My former news colleague Ian Bailey, who I’m sure has an ear for traditional music from his reporting days in St. John’s, Newfoundland, has written an interesting story with the discovery that the City of Vancouver engineering department intends to ban the playing of bagpipes (and bongos, drums and tambourines) from the streets of Vancouver. (Ian’s story can be found here.) As you can suspect from the name of this blog, I don’t think very much of this plan.
I am not a busking bagpiper. In fact, I have never played for money on the streets of any of the Canadian cities I have lived in during the past 20+ years. I have certainly played for downtown pub crawls and parties in Halifax, St. John’s, Edmonton, Calgary, Surrey and Vancouver. I have had people walk up to me and hand me beer or whiskey, and most of my performances are either with a band or for individuals who have asked me to play for a private wedding, funeral, birthday party or head table. However I completely disagree with the idea of banning the pipes from the streets. For many young pipers, (and most busking pipers are younger players) playing on the street brings the sound of the marches, strathspey’s, reels, jigs and airs of our Celtic music to a wider population. It also provides a bit of income and practice time for the piper. A well tuned and played bagpipe can be a moving experience for many people of Scottish or Irish descent and for many who are not. The vast number of responses to Ian’s story in the Globe & Mail makes it clear that the majority of readers disagree with the ban.
In the more than 25 years that I have been playing the pipes, I can count on one hand the number of times I have heard a disparaging remark about the pipes or the music. Detractors are a very small but vocal minority. Few have heard pipes played properly and their experience is likely due to listening to a new player who should really be behind doors until he/she is able to properly play a well tuned bagpipe in public. This is an instrument that has led Canadian troops into battle, provided moving memorials to former soldiers who served our country, has sparked dance floor sets in small community halls in Cape Breton and Antigonish, sent shivers down the spines of parade watchers and brought honour to Canada with the amazing abilities of the six time Grade One (the highest level) world champions SFU Pipe Band. In 1998, one lone complaint from a Burnaby resident almost led to the City of Burnaby banning the SFU band from practicing outside. A massive outcry quickly forced the City into retreat.
Now Vancouver is trying the same. In this province, British Columbia, we embrace all cultures. We welcome all nationalities; their culture, music, drive and of course, their usually wonderful food. It is what makes this province great. And Celtic music is part of that mosaic. The Scottish bagpipe is a loud instrument, but so are Harley Davidson’s, trucks, air planes, helicopters and emergency sirens. Shall we ban all these from our streets? This is a city that produces some of the best bagpipers in the world. The system of teaching is unparallelled elsewhere. BC is home to two Grade One pipe bands of only 29 worldwide (six in Canada).
This region has quite a few excellent professional bagpipers and judges. An alternative for the City would be to ask potential bagpiping street buskers to perform for one of these judges to determine their playing abilities. Most bagpipers are already used to playing for judges so this would be a reasonable expectation and it would keep the “off-key amateur’s” off the street and maintain a high level of playing and musicianship for the enjoyment of all.
Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson (a BC Scot) has indicated he intends to see this ban reversed. “I’ve asked city staff to review this issue”, says Robertson. “Buskers play a very important role in making Vancouver’s streets lively and dynamic, particularly in our vibrant downtown.” He also mentions that banning certain instruments can be “culturally insensitive”.
I say “aye” to that. I’m sure Vancouver’s first mayor, Malcolm Alexander MacLean, a Gaelic speaking Scot from Tyree, Argyllshire on Scotland’s west coast, has stopped rolling over in his grave.
For a taste of what a truly great pipe band sounds like, here’s Vancouver’s Grade One Dowco Triumph Street Pipe Band competing at the 2011 Victoria Highland Games. Enjoy!