Engendering news

A weighty issue.This is the time of year when piping and drumming news is at a premium. After this weekend’s London competition, results will be scarce and many pipers and drummers and bands will nearly shut down. But every time I think that, something newsworthy pops up.

And so, the news of the vote by the Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society to accept female members was leaked last week. Those who care, and many who don’t, know that the RSPS is a male-only organization, and that is as much a part of their tradition as is the requirement that members are “amateur” pipers with some “society” standing. That is, they don’t accept prize-money and, as one famous RSPS member said once in a thick English accent, “You must be a lahnd-oowner – and by that I doon’t mean a bahck gahhhhrden.”

Honestly, at the time, I just thought the males-only vote was another quirky and quaint holdover from Scotland’s deep-rooted piping tradition that pipers from other countries have a hard time understanding.

I have been critical in the past of the fact that some RSPS members are invited to judge important solo piping competitions. My criticism centred only on the fact that these folks, fine and jolly gentlemen that they are, have never demonstrated their playing ability in any ongoing public way, and that many competitors don’t really take their judging decisions seriously. Yet they remain on the approved list of UK judges, as assembled by Scotland’s Joint Committee – the closest thing there is in that country to a formal accreditation process, something that just about every one of the world’s piping associations has had in place for decades.

It was in fact the very first comment to the pipes|drums news story that opened my eyes to the obvious: that female competitors might perceive an element of bias when competing before these judges. Truly, I had never thought of that before, and that was the issue that the Times, Scotsman, Daily Express and other UK newspapers picked up on when they followed pipes|drums’ lead.

The Scotsman‘s blurb has received some interesting comments as well, and this one from “Girl Piper” succinctly summarizes the concern particularly well:

“To me the argument is simple. The club is a private society, but is also used to impartially adjudicate important piping competitions outside their own society. Adjudication requires firstly skill and knowledge, and secondly the ability to remain completely impartial. It is easy for anyone to draw the very logical connection between a group voting out women in their own organisation, and that same group being deemed impartial when judging both men and women against each other in an external competition. This is a clear conflict of interest. It’s logic, not spite, which is at the core of this conclusion. Add this to a musical tradition which has already been historically sexist and you’ll understand why there is a problem.”

It’s interesting to me that any of the world’s piping and drumming associations – including the RSPBA, which has in the past dealt swiftly with matters of perceived racial bias – would have addressed the issue on behalf of its members. On the other hand, the UK, because there is no real unifying governing body for solo piping competitions, can’t really do anything. Competitions and competitors are left to decide for themselves what, if anything, they want to do.

And I expect more winter news eventually to trickle out as people make up their minds how they will address such dilemmas.

Sing it, Alex

I have stacks of old cassette tapes from piping schools and competitions and private lessons from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. When Bert Barr died suddenly on September 24th I was sad for his family and friends, and that the piping and drumming lost this quiet and unassuming giant of the game.

I didn’t know him well, but I was well aware of his importance in the art. About five years ago I tried to convince him to do an interview. Most interviewees don’t take much, if any, persuading, but there have been two people over the years who have just flat-out refused. Bob Hardie was one and Bert Barr was the other. Despite my attempts to change his mind, Bert Barr insisted that people aren’t interested in what he had to say. Even though I and many, many others feel that the interviews are important educational and historical documents, Barr simply didn’t want to be seen as being self-promotional.

But I remembered that, somewhere in my collection of old cassettes, there was one that included something of Bert Barr. I used to like to get little recordings of unusual things. (In high school, my near-delinquent friends and I would carry around this boom-box and scout out recording artists at their sound-checks. We’d try to get members of the band to say things on tape, and I actually have a recording somewhere of an 18-year-old Paul Hewson, better known as Bono, saying how his “best friends in St. Louis are Andy, Keith and Rick.” True story.)

Anyway, in 1979 the unusual 3/4 march, “J.K. Cairns,” by Archie Cairns was hitting the big-time. Seriously. Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia featured the tune in one of their medleys. So when I found myself at a piping school with Alex Duthart and Bert Barr, the two of them were quite keen on the tune. They both liked to sing it; I just had to get them on tape.

So, here is the little recording that I made and saved. Alex Duthart does the singing (and the hilarious yodeling at the end), while Bert Barr provides the bom-bom tenor embellishments. In there somewhere, too, is Harry McNulty providing further ensemble depth.

My favourite part of the snippet is Barr saying, “Sing it, Alex” between two of the phrases. There’s something about this little recording that I think shows the fun that Barr and Duthart had shared.

Since the World Solo Drumming is this Saturday, I thought it might be timely to share it.


Not one of us, I'm afraid . . .When I first went to Scotland as a competitor around the games and at Inverness and Oban in the early-1980s I was struck by many things, most of them very, very good.

