Papadum preach

'Blair Drummond' eat your heart out.At the PPBSO Judges Seminar in April for some reason someone was talking about the cut C-doubling-C to an E-gracenoted dotted low-A (that’s a mouthful). It comes up frequently in strathspeys, as in the fifth part of “Blair Drummond.” The person at the meeting referred to the combination as a “papadum,” and most people seemed to know what he meant.

Papadums are the fast-fried cracker things made from chickpea flour that you get in Indian restaurants. (Sadly, the waiter never can bring enough.)

I was later reminded at the meeting that it was a sidebar I wrote in a 1990s issue of the now defunct Piper & Drummer print magazine that coined the term, since the movement was just begging for a descriptive name. I had completely forgotten that, but was amused to hear that the little column registered and is part of the piping lexicon of some.

Piobaireachd has canntaireachd, of course, with all the gibberish terminology for notes and embellishments, all hippity hoppity taree tarah. Light music benefited from being written down as it was being invented, so it never needed to be taught via a mouth music system. And most pipers use their own form of hick-um-bro light music canntaireachd, making it up as they go along.

But, thinking about it, Indian food could really serve as the basis for light music canntaireachd. Papadum works, but what about “pakora”? That could be an all-purpose term for a triplet in strathspeys, as in “The Caledonian Society of London ” or “The Islay Ball,” i.e., pakora, pakora, pakora, pakora, pakora, pakora, daal.

Or what about “samosa”? Perfect for GDEs of all varieties, as in “The Judges’ Dilemma”: samosa-samosa-samosa-naan, samosa-samosa-samosa-samosa-samosa-samosa-naan, etc. Try “tika” for any cut-dot combination. Kind of like a tachum, but for the top-hand.

The possibilities are endless: “vindaloo,” “rogan josh,” “chutney” . . . and of course “baji” really works well for more top hand work, as in the start of “Lord Alexander Kennedy” – “baji naan vindaloo . . . tika daal baji naaaan . . .”

Sushi is also chock-a-block with potential light music canntaireachd, although I challenge anyone to use “California roll.” In fact, here’s a call for someone to write a complete light music language based on ethnic foods. Next time you find yourself at the Shish Mahal in Glasgow, just use the menu to transpose your entire MSR and get rid of all of those tedious written scores. You can thank me later.


Timmy!Last week I went to a conference called ideaCity. It’s an event that’s been going on in Toronto since 2001, and puts together accomplished people with great ideas from various walks of life, from a Nobel-prize-winning physicist to a Cape Breton fiddler to an “eco-warrior” to an evangelical street-preacher, and just about everything in between. It’s highfaluting and somewhat elitist, but it’s primarily a great way to think and learn about things you’d hardly ever think and learn about.

Each speaker has only 20 minutes to discuss whatever they want, as long as it’s with passion. When they hit the 20-minute mark the organizer, Moses Znaimer, very nicely gives them the hook.

As I settled into my seat on the first day awaiting the first speaker, Dr. Lawrence Krauss, a preternaturally smart professor of physics and astronomy. Within minutes I knew that the person right behind me had some mental issues. She was restless and occasionally very quietly muttering to herself, but, being the tolerant person I am, didn’t think much of it. After all, this is a conference for the open-minded, full of surprises and new experiences, and the lady was probably very smart and, for all I know, a Nobel laureate herself.

Krauss was a few minutes into his spiel, waxing on about quantum this and theoretical that, when the afflicted lady got increasingly animated. She gradually went from benign “grmf” mutters to full-scale blurts of obscenities.

“And so you see, Rutherford’s theory of . . .”

“^&*$ing Rutherford! Stupid @#!&”

“Ahem, as I was saying, Rutherf-“

“Bastard! Idiot science!”

Krauss and the audience’s agitation got commensurately bigger as the lady’s own Tourette-induced agitation grew. Krauss actually had to stop, and the whole crowd turned to see where the commotion was coming from.

“Crap! Zombies! Rotten teeth!”

It was a strange moment, this conference on being tolerant of those in complete control of their thoughts becoming increasingly intolerant of someone with little control of her actions.

Now, Tourette syndrome is a serious thing. I feel sorry for people with the condition, and I hope they find a cure for what must be a living hell. That said, during the conference I kept thinking about what it would be like for a piping or drumming judge to have the variety of Tourette syndrome that makes people blurt out things that are just under the psyche: the things you’re thinking but not saying or writing.

“D’s sagging! Need a bra!”


“Eff off!”


It would be a shame for the competitor but maybe a much clearer way to judge. You could say what’s really on your mind, always with a great excuse, chalking it up to the old Tourette’s.


Dust up

I didn’t attend the Sarnia Games this past weekend, but I was told that it was hot, dry and dusty, but, with an excellent beer tent and a large crowd, it was a great success. That’s good to hear, since this contest had to cancel last year due to bad weather and crowd-attendance in 2005.

It’s remarkable how the little Scottish Highland games keep going year after year, some for well more than a century. I suppose the Scots hope for sunshine but expect rain, so venture out in whatever to uphold the local tradition. North American contests are impacted far more severely, since only piping and drumming zealots will stand around in the rain waiting to compete.

I do wonder, though, which is more difficult: for North American competitors used to dry and hot conditions to adjust to a damp and relatively cold Scottish climate, or for Scots to make the journey here and deal with the reverse.

Perhaps North American bands have become so experienced at adjusting that the change hardly impacts their performance. If UK bands came here more we could more easily draw conclusions. I do know that the few Scottish bands that have competed in Ontario in hot, dry and dusty conditions have rarely played to their potential, seemingly melting in the heat.

