Have you ever heard the bleating skirl of Great Highland bagpipes and thought about your love for Jamaica? No? What about Paris? Madison? In fairness, if you answered yes to any of these, you might need to get out more or maybe watch Highlander. Or you might be familiar with Madison Pipes & Drums, but, I mean, come on, Scotland—right? Ignoring that the origin of using a bag to push air through a reed to make music might go back as far as ancient Greece, few instruments capture a sense of place as well as the bagpipes.
Meat Loaf, AC/DC, and Dropkick Murphys have all embraced the sound of the pipes for at least one song, and then there’s the likes of Ross Ainslie and Bruce Gandy, contemporary pipe players and composers. “There’s a lot of modern composing going on for bagpipes,” says David Bradley, Madison Pipes & Drums president.
Which reminds me that this isn’t an article on the bagpipes. But it kind of is. Madison Pipes & Drums officially became a thing in 2002 when it split off Badger Pipes and Drums, which became a thing in 1997 when a bunch of pipers at Zor Shrine wanted to form a group that wasn’t limited to freemasons.
Now some packs of pipers might be content playing together just for the sake of enjoying a shared passion, but Madison Pipes & Drums takes it a step further with parades and competitions. Maybe you’ve seen them at Stoughton’s Syttende Mai festival, matching kilts, socks, headgear, and all. But it didn’t start that way. David says, “Our first parade that we played as a band, the only thing that matched on us was our neckties. … The second year, we all had matching sweaters and neckties. It was many years later that we could actually afford kilts that all match each other.”
Those matching uniforms certainly make them braw- and bonnie-proper in competitions, but looking the part doesn’t score marks. There, the drummers and pipers have to show their beating and bellowing amounts to something worth echoing across the Quiraing. On the drumming aspect, David calls it “blatantly modern. The snare drum that we play is super-high-tension Kevlar heads.” In addition, the material used in the bagpipes they play only goes back to the early 1800s.
“The way that the drumming works at the moment is stylistically 1950s jazz,” says David. “Pipe bands in the ’50s were more military. Some of the main players of the day were doing the Scottish military thing, which is a pretty-standard-issue rope-tensioned drum, very straight up and down. Not particularly interesting. Those drummers were moonlighting on the side playing jazz bands.”
But this isn’t an article on Scottish drumming. But it kind of is. Music, all music, is intergenerational. Madison Pipes & Drums alone has members ranging from ages 14 to just over 70. David readily admits that, though the range of ages is nice, “One of the things I think bagpiping suffers from is the lack of diversity. It tends to be something that middle-aged white men do a lot of, so any amount of diversity is good.”
There’s a silver lining in the lack of popularity surrounding bagpipes and Scottish drumming. If you really want to learn how to play, you could possibly learn from some of the best players out there. David, himself, takes bagpipe lessons from Bruce Gandy in Halifax, Nova Scotia and drumming lessons from Andrew Hoinacki in Chicago via Skype. Assuming you don’t know Bruce or Andrew, David compared it to learning the cello from Yo-Yo Ma. Madison Pipes & Drums also has educators for those interested in learning to play themselves.
The rewards of teaching are just as rich as those of learning. Pipe Sergeant Adam Borger of Madison Pipes & Drums has been playing for 23 years, and it’s not just watching his former students grow that puts a smile on his face. Adam says, “It’s also very rewarding to see students that I have taught eventually take on their own students and teach their children as well.”
Going niche with musical interests often creates an immediate bond with someone else that shares your interests. True, that feeling is present when you find someone who digs the same band/artist you dig, whether it’s Bon Jovi, Social Distortion, or Miss Tony, but the smaller the following, the more intimate the bond.
Folk, marches, the occasional rock and roll flair, I don’t know where to place the pipes, but they’re really adding to the culture of Madison in a way that’s patently unique. Kevin Hendryx, piper, says, “I feel a link to the past and to all the pipers who came before and are part of the same river of music through the ages. I feel I’m a part of that story now.”
Listeners witness the blending of antiquity with modernity in a sound that always strikes me as otherworldly. A fan of Gaelic culture enjoys it as much as someone who just wants to enjoy something they probably don’t listen to on the regular. “What makes Madison such a cool place is the diversity of what’s going on in such a concentrated spot,” says David.
Greg Bruno, piper, adds, “I believe our music provides excitement, joy, a stirring of emotions, chills, a sense of courage, and a sense of pride.”
In my brief research for this article, I found fun and technical music being written by contemporary pipe composers and realized there’s something genuine here that’s very much alive and evolving. Madison Pipes & Drums is wound in this creative thread twisted with delightful curiosity and appreciation. “We are the caretakers of history and culture,” says Kevin. “We preserve and teach and pass along all the knowledge and experience that comes before so this treasure can enrich every generation that follows.”
Or, as Greg puts it, “I ultimately put the guitar away because everyone played guitar. The world didn’t need more guitarists. It needed more bagpipers.”
Kyle Jacobson is lead writer and senior copy editor for Madison Essentials.