December 17, 2012

Tomorrow never knows

Will Highland pipes ever have a Ravi Shankar? The great Indian sitarist died last week at the age of 92 and the entire world seemed to take notice, paying tribute to his life.

But would we have ever known about him, or even the sitar itself, had it not been for the Beatles in 1960s going all guru-India, George Harrison learning to play a bit and then incorporating sitar into a few songs? Probably not.

To take nothing away from Shankar’s obvious skills as a virtuoso sitar player, but I would bet that back then and ever since there were a dozen or more sitar players just as good. Harrison more than likely heard the sitar while tripping on acid and asked the maharishi, “Hey, Sexy Sadie, who’s the best sitar player in India?”

A few paisley-clad photo ops later with Ravi imparting his wisdom to the mystical Beatle, and George Martin had no choice but to allow the sound into “Norwegian Wood,” “Love You To,” and “Within You Without You.”

As a relatively ghetto-ized ethnic instrument, the sitar is perhaps not unlike the Highland pipe. In the 1960s and ’70s the sitar might have been heard on obscure folk LPs, but it was not part of the mainstream until the Beatles attracted millions of people to embrace it.

Maybe the pipes are waiting for a similar big break. What if the biggest pop act of today decided to make a serious pitch towards the pipes? What if Coldplay or U2 or the “Gangnam Style” dude sought out the greatest piper and hung out with him in the Highlands, surrounded by media, dressed in tartan, committed to making several songs that featured the GHB?

Imagine Stuart Liddell or Roddy MacLeod or Willie McCallum tripping with the Edge or Chris Martin or PSY beside the MacCrimmon Cairn as they diligently worked together on the scale and G-gracenotes, and then produced several massive hits that brought the pipes into worldwide acceptance as a “serious” instrument.

The pipes have been used in pop music, in one-off ways. But the pipes haven’t been an ongoing part of really big pop music, not in a Beatles/Harrison manner, with a champion for the sound, becoming synonymous with the instrument, played seriously and respectfully.

Sometimes an instrument just needs a big break.


  1. This post reminded me of a stunning recording of Take Five recorded using sitars, guitar, tabla and strings. It can be found by googling Sachal Studios Recording of Take Five. It’s phenomenal and in some ways even better than the Dave Brubeck Quartet original version. And watch these people play….pure dignity, restrained body language, strings in the chorus that would melt your heart and a tabla player equalling Joe Morello’s stuff. I love the way they all just play, and give us none of the phony histrionics of rockers, despite outplaying them at every level…or perhps more appropos, none of the exaggerated antics of some pipe band bass drummers. Not entirely responsive to the subject of the post I know, but all musicians, yes even pipers and drummers need to see and hear this.

      1. BRUCE….who are you…this is why I dislike so much anonymous postings…I know Andrew Berthoff disagrees with me fundamentally about this, but there you are, a kindred spirit who hears so much beauty in music outwith our usual sphere, and I would like to connect with you, and others….meanwhile, pipers and drummers go to the link that “Bruce” has posted and delve into the heart of some of the most amazing music you’ll ever hear

        1. (perhaps this comment is a little late to join the discusion, alas….)

          As far as style, grace and poise go Gents, how about Liam Og O Flynn at the end of the Blacksmith in a piece Andy Irvine wrote after spending a weekend drinking at a festival in Bulgaria I believe. After a few days of all sorts of foreign music in his head (and maybe absinth), his first sober thoughts coungered up the piece. (that is something like how the story went) Think he had no name for it, so refered to it as Blacksmitherines as it at the end of the Blacksmith song.

          form is fickle but class is permenant

  2. Ben – not really thinking of one-off songs like this, although it went a long way to bringing pipes to the masses. If Sir Paul had actually learned the pipes from Capt. John MacLellan or someone and used them in several songs and then trotted out Captain John at concerts for the next 20 years, well, then I think we’d have something.

  3. I doubt we’ll ever see it. The Red Hot Chilli Pipers caused a bit of a stir after being featured on NBC during the Olympics and ensuing Tweets from Samuel L. Jackson. Also, a nice nod to the Brown family and the World’s in that segment too.

