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A SWARM OF DRONES - this CD, available from the Northumbrian Musical Heritage Society of British Columbia (c/o Rob MacDonald, 920 West 17th Avenue, Vancouver BC V5Z IV4), is a recording of the closing stages of Vancouver’s first “Alternative Bagpipe Festival” in August 2000. It features live performances on Scottish smallpipes, uilleann pipes and Northumbrian smallpipes, by Alan Waters, Phil White and Dick Hensold. In all, 18 tracks of music are presented, and several of these consist of sets of tunes, so a good deal of music is available and much of it is expertly played.

It is a brave man who will attempt descriptive Piobaireachd on the smallpipes, but this is what Alan Walters does in The Desperate Battle of the Birds, playing fine sounding Scottish smallpipes in ‘A’. Mention should also be made of another rarity, those different methods of tone-production that are often said to be a feature of the uilleann pipes, actually heard for once in Phil White’s expressive rendition of The Wounded Hussar, where the agonised groans and cries of the unfortunate member of some forgotten militia are realised with frightening realism. This gives way to an epic series of jigs and reels, played in open, rolling style despite a hand injury which Phil had suffered earlier!

The Scottish smallpipe playing is notable for its clean and precise gracing (this after all being one of the main pleasures of small piping) and the Irish tunes are likewise properly ornamented.

With Dick Hensold’s contribution one is on less firm ground. It is good to hear a ‘D’ set of Northumbrian pipes, but the chanter is the clarinet-being-practiced-next-door type and the drones are not harmonically active. This is wrong for tunes like Lea Riggs and Cut and Dry Dolly and the situation is made worse by some neo-baroque doodling in the O’Carolan tune Cahan O’Hara which pays no attention to the surrounding drone harmony. These episodes are apparently newly composed, the original tune not being long enough. On the other hand, if you ever wondered what the Swedish bagpipes sounded like, here it is on track 13.

There are some extraneous noises on the recording, which however manages brilliantly to convey the good-natured conviviality which those lucky enough to attend events of this nature enjoy.

John Burke



“nevertimetoplay” - Scatter the Mud (62366-76000-2)

I often whinge-on about the state of piping in Canada. Most can’t see past the GHP and aren’t aware of any idiom other than the Pipe-band cliche. When my mood gets too dark, on goes the Battlefield Band or the Tannies onto the player.

Now I have a Canadian group to stand with the best contemporary Scots folk. Scatter the Mud’s arrangements and lyrics are well-crafted and witty, and Cam Keating is a gifted piper. In fact, he’s the best sort of piper, as he makes you want to pick up your practice chanter at once and try to learn the tune. He brings a welcome innovation to the instrument. On one track he plays the Highland chanter like a Bombarde, with some nifty cross- fingering and his work on the smallpipes has kept me away from my Northumbrian set since I got the album. For my money, the best track on this album is the funny/macabre ‘Little piece of me’. If Vincent van Gogh had played smallpipes during a jam session with the Beatles in a country-western bar, this is what he would have sounded like. A great track and if there's ANY justice it’ll become a standard.

I must admit that there are tracks I don’t like - slow over-mellow vocal pieces make me grit my teeth - but the instrumental tracks are great, the best being the An Clar Scatala/ Richard’s Toivo set which I believe will become one of the Really Great Tunes.

Rob MacDonald