There’s just something about the bagpipes. When skillfully played, the skirling of the pipes, the low hum of the drones and the insistent treble of the melody line on the chanter, plus the visual of the pipers in crisp woolen kilts, Glengarry caps and sporrans, grab the listener on a primitive, visceral level.
Whether it’s the sobbing of a solitary piper to mark a funeral, or the massed sound of a celebratory occasion such as opening the Highland Games, bagpipes create a feeling that no other musical instrument can match.
If you feel that singular sound of bagpipe music is what’s been missing from your life, relief is on the way. Saturday evening, The Pub Naples at Mercato is hosting the Harp & Thistle Pipe Band for a Halfway to St. Patrick’s Day event. There will be plenty of Guinness on tap, Jameson Irish whiskey by the flagon and, safe to say, a good deal of “the wearin’ of the green.”
Some of that green will be in the kilts of the Harp & Thistle band members. Their matching green kilts represent the national tartan of Ireland, said band member Sean Hunt. The national instrument of Scotland, the pipes also are closely associated with Ireland, and the band took its name from the symbols of both countries.
At full strength, the Harp & Thistle Pipe Band numbers 30 to 35 members, including drummers as well as pipers, said Pipe Major Don Goller, the leader of the ensemble. They will bring a smaller contingent, possibly half of the entire band, to the Pub. The event is a fundraiser to help cover the costs of the band for traveling and competition.
If you go
Halfway to St. Patrick’s Day
When: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday; outside event featuring Harp & Thistle Pipe Band, 5 to 10 p.m.
Cost: No cover charge
Food and drinks: $5 Guinness, Harp and Smithwick’s drafts; $5 for Jameson and the aptly named “Irish Car Bombs,” with a half-pint of Guinness, topped with Jameson and Bailey’s Irish Cream. Corned beef Reubens also will be featured.
Something else: For more information or to make a contribution to the Harp & Thistle Pipe Band, a 501(c)3 organization, harpandthistlepipeband.org or 239-495-0110
“It’s an expensive hobby,” Goller said. “The reeds alone can cost $20, and players go through a lot of them” before they become adept. A basic, good quality set of starter bagpipes, the Great Highland pipes played by Harp & Thistle members, will set you back $1,000 or more, and to replace Goller’s set of pipes, he estimated could cost 10 times that much — if it could be done.
The drones, the actual pipes, on his set are made from African blackwood, with embellishments of engraved silver and ivory, not available in today’s market. Traditionally, the “bag” where the air is stored, is made from a lamb’s stomach, just like the Scottish dish haggis, but many modern players substitute synthetics or a leather and neoprene hybrid.
The pipers of Harp & Thistle, along with the snare drums, bass and tenor drums, the ones whose drummers do the flourishing with their mallets, play a broad range of musical compositions, with their full complement, singly and in smaller groups in their performances.
“Some pieces lend themselves to a large group,” said Goller. And some require a level of skill that only the elite, a group that definitely includes Goller, one of the country’s eminent pipers, can negotiate.
“It takes a great deal of dexterity. You have to blow, squeeze and finger, all at the same time,” said Goller, a Marine and former New York homicide detective who has been playing the pipes for 45 years. “We play a lot of grace notes. It’s the embellishments that give it that pop. And there’s no rests with bagpipes — it’s constant music.”
The effect of a number of pipes together, he said, such as when they play four-part harmony on “Amazing Grace,” should be reminiscent of a pipe organ.
Certain tunes are obligatory for a pipe band. “Scotland the Brave” is perhaps the piece that springs to mind when most people hear bagpipe music in their heads, along with classics such as “Irish Eyes,” “Garry Owen,” and “The Rakes of Mallow.” And, said piper and band member Peggy Wilson, somebody always requests “Danny Boy.”
The band members also play certain other compositions you might not expect. They do a “Star Wars” medley, and songs from other ethnic traditions, including “La Cucaracha” and “Hava Negila,” and can whip out “It’s a Long Way to the Top” by hard rock group AC/DC, under the right conditions.
It’s only a fairly recent development that women are playing in traditional pipe bands, said Wilson and fellow piper Kathryn McMullen, who certainly sports an appropriate name.
“It’s not just a man’s game any more,” said McMullen. Differences in the anatomy of the sexes, said Wilson, could have a bearing on the pipes’ tradition as a male province.
“I can’t stand it. They’re in the way,” she said. “It’s easier to play as a guy.”
Part of the bagpipers tradition includes what is worn under the kilt, which in the “regimental” or “commando” style, is nothing.
“If we wore something under our kilts, they’d be a skirt, wouldn’t they?” commented Goller, not confirming or denying his personal preference.
“The wool is so scratchy — I don’t know how men do it,” Wilson said.
Part of the mission of the Harp & Thistle band is to keep the bagpipes alive and vibrant, teaching the music to new generations of players. They have players as young as Edward Peliska, just 10 years old. He is already an accomplished piper after playing for just three years.
“Us older ones want to beat him up” for picking up the skill so easily, piper Ben Mowry said, teasing him. Peliska already has won piping competitions, being named “Piper of the Day” at a Scottish Highland Games in Dunedin, Fla., Goller said.
While the band as a whole ranges young, he added, tit has members in their late 70s. Playing the bagpipes demands a strong set of personal pipes. Doctors, said Wilson, are shocked by the lung capacity of pipers, comparable to those of marathon runners.
“The Harp & Thistle Band is phenomenal — fantastic to listen to,” said Pub Naples at Mercato general manager Danielle Bergdorf. “They play here every St. Patrick’s day, but this is the first time we’ve had them here for the halfway event.”
To help get patrons into the proper giving frame of mind to “pipe up” and support the band, the Pub is offering a number of specials on Saturday.
But none will be so special as the sound visitors to Mercato will hear when Harp and Thistle performs.