    Outside of that, you can’t help but admire the depth Eric Rigler’s achieved. Appeared in, or played for 3 Best Picture Oscar winners (Braveheart, Titanic, Million Dollar Baby). Two of those nominated for best original score, with one win. Not to mention a half dozen other movie contributions, scores of TV shows, likely dozens of commercials, and funerals for Presidents. And not to mention, that you can’t listen to soothing pop light rock radio this time of year without hearing him playing on some Christmas song.

    Of course, had Mr. Cousins been appearing regularly with Madonna 25 years ago, and not while she’s trying to hang on to relevance as she is today, it might have been a different story. Doubtful, but maybe.

    But yeah, Josh Groban is no Beatle. And there’s not thousands of teenage girls filling Shae Stadium screaming like crazy for James Horner. Still, what he’s quietly accomplished is pretty amazing.

  4. Ben does make a good point, and this wasn’t the only place pipes have been showcased, albeit in one-off ways.
    The first track off of Peter Gabriel’s album “Us” has Chris Ormston playing bagpipes on “Talk to Me”; John Farnham’s “You’re The Voice” off the 1986 “Whispering Jack” album; Rod Stewart’s “Rhythm of My Heart” with Kevin Weed on pipes; and to go out on a limb, Big Country’s “In A Big Country”…although the bagpipe sound was made through an MXR Pitch Transposer 129 Guitar Effect. So the question remains…who will be the GHB’s “George Harrison”?

  5. Mike Oldfield used synthesized bagpipe sounds loads of times including in part 2 of Tubular bells and in “Five Miles Out”. Since he clearly falls into the section of the world’s population who dig it, and is already a multi-instrumentalist I wonder did it ever occur to him to seek out a new master

  6. Bruce’s reversing of the question, Who will be the bagpipe’s George Harrison?, is valid. Back to that. For the original question, Ravi Shankar and the sitar are rather different from the pipes in a lot of ways. While there certainly are pipers with a Ravi Shankar level of mastery it wasn’t just the man, the instrument and the famous musician that celebrated them that incorporated Shankar and the sitar into popular culture. A large part of it was the exoticism and the mysticism. The sitar was so totally new to most Western ears as well as foreign. So to have it acclaimed by one of the world’s most famous musicians and to have it played by a literal guru on the instrument made it a unique phenomenon. The pursuit of Harrison into Eastern mysticism also went well with the counter-culture that was keen to adopt something other than Judeo-Christian convention. Shankar being a guru on this instrument worked well with that trend.
    The bagpipe might already be overexposed. It would be one thing if nobody has really heard a bagpipe until they heard Donald MacPherson or somebody more pyrotechnical like Fred Morrison. But many have already seen bands in parades on St. Patrick’s Day. We’ve already had Braveheart effect and 9-11 effect. One promotes a “noble savage” cultural aesthetic while the other sets the instrument as one of ceremony and mourning.
    So to get back to Bruce’s question, whomever would become the bagpipe’s George Harrison has to not only have that level of influence but to make something of the instrument’s music and culture culture be embraced by a generation that would define the following generations.