The number of non-Scottish pipers back then was relatively few; the only other regular American competitors were Mike Cusack and Jim Stack, both of whom had spent time in Scotland learning the craft from people like John MacFadyen and John A. MacLellan.

But one thing that opened my eyes was the way a few of the locals would talk about piobaireachd or, more specifically, how outsiders played piobaireachd. Some seemed to have this idea that, if you weren’t Scottish, you automatically didn’t have the requisite musicality in your nature. As a result, some non-Scots players were deemed innately unmusical. They just didn’t have “the piobaireachd” and they never would.

Similarly, there were Scottish players from the Highlands who were said to have a kind of inborn ability to play piobaireachd better than those from Glasgow. And the few players who spoke Gaelic were treated by some as having a sort of magical musical gift, despite the fact that their pipes were never in tune and they couldn’t play a decent crunluath.

I thought then that it was a crock and I still think it’s a crock.

I was reminded of this when a few weeks ago I was told about yet another pipe band judge accusing a band of “not playing in the Scottish idiom.” In this instance, it was the Toronto Police playing in the MSR in the World’s Qualifier. Michael Grey mentioned it in a recent post on his blog.

Never mind the fact that his band is led by Ian K. MacDonald, one of the best MSR players on the planet; what eventually got me most about this familiar “lacking Scottish idiom” comment was when I realized that this score-sheet remark as far as I know is only thrown at non-Scottish bands by Scottish judges. Has a Scottish-based Grade 1 band ever been accused of “not playing in the Scottish idiom”? I doubt it.

The way I see it, such a sweeping and unfounded pejorative is more about where you come from than about the music you actually play.

The blanket “Scottish idiom” attack is an easy out for a judge. I suppose if a band played a traditional Chinese song in its medley it might be acceptable for an adjudicator to criticize a band for playing outside of “the idiom,” but an MSR? How can any Grade 1 band be accused of not playing a traditional Scottish MSR within the musical “idiom”? It boggles the mind.

Twenty-five years ago I noted that, regardless of how well they played and imitated traditional styles, some were made to feel like musical outsiders. It’s pathetic indeed that this sort of apparent discrimination still exists.

So shall media

Has anyone else noticed that most pipe band videos posted on YouTube are taken by drummers? Almost every one of them is taken from behind the drum section and, if they zoom in, it’s on individual drummers.

Still images, too: I’d estimate that 90 per cent of the pipe band photos that I’ve seen posted to Facebook and Flickr are of drummers taken by drummers.

I’m not at all saying it’s a bad thing, but I’m wondering if anyone has any suggestions as to why this is.

So many partings

Lochaber no more.This post-Northern-Hemisphere-season is as active as any I can remember. Even before Cowal and Fergus – the contests after which band-members traditionally start bouncing around – changes were being orchestrated and announced.

Almost as soon as one Grade 1 band (Dysart) was resurrected, another (Clan Gregor) folded. I find it sad when any band anywhere folds, and it’s particularly sad when it’s a Grade 1 band. Why? Because that now-defunct band had reached the top grade, and (unless it’s rare exceptions like Fife Constabulary or Spirit of Scotland) took years and years of effort and diligence to get there only to have the whole thing crumble due to personnel changes.

The idea of pipe band dynasties is just about done. Nothing is sacred. To quote Paul McCartney (in what I consider to be the very worst lyric in the history of music), “In this ever-changing world in which we live in,” loyalty is a frail thing.

It seems that the Scottish bands are hurting the most. The country where competition pipe bands were invented is now down to nine in Grade 1, and that number may well sink to eight or even seven by the New Year, depending on grading decisions and/or further personnel changes.

Why is this? At a time when more people are playing pipes and drums better than ever, how can it be that some of Scotland’s greatest bands are collapsing or unable to field a competition-worthy unit? Even bands like the top-three Shotts after the 2007 season essentially had to rebuild both its pipe section and snare line.

I think one reason might be this: until about 10 years ago many Scottish bands filled out their rosters with overseas guest players. There was no shortage of talented foreign players who wanted a shot at the big-time and were willing to spend a summer in, or even move outright to, Scotland. To be sure, this still happens, but nowhere near to the degree it used to.

Non-Scottish players – and even many great pipers and drummers based in Scotland – I think are looking to non-Scottish bands for their ultimate piping and drumming Grade 1 experience. Instead, they’re going to British Columbia, to Ontario, to Northern Ireland, to Australia, to Ireland, to New Zealand. For many, Scotland is no longer the Mecca of the pipe band world.

I personally wish that weren’t so. I was one who grew up with a dream of playing with a Grade 1 Scottish band, and I did it and it had a lot to do with where I am today. I played with a Scottish-based Grade 1 band (albeit a very different one) last season. I love Scotland, my ancestral home.

But the reality is that, for many pipers and drummers who are looking for their ideal band, that band is no longer Scottish.


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