Entry into crater

St. Laurence O’Toole’s unfortunate non-entry-entry to the Scottish Championships reminded me how slowly things can change in the pipe band world. In an age of instant response and confirmation, bands and pipers and drummers still have to enter for most events by old-fashioned stamp-post-and-prayer, and hope that nothing goes wrong along the way. Entry fees are the main reason, since few associations have any kind of instant payment system set up.

I once entered for the Fergus Games, or something, back in the 1980s and planned to make the 15-hour drive to the event. I hadn’t received any notice of my entry, so I decided to call the PPBSO president, the late George Forgan, who told me that there had been a Canadian mail strike and my entry was not received in time. No questions, please; I wasn’t allowed to play, and that was that. My fault for not calling before the deadline to confirm. And so it goes.

Pipe band associations and contests need to have entry rules. But it’s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. St. Laurence O’Toole obviously puts its heart and soul into what they do, and wouldn’t for an instant be trying to fudge the system. Everyone – association, judges, their competition, punters – wants them to compete. In cases like that, it perhaps makes sense to take a band at its word and quietly give them a call to make sure there wasn’t an oversight or lost mail or whatever.

The higher the standard, the sweeter the victory, and I’m sure SLOT’s competition would all want them to compete at the Scottish. Wouldn’t they?


Travelling all-stars

The last post about Allan MacDonald’s recording brought back some memories, mainly because of his really clever use of the Jew’s harp on a few tracks. It was either the spring or fall of 1977 or ’78, I believe, when I was a 14- or 15-year-old in St. Louis. British Caledonian Airways for some strange reason decided to start a St. Louis-Prestwick non-stop flight, and to launch it they sent over the Grade 1 B-Cal Pipe Band.

Back then, and perhaps even today, a top-flight Scottish band suddenly landing in St. Louis for a kid-piper would be akin to a Little Leaguer on a farm being visited by the New York Yankees. B-Cal then, as ScottishPower is now even after many name changes, was a band of all-stars players. Not the entire competition band made the trip, but I remember Hugh MacInnes, Tom Johnstone, Rab Kelly, Frank Richardson and Rab Turner being in St. Louis.

They played up and down the streets of Clayton (?!), a suburb of St. Louis in the first afternoon, and my dad took me out of school to go see them, since he recognized, as always, how important it was to me. Feather bonnets and tunics and plaids, and they were larger than life.

I think the band then had to play downtown that evening, and I and some members of the Invera’an band, which I played with, managed to tag along with them. I remember ending up in O’Connell’s, a great St. Louis pub, with many of them. Hugh MacInnes must have been in top playing-form then, and I remember that he was playing P-M Angus MacDonald’s pipes, a set of 1890 or so MacRaes. (Angus unfortunately didn’t make the trip.) He had them out at the pub, and everyone (including me, who must have been shockingly bad) had a tune among the many pints.

But the most memorable part of the experience was Allan MacDonald when he pulled out a Jew’s harp and started playing “Mrs. MacLeod of Raasay,” alternating with his practice chanter. I’d never heard anything like it, and it made me practice all weekend, all week, all year and all life . . . at least until a year or so ago. (I even tried to learn how to play a Jew’s harp for awhile, and discovered that you could make a perfect Star Wars’ light saber sound with it.)

It’s funny how things like that can just happen, even to a wide-eyed adolescent piper in St. Louis. Not that I’m necessarily notable, but I think that probably most  notable pipers or drummers can recall similar happenstance being something of a turning-point in their career.


Sunday tonic

One of the problems I find with having your whole recorded music collection on a single device is that you sort have to know what you’re looking for when you’re not sure what you’re looking for. Because you see hundreds of titles or artists scrolled through with a jog-wheel, it’s easy to miss things you’ve forgotten about or even forgot you’d acquired. Flipping through CDs is or was a better process, and I hope Apple or whoever can find a better way to merge the music with graphics.

Coming home from work on the subway on Friday I happened across Margaret Stewart and Allan MacDonald’s Colla mo rún, their 2001 Greentrax recording, which has always been on my iPod but a favourite that had somehow fallen through the jog-wheel cracks. What a brilliant piece of work this is, made even more sublime when listened to on the westbound Bloor line.

It’s been on our home system all weekend. Allan’s playing is so creative and so pure and so rhythmical and so deft. His Gaelic singing is evocative and smoky, and if you’re not moved by “Tha sior cóineadh am beinn dóbhrain,” or his overwhelmingly tuneful pipe and ringing hi-A on “na h-eilthirch,” I’m afraid that you may have a heart of Aberdeen granite.

This is a terrific recording, for the Toronto subway, for the A82 to Crianlarich, for a Sunday morning anywhere.