  7. My mother was born near Mumbai and spent key childhood years in the Himalayan foothills, so there were Ravi Raga LPs in our household long before Revolver + Sgt. Pepper’s. India may have had less than half its current billion + peoples in the later 60’s, but that numerical presence and huge millenia long traditions adds cachet for selling one’s ethnic memes on the world stage. The 60’s became a surprisingly spiritual and idealistic era, and the Sitar fit well into some of its psychedelic musical contours and was repeatedly “discovered” by the Yard Birds, Brian Jones of that other Band etc. George Harrison mentioned in his recent documentary bio (which I dub as Scorcese’s After Living in a Nethereal World or was it an Ethereal maya?) that he was mortified by the indulgent hedonism of the drug culture practiced at Haight Ashbury and decided after his visit there to surrender such materialistic, addictive distractions to focus on issues that abide and transcended. Sir Paul is happy to have whatever Band play Mull as we did in Peel, but still it does not gain an elemental and every day hold on people with broad appeal like the more approachable sitar – which itself is not an everyday instrument in the West by any token.
    The type of GHB playing promoted by the readership here is surely a highly acculturated and developed taste that will never grip mass audiences of pop culture. No Rousseau approach of Noble Savages with blank Lockean empiricist slates can reprogram a public that has limited affinity for our music despite repeated exposures. I feel that Piping does have a significant and proud part in today’s global culture as detailed in previous responses and needs no further special promotion. For those wanting to make a living performing as professional musicians in that milieu, I would suggest adopting another pipe dream. There are only so many Riglers around to wrestle the arcana of Hollywood propagation channels successfully. Ravi was talented with notably widespread acknowledgement. The stardom and meeting of his 2 daughters from separate Continents speaks of his own gifts and amazing salesmanship on a world stage. I will never forget seeing him at Stratford as with your own City’s Haroon Siddiqui:–ravi-shankar-was-the-mozart-of-india . I was hypnotized by those ragas into a trance-like surreal experience and he had great players with him, of the ilk that Bill paints.

  8. and let’s not forget a little something called the internet and the world wide web, or even tvs in every house, never mind, every room and pocket of millions of people around the world. Had they even put a man on the moon at that stage, the sad fact is, with all this instant information, there are no surprises anymore. Its not all bad, music at our finger tips, bands and people able to forge careers that they could have never had in the 60s. (like the live stream of the worlds fro the bbc, back in the 60s,if an aussie or kiwi band went to the world’s it was a trip of a lifetime, and took a lifetime to get there and back)

    Even now, when the world cup comes around, the likes of messi, have his career at barcelona beemed around the globe in seconds, so he can go to the world cup, and be considered a dissapointment. Imagine the days that Pele and Eusabio were first heard of via the world cup, proper news in proper newspapers.

    The pipes are way too much in peoples lives to have them considered exotic, even if barack obama decided to take them up, it would do nothing to amaze or change the perception of pipes. And as for cold play, haven’t they done enough damage to music? (Music for bed wetters as a former oasis manager called it, and I couldn’t agree more)

  9. When I was a young boy (mid-60’s) just learning to play the pipes in Wilmington, Delaware, Rufus Harley contacted some rather well known pipers in the area. Rufus was fascinated with the bagpipe. He had already begun publicly performing jazz on the pipes. But he wanted to learn more about the instrument. He was not asking “permission.” He simply wanted to be a better piper.
    Not sure if it was the color of his skin or the non-traditional music he was playing (my guess is most certainly BOTH), but no one wanted to assist him. Rufus did his thing despite the discouragement. He did it on an extremely poor sounding bagpipe with an extremely poor understanding of even how to hold the instrument, let alone play it half decently.
    As a piper, it remains difficult to listen to the sound of Rufus’ bagpipe. However, once I got “over” that, I could tell this man knew music and was a very talented jazz musician.
    Although Rufus was no George Harrison, thank goodness Ravi Shankar was more open minded about exposing his traditional music via what had to have been a most untraditional conduit…
    Thanks to Shankar’s open mindedness, I was exposed to an instrument having much in common with the GHB. Some ragas were structurally similar to piobaireachd. The sitar and its music were small but valuable musical “nuggets” for me.
    George Harrison exposed Ravi Shankar and the sitar to the world. Who knows what might have happened had Rufus Harley not been shunned?
    I would hope some of us would be a little more open minded
    about “sharing” the beauty and sound of the GHB with those who on the surface don’t fit the “traditional” mode.

  10. while you are allowing youtube links then, (fair is fair)

    Ross in friends might have brought bagpipes to the attention to a whole generation of teens and twenty-somethings at the time, when he played the pipes in one of the episodes.

    I am sure many a frustrated beginner threw the pipes away like he did in the end, and had to face the pipe major or buying parent and explain the “accident!” ah fond memories I tell you. fond memories

  11. In the early 1970’s Glen Campbell, studio musician and singer, had a television show here in the States. There was an article in the newspaper saying that he had gone to Scotland and had learned to play the pipes. He had taken a few lessons from a famous piper whose name escapes me. He had the pipe band of one of the Scottish regiments on the show. He then proceeded to play the pipes solo. It was dreadful. This is part of the problem with our instrument. You can pick up a guitar, learn three chords and strum in front of people without clearing the room out. Glen Campbell was an excellent musician. He meant well, but….

