Ever wonder about bagpipes? Ever consider the varieties of this wondrous instrument whose seemingly endless supply of air and undercurrent of drone can accompany the most regal of ceremonies or the most raucous of circle dances? Who plays them and where are they to be found?
Some answers were uncovered in an aptly named Living Cultures Grants Program project called Drone Magic, an international festival of bagpipes. Under the direction of Hungarian-born piper Ferenc Tobak, this day-long event of workshops and concerts highlighted pipers representing the traditions of Hungary, Moldavia, Scotland, Greece, Macedonia Spain, Bulgaria, Italy, Sweden and Ireland. The winter solstice observances with its accompanying rituals and songs were shared by many of the participating musicians befitting the season. Some of the traditions referenced were the Koleda of Bulgaria which combines Orthodox Christian practices with folk customs of revelry and song and fasting; St. Lucia’s Day of Sweden with its processional, food, and songs celebrated on December 13th in Scandanavia; and the Urálás which is the new year celebration of the Hungarian Csángó people of Moldavia. The cross-cultural curation of piping traditions marked its 7th year this past December 5, 2009, at the Croatian American Cultural Center in San Francisco. This community-based event brought together diverse traditional musicians of exceptional caliber to not only perform in front of a growing public but also to share information with one another on piping techniques, skills, and knowledge.
The variation of bagpipes across cultures is a fascinating one as the minimum construction of a pipe consists primarily of an airbag (a goat or sheep skin, for example) and a stick with a reed. The sack must be airtight and is fitted with a chanter which has either a single or double reed which plays the melody, and a drone tube allowing for one sound to be heard continuously. Variations on this basic set-up can include additional drone tubes and bellows which bypasses reliance on breath to fill the air reservoir but can pumped by arm to supply the air. The decorative aspects of bagpipes range from the simple, unadorned sack to the highly ornate and decorative wood carvings of the tubes, fabrics, feathers, and other decorative features.
The bagpipe is surprisingly powerful in its sound. To hear the call of the drone followed by melody, it becomes easy to understand how pageantry can be associated with the Scottish pipes, or that dance would follow the call of the Bulgarian gaida. The evening performance was punctuated by recollections of how the sound of the pipes accompanied memories of ritual dances or walks in the Moldavia or Christmas songs of the Swedish American communities of Wisconsin. The California-based pipers all have strong connections to home countries where the pipes originated and are continually innovating on the construction and portability of the pipes. The gathering is an opportunity for them to come together to share information, to practice, and for musical comradery.
The 8th Annual Drone Magic event is scheduled for December 2010 according to Mr. Tobak. The volunteer-run effort is truly a labor of love and, while occupying a niche that is all its own, there are very few who would argue that the festival is unique treasure ready for exploration.
The following excerpt from the festival features Ferenc Tobak on the bagpipes: