The Bagpipe ­ alive and well in South Africa!

by Marié Theron

The Highland Pipe is a wind instrument unknown to most South Africans and also often unjustly being regarded as an `annoying' instrument. A reed instrument like the oboe or clarinet, the bagpipe is an instrument steeped in legend and tradition. It was used as a military instrument to rally warriors into enemy legions and it overtook the harp in popularity and prestige as the musical instrument in the Gaelic Society during the 16th century.
The Scottish or Great Highland pipe is the best known in the world, with one bass drone harmonizing with two tenor drones being tuned to the pitch of the melody pipe or chanter. The drones, each with its own reed, sound a continuous fixed note to accompany the melody played on the chanter. The art is to avoid any rise and fall in sound or pauses between notes.
If you mention bagpipes and Scotland in the same breathe, another name springs to mind - the MacCrimmons of Skye. They were hereditary pipers to the clan MacLeod and their contribution to the piping world in many ways helped to develop the evolution of the instrument itself, particularly with regard to the refinement of the music of the pipes. It is said that the MacCrimmons were so skilled with the pipes because they had with them a fairy chanter made of pure silver. This confirms that playing the bagpipe means that you are playing a link into an ancient way of life. You experience the music of the great Celtic soul.
Composers such as J.S. Bach wrote bagpipe music into its compositions like his `Christmas Oratorio'. G.F. Handel also adopted pipe music in dramatic form with his so-called `Pipers Carol' or `Canzone d'l Zampognari' which he used for part of the Biblical text in his Messiah.
The practice chanter is the gateway to playing the bagpipe. A practice chanter is an instrument in its own right, but its primary purpose is to provide a bridge to playing the Highland pipe. Later on it provides a convenient way to practice new tunes, complex fingerings, and so on, especially at times when practicing on a full pipe is impractical. The musical range of the chanter is limited because it only has nine notes, but character is given to the even flow of sound by strict timing and grace notes or rapid short notes.
A tutor is an instruction book that is organized into simple illustrated lessons and is used by a learner to practice on a chanter. Alex Hay, author of "The Piper's Progress: A Tutor for the Great Highland Bagpipe" provides some interesting information during an interview on the culture of this instrument in South Africa. Alex is also the tutor of the Pretoria Boys High School Pipe Band (PBHS) and he is also the pipe major of the Pretoria Highlanders Pipes and Drums.

Q. Alex, why did you become a piper and what role does this instrument play in your life?
A. When I was at primary school I saw the PBHS band playing somewhere. The music just captured my imagination and at that instant I knew that I had to learn to play. Playing pipes now is an obsession as much as a hobby for me. Playing in a band provides an opportunity for relaxation, friendship and an artistic outlet.

Q. There are currently 35 pipe bands registered with the Pipe Bands Association (PBA) of South Africa. Does this mean that the bagpipe is alive and well in South Africa?
A. In some ways yes ­ The top bands in the country are playing better than ever before and achieving great successes in international competitions. Unfortunately there is not a great support structure in terms of active competition amongst the lower grade bands. I believe that promotion and development of the pipe band community should be the primary aim of the PBA, and all pipers and drummers, if we want things to improve.

Q. What qualities should a learner have to become a successful piper?
A. A love for the music of the pipes as well as determination to succeed and self-discipline to practice regularly.

Q. How long does it take to master the practice chanter?
A. With hard work a learner should be ready to start playing on the bagpipes within a year. This obviously varies somewhat depending on the amount of practicing done.

Q. What role does the Pretoria Highlanders Pipes and Drums play in the tuition of new learners and bagpipers?
A. We have recently started a new Pretoria Highlanders Junior Band, which is open to anyone under the age of 19. The idea is that this band will provide a training ground for young pipers and drummers who may ultimately wish to join the senior band. No previous experience is necessary to join this band as tuition is provided by members of the Pretoria Highlanders.

Q. The Pretoria Boys High School Pipe Band is one of the fine traditions of this school. What makes this band so special?
A. The PBHS band has a special place in my heart since it was there that I learned to play. My involvement with the band has spanned 12 years from learner piper to tutor. PBHS is privileged to be one of the few schools in South Africa that has a pipe band. The band has consistently had success in the competition field and can be considered one of the top junior bands in the country. I believe that the pipe band embodies much of the heritage of the school. Any boy who has passed through the school during the past 30 years will surely remember the stirring sound of the pipes and drums drifting up through the pine trees.

Q. The piping fraternity of South Africa often holds competitions and gatherings. How successful are these gatherings?
A. Championship gatherings in particular are well attended and usually very successful. As I mentioned previously we need to get more bands "out of the woodwork" and competing regularly.

Q. What would the band be without the drummers?
A. Pipes only have one volume setting ­ loud! Drummers augment the music played by the pipes by providing rhythmic and volume variation and dynamics. I was going to say that the bass section also provides a visual aspect to the music by spinning and flourishing their drumsticks but that sounds somewhat suspect!

Q. The Pretoria Highlanders Pipes and Drums launches a CD recording towards the end of 2001. Tell us more about this project.
A. We're very excited about the CD, which will be titled `For the Joy of It'. This is the first CD to be released by a South African pipe band that is aimed at the general public, and not just the piping community. We have tried to provide a new interpretation of traditional and contemporary highland bagpipe music by incorporating other instruments such as fiddle and guitar in the album. For the bagpipe connoisseur there are also a couple of traditional tracks as well as well-known favourites such as Amazing Grace, Scotland the Brave and Sarie Marais.

Alex Hay can be contacted at: +27 82 8570430 for further information on the tuition of new learners or on the CD of the Pretoria Highlanders titled `For the Joy of It'. Also visit the Pretoria Highlanders website at

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