‘I understand the inventor of the bagpipes was inspired when he saw a man carrying an indignant, asthmatic pig under his arm. Unfortunately, the man-made sound never equalled the purity of the sound achieved by the pig.’ Well, Alfred Hitchcock, I don’t agree with you … and I’ve heard both.
There’s something about the bagpipes that touches the nerve centre of your soul. They’re haunting, as if the music was coming from another world, a parallel universe where power is fashioned by spirit rather than by strength.
I grew up thinking that uilleann pipes came from Ireland and bagpipes came from Scotland – but the first set of pipes actually came from somewhere in the Middle East. Theirs is a long, colourful, much debated history. Back in 1745, they were deemed ‘instruments of war’ in Scotland where being caught playing them meant certain death. Early Roman coins show Nero playing the pipes and not the fiddle as Rome was going up in flames! Every day is an education in my world.
Pipers in Scotland and Ireland are in their hundreds. In Hungary, you might find ten. There’s just one working pipe band – The Budapest Highlanders Pipe Band – a five-man-strong mix of kilted, sporraned pipers and drummers, all Hungarian. When I met this charming, talented bunch of lads recently, I couldn’t help but ask why…why the pipes?
The newest member of the band, Gergő Schmidt, explained his story. When visiting Scotland as an 8-year-old boy, he fell in love with the bagpipes. When he was 15 he realised his dream of playing them. He started off with some Hungarian pipes and then about three years ago, moved on to his set of Scottish Hardie bagpipes. He’s still learning and while learning he plays the snare drum with the Band. Snare drummers, apparently, are even harder to find than bagpipers in Hungary, so Schmidt has cornered the market.
He was attracted by the music and its unique sense of power coupled to the calm that is its essence. A landscape gardener and a grower of bonsai trees by trade, the patience required to master both his profession and his hobby is quite similar; the placidness he exudes testifies to how well suited he is to each.
As lead piper, Imre Jarabek holds the veto card. They’re a band, not a democracy, says Schmidt, with a smile. Someone has to take a decision when they can’t agree. By day, Imre is a forester, another occupation that requires tenacity and patience. Pipers Daniel Pásztor and Istvan Murányi teach Latin and work in the cosmetics business, respectively. Gabor Zimboran plays both the tenor and bass drums; his day job is running (and teaching at) an Irish dance school. Collectively they are the Band.
They get together twice a month to practice – no mean feat considering they live hundreds of miles apart. And they play some regular gigs around the country. They’ll be at the head of the St Patrick’s Day Parade in Budapest in March and I’m hoping to see them play at the Celtic Festival in Sopron this summer in the company of kilted caber-tossing foresters. They say they owe their exposure in large part to the ministrations of Zoltán Magyar, President of the Hungarian Scottish Society, who has facilitated introductions to Scottish pipers and helped raise their profile in Hungary.
As I listened to them banter with visiting pipers from Scotland at the recent Burns Supper in the Corinthia Hotel, I was struck by what a leveller music is. No matter their nationality, their profession, their religion, their beliefs, their age, their ethnicity, their language … those who share a love of, and a passion for, music will always be at home together. The world needs more of it.
First published in the Budapest Times 6 February 2015