, while, touching base, a “Piobaireachd of the Day” sounds out at Glasgow’s oldest piping institution, the College of Piping.
The festival also celebrates one of modern piping’s greatest composers, Donald MacLeod, who died in 1982. At the National Piping Centre on Friday, his daughter Susan will look at her father’s life and music along with John Wilson (formerly of Strathclyde Police band) and Iain MacDonald, while later at the same venue, Donald MacLeod: A Celebration features Innes Smith, competing medallist and current owner of MacLeod’s pipes, and the piping trio Sutor Creek.
Things come to the crunch on Saturday 11 August as Glasgow Green becomes a sonic maelstrom of pipes and drums, with thousands of musicians and spectators converging on it for the World Championships. Last year, the SFUs came second to the Field Martial Montgomery Band: how does Lee rate his band’s chances this time around?
“I think they’re reasonably good,” he responds. “It’s very competitive at the top. Most people would say that it comes down to just a handful of bands, and we’re one of these bands.
“We’ve been first or second 15 times over the last 30 years, so we’ll be right in the thick of the action.”
• Piping Live runs 6-12 August. For full details and bookings, see www.pipinglive.co.uk For the World Pipe Band Championships, see www.theworlds.co.uk
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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