April 16, 2010

Culture club

Travelling recently to Australia I couldn’t help but notice the similarities with North America. Generally speaking, there’s sameness now around the world in the way people dress and the things we eat. We can thank (or blame) “world markets,” cheap manufacturing, electronic communications and air transportation for that.

There are differences, of course, but they’re small, and I don’t think I saw a single item – even stereotypical Aussie oilskin coats, boomerangs or Vegemite – that couldn’t be gotten with a mouse-click and some shipping and duty charges. I can even get kangaroo steaks from a butcher a block away. I knew that going there, of course, and the visit was nonetheless completely enjoyable and culturally enlightening.

World homogeneity isn’t limited to fashion, food and other merchandise; it’s true of the pipe band world. With rare exceptions, no matter where you go every pipe band plays essentially the same kind of content. There’s really no such thing as a “style” of playing any more, and perhaps there never was one, since the idea has always been to ape what was started in Scotland. Bands may have their own subtle approaches to playing, but I can’t think of any consistently distinct national or regional style of playing anywhere in the world.

The Breton bagads of course play completely different music for their Breton events, but for the Scottish MSR and medley competitions they do what they hope will win in Scotland. St. Laurence O’Toole is said to play in an “Irish” style, and the 78th Highlanders (Halifax Citadel) seem to do a certain Cape Breton thing when it comes to jigs and reels, but a solitary band doesn’t a harmonized national “style” of playing make.

Whether fashion or music, it all comes down to acceptance. Styles change only when people feel they’re acceptable in a widespread way. Trendsetters are the courageous, those willing to counter the conventional and do something different, indifferent to the ridicule.

But at some point someone decided that the Highland pipe could be used to play traditional Breton folk music (sacrebleu!), so why couldn’t that happen elsewhere? It would be great if other national or regional pipe band musical styles could emerge, but it has to be encouraged and nurtured. Maybe if associations created special events, like the Bretons do, for their own bands something might gel.

The imitation of the familiar Scottish format can still go on, but there’s nothing wrong with inventing new looks and sounds and allowing new national styles that each country might call its own to gradually take shape. All it takes is a bit of courage and acceptance.


  1. I submit Rufus Harley as an example of someone who took the genre of American Jazz and translated it to piping. Of course, he was all but completely rejected by the traditional piping scene as his style wasn’t going to win any World PB Championships. Polkas are pretty common in bagpipe music. Beyond that, so may cultural or nationally specific musical genres find their roots either in indigenous peoples or in other minority races. Given the rampant racism found within piping circles, it is a strecth to hope that so many musical styles get delved into anytime soon. I heard a recording of a street band playing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and hope I never hear it again. That and the Titanic theme song have done enough to spur me further in the direction of traditional styles. Let’s scratch “Hollywood Soundtracks” as a musical genre that just doesn’t translate well.



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