Personal experience was always that the pipes would take on a better, more vibrant sound in Scotland in August. The instrument, at least with sheepskin and cane, was built for that “close” climate. Personally, I’d be interested to hear from any UK pipers and drummers who have come across to North America in the middle of a hot summer to compete.

Good show

Listening to lower-grade bands at Georgetown on Saturday, I can draw a few fairly well informed conclusions:

  1. Bands are playing music that they can actually play. Only a few years ago I was constantly thinking “This material is too hard for this pipe section.” Now, this is infrequent. Rather than trying to wow judges with over-ambitious content, Grade 4 and Grade 5 bands are choosing music that’s within their reach. Whether this is a function of MAP or judges constantly writing “This material is too hard for this pipe section,” it’s a good development.
  2. Some lower-grade bands are coming out with top-grade ensemble presentations. The influence of trends in mid-section accompaniment over the last 10 years is being felt all around. A few Grade 4 bands were really working to provide well-scored and choreographed bass and tenors, but scaled back in a style that’s manageable for the grade. A few Grade 4 bands are producing an ensemble sound better than what you would have heard 20 years ago in Grade 2.
  3. Grade 1 and Grade 2 is not necessarily the most interesting listening experience on the day. The lower grades are becoming very inventive and entertaining in a wide sense. Obviously, tuning, technique and unison are far better at the top, but there is great variety in Grade 4. And it’s always fun to see really young players do their stuff.

The trends of the top grades continue to filter to the lower ones, as they have always done. But it seems like suddenly Grade 4 and Grade 5 bands are remembering to keep it simple, and play within themselves, while at the same time putting on a good show.

Busk stop

For a long time I’ve held the belief that busking is the most honourable form of work there is. If people like what you’re doing, they’ll pay you what they think it was worth to them. If they don’t like it, they can just keep walking.

I busked on Princes Street for the better part of two years. By day I’d essentially practice for three hours or so often at an unused British Home Stores’ door, usually tag-teaming with another piper. Scotland’s weather being so temperate, like golf, you can reasonably busk year-round. I’d often play golf in the morning, busk in the afternoon, and, when there wasn’t a band practice, wait tables at Mama’s in the Grassmarket at night. What a life.

You hear a lot of pipers busking in Toronto whenever the weather’s good, which it is now. During the summer weekdays, I often hear pipes all day long, since I work in a building right at the corner of Yonge and Bloor streets, one of the most well known intersections in Canada. One of the two or three regular piper-buskers will play on any given day.

They’re not great players, but they’re not bad either. Regardless, what they’re doing is making an honest buck. People pay them what they think their 20 seconds of entertainment was worth. And I think they do quite well.

Much better, I would guess, than what we would make on Princes Street. The money was okay there then, but there were a lot of old wifeys who would pass by sneering, with their fingers in their ears. We were pretty good players then, but many Scots seemed to hate the pipes. The tourists of course lapped it up, and I’m sure that I, an American, am in thousands of photo albums as some authentic Scottish piper.
After almost 20 years in Canada, I have never actually heard anyone say that they dislike, much less hate, the pipes. You hear Highland pipes everywhere in Canada, and without fail when I tell people that I play the pipes they say how they “love” the sound, and usually talk about how much it moved them when the piper played at their sister’s wedding or their grandfather’s funeral.

But back to busking: I think most former-waiters leave bigger tips. They understand the difficulty of that job. As a former-busker, I always give buskers who have entertained me, even if it’s just for a few seconds, some money. It’s the honest thing to do.

Crazy training

I’ve been cycling to work now for more than three years. I average probably more than four days a week, doing the 11 km journey, each way, year-round. I generally choose between three bikes. When it’s snowy or the roads are salty, I have a beater with an aluminum frame, which is just about dead after last winter. That Old Grey Mare ain’t what she used to be. When I’m lazy, I ride a very lightweight hybrid-type thing.

But the bike I normally ride is a very simple single-speed rig configured especially for urban journeys. This past weekend I took the plunge and converted it to fixed-gear, which means you have to pedal all the time, and you use your leg muscles to control your speed, something like an extra pair of brakes.

It’s a really efficient way to travel, but it is indeed a workout. Hills are no problem, but there’s one stretch along Bloor coming home that involves going down a fairly good hill for maybe a half-kilometre. This is the fastest part of my journey, and I have gotten it up to 67 km.

The thing is, on a fixed-gear bike, you have to keep pedalling. So going down this hill like I’m used to means that ones legs are flailing away like Michael Flatley on crystal-meth. But once you get going, there’s not much you can do but keep up.

Which reminded me yesterday of a mini-band event in Vancouver I traveled to in 1991 or so with the band I played with at the time. Those who heard this performance still speak of it, and I believe it may be legendary now.

The medley we played was probably the fastest in the history of pipe banddom. Six sets of fingers, 54 in all, were doing everything they could to stay on this crazy train to ignominy. If someone timed it, I’m sure the usually six-minutes 30-seconds selection was shorter than five. It was the weirdest sensation, something I had never been able to capture again until flying down that hill yesterday with no choice but to keep up.

In rotation

Wilco – Sky Blue Sky

  1. Sky Blue Sky – Wilco – standout track: “You Are My Face”
  2. What’s The Time, Mr. Wolf? – Noisettes – standout track: “Bridge To Canada”
  3. Reecho – The Finlay MacDonald Band – standout track: “Bulgarian”

  4. Inveroran
    – Stuart Liddell – standout track: the one with the hornpipe version of “The Sheepwife”
  5. The Reminder – Feist – standout track: “Brandy Alexander”


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