Saturday, September 24, 2011

Street Music in Scotland

Each evening upon returning to our hotel in Edinburgh, we were greeted by the sounds of one of the more unusual “rock” bands I have encountered. The Spinning Blowfish include a drummer, a guitar player and a bagpiper. It was surprising how natural the three seemed to be creating a distinctive Scottish sound but with a rhythm and feel that was clearly rock and roll.

A large crowd had gathered, some with camp chairs, in the plaza of the Grassmarket section of the city, so named because it was where the cattle grazed before being sold. The street stage was also the site of many a public hanging over the centuries with those poor souls remembered by a marble cross next to Blowfish guitar case for contributions.

Street musicians seem to be everywhere in big cities these days. In Edinburgh, many were drawn by the Fringe Festival. Some to promote shows (the favorite trick seemed to be lying on on the street holding instruments in frozen poses with flyers scattered around) while others were busking where the crowds gathered on The Royal Mile. Every few hundred feet they were playing fiddles, pipes, guitars, horns and drums. In between were people juggling chainsaws, riding unicycles or doing card tricks. (I have no idea what the bearded man in the Wonder Woman outfit was up to.)

The sounds we heard on our travels varied between local light pipes and classic American rock and roll (at one pub along Loch Duich we heard the entire Tom Petty’s Greatest Hits during lunch). I suspect there is a Bagpipe Muzak Service for gift shops to keep the tourists in a buying mood.

In Glasgow the shoppers on Buchanan Street (recently re-opened after nearby areas had been dressed to look like Philadelphia for shooting scenes in the new Brad Pitt movie, World War Zed) drew more street musicians. A sax player did a pretty fair “Aint No Sunshine When She’s Gone.” Outside a subway stop we saw a fiddler who had attached a trumpet horn to his violin to amplify his sounds.

The American influence was prominent. Posters advertised an upcoming Brian Wilson show at the Glasgow Royald Concert Hall. The Oran Mar Theater (in a former church’s basement) advertised a cabaret show: A Bottle of Wine and Patsy Cline.

Back on Buchanan street, I felt sorry for a couple of tow-headed ten year olds on guitar and drums trying to be heard over a most unusual Scottish Band.

I think these guys were called ClairDonaigh but that is my rendition of their Gaelic CD title. I can report they were loud and I shudder to hear what they would sound like indoors at a bar like King Tut’s Wa Wa Hut up the street.

As for the Spinning Blowfish, I sprang the five quid for a CD so now when I am asked for the magazine ad: What’s on your Ipod? I can say: Scotland The Brave.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Bands of Battle in Scotland

Inside the ancient castle that towers over Edinburgh, Scotland, is a small chapel with stained glass windows and regimental books containing the list of names of Scots who lost their lives in wars around the world. The Scottish National War Memorial was opened in 1927, initially in honor of the 147,000 Scots who died in World War I.

Every summer for the past six decades, the bagpipers and drummers who have played the Scots into battle gather on the castle esplanade to perform the military music that can be haunting, rousing and even homorous at times. Today’s military tattoo is performed by a cast of nearly 1,000 in a temporary stadium packed with tourists drawn to the city for the theater and book festivals.

To some, military music is at best an acquired taste; to others, it is part of our cultural DNA, ingrained from years of Memorial Day and Fourth of July parades or as background to fireworks displays. Bagpipes also divide people sharply between fans and foes. There is no denying, however, that pipes and drums along with horns (and even strings) can be very stirring given the history of their roles on battlefields and at funeral services.

This year’s tattoo was surprisingly global with enough comdey to make the Disney folks take note. The first show stopper came when the music band of the Royal Netherlands Army rode into the arena on vintage bicycles, in World War I khakis, playing their instruments. Can you ride a bike and play a snare drum at the same time? While weaving in and out of crossing bicycles?

And who knew that the Brazilian Navy had a military band that included bagpipers? They were there and performed with Bossa Nova dancers in short frilly beach outfits. Not to be outdone the German Army Mountain Band from Bavaria brought along a synchronized wood chopping demonstration, four alpenhorns and an anvil (which they played).

Between musical numbers, there was a cannon pulling contest by teams from the Scottish Royal Navy and a (slightly hokey) reenactment of anti-piracy raid by sailors from the HMS Montrose.

Then it was back to music and marching, with three units from the Royal Marines who were joined by the Royal Highland Fusiliers, Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and finally, the other bands from around the world for the finale: The National Anthem, Auld Lang Syne and the Evening Hymn. Then from the ramparts a lone piper played A Parting Glass across the castle heights and across the years.

As the mournful sounds died out, the massed bands struck up a rousing march-out medley led by Scotland the Brave which had everyone ready to follow William Wallace with swords drawn.