    Bill Livingstone mentioned “restrained body language.” This is an interesting point. A few years ago I went to a show touring the country called “A Scottish Christmas.” They had a uilleann piper. I still not sure why. Anyway, at one point he got up and played “Crossing the Minch” on the highland pipes with his low G gurgling, finger faults, and playing double low A’s instead of birls in the 4th part. He then played three note jazz style runs over and over and over again while gyrating. I’m not sure how he kept the pipes on his shoulder. The audience went wild. They were on their feet cheering. I prefer to listen to the music and not watch the gyrations. The tabla player was not gyrating, but his playing was brilliant.

  12. regarding what an uilleann piper is doing at a scotish event is one thing, how about every pipeband in the world milking st patrick’s day for what it is worth? only one winner there, or is it loser?

    I know of a world class uilleann piper that is a joy to watch on the uilleann pipes and too plays the highland pipes, same deal as above, he is shocking on the hghland pipes. You would think that if he was shocking at both, it would make some sense, but baffles me why he bothers to kill the highland pipes. Or maybe that too is part of his agenda, to make himself sound even better on the uilleann pipes, but I doubt it.

    The show off bass player is the other bug bear of many a pipe band enthusiast, some bass players seem to think the band was created for them to perform!

  13. I did not mean my comment to be a slur on uilleann pipes or pipers. I enjoy them as well. Unfortunately, it seems that in this country the great highland pipe is more often associated with Ireland than Scotland. This is probably because of the St. Patrick’s Day events and Emerald Society bands. My point was that the performer’s movement on stage seemed more important than the music.

  14. The average punter hears with their eyes. The spectacle of someone wrangling with a bagpipe, in a kilt, matters more than the execution of the music and the tuning of the instrument (which barely matters to most). The very elite pipers are almost recluses/hermits compared to those who venture into the public domain, armed with a few tunes and no idea about anything other than the fact they can gain instant kudos via the ignorance of their audience and the spectacle they provide. That is why the Edinburgh Tattoo is still the premier piping event if you ask the average Joe on the street. People raise an eyebrow when told that the majority of pipe bands at this event are ‘C Grade’ at best. But they don’t care (assume they’re all the same anyway) and will quickly change tact to the bear skins, marching or all the musical geniuses out the front who carry sticks.

    Ravi Shankar seems to have a reputation, more so, for being some sort of guru to The Beatles – Harrison in particular. Sure, he must have been a great player, but the music almost took a backseat to the trendy cross-cultural exchange that resulted in a cheesy and self-indulgent compromise – they’d already made their fame and fortune. Sitting on a mat, legs folded, was oh-so-cool.

    The pipes don’t need a saviour, or crossover hero. They just need more sensible and ‘all together’ people spruiking it in an understated and classy way, and less of the types who are more interested in playing dress ups and posing for a photo. The RHCP’s et al play popular tunes and leap about on stage in a bid to validate the instrument, when really they’re just giving the punters another Tattoo experience – playing dress-ups and giving the uninitiated one big tartan cliché, only with more distortion. The piping fraternity is always bending to outside expectations and blindly perpetuating the stereotypes whilst confusing ‘popularity’ (people getting their annual does) with an increased appreciation and respect for the pipes. Really, we’re just compromising to the point where the result in something more cheesy than a direct hit on a cheese factory.

  15. Andrew it could be argued that bagpipe is in some way like sitar. There is a moment in the beginning of the Concert for Bangla Desh live album when Ravi Shankar and his fellow musicians play some notes on their sitars. When they stop, the audience at Madison Square Garden applauds and cheers. “Thank you,” Shankar said. “If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more.” Sometimes it can be a bit like that at solo competitions, so much so that more than one promoter has a time limit on tuning up. All the best for 2013.



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