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Battlefield Band brings the enduring spirit of bagpipes

| Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013, 6:19 p.m.
John Slavin / Designfolk
Scotland's Battlefield Band

Believe it or not, the bagpipe didn't always belong to Scotland.

“Bagpipes are all across the world, and most musical traditions have their own bagpipes,” says Alasdair White of Scotland's Battlefield Band, which is playing Oct. 3 at the First Unitarian Church of Shadyside.

“Bagpipes originated in Asia Minor and kind of spread throughout the world. The Scottish bagpipe is by no means the only bagpipe in the world. It's just perhaps the most famous, which has to do with the British Army, really — their adopting it and taking it around the world.”

On the battlefield, of course. The irony of a conquered people (the Scots) having their music adopted by their conqueror, then used to terrify their opponents from South Africa to the Western Front, is sort of profound. But that's not really the reason these icons of Scottish traditional music are called the Battlefield Band.

That name comes from the Glasgow suburb of Battlefield, where the original members lived when the band was formed in 1969. None of the original members are still in the band 40-plus years later, but their sound and spirit endure.

White, originally from the remote island of Lewis, is perhaps the band's senior member. He plays the fiddle, whistle and bouzouki, along with the Highland and small pipes.

“I've been with the band 13 years now,” White says. “I started with the band when I was, like, 18.”

Over the years, the Battlefield Band's music has shaped him almost as much as he's shaped it. But in the Scottish folk/traditional music scene, change is best adopted very slowly.

“The music is there, it's always been there, and it's always going to be there,” White says. “People put their own spin on things, but that's never going to change the actual music.”

Battlefield Band songs are heavy on themes of friendship and drinking, of course, and the hard times, immigration and political battles of past and present.

“We have a lot of different facets and moving parts to the music we play,” he says. “We play a set with a couple of quick-steps that are like marches and a couple of reels, as well. That pretty much sums up the instrumental side of things — driving, energetic. But we also do a number of songs from our main singer, I suppose, to be followed by Ewen (Henderson) here, who's getting a reputation as a top Gaelic singer. So, we've got songs in Gaelic and in English.”

The music itself has evolved ever-so-subtly, and isn't completely removed from outside influences.

“Trends ... I think it's best not to be too conscious about it,” White says. “You (can) get very concerned with either keeping away from musical trends or following them — I don't think you can really do either. You have to just sort out what you like about the music, what's good about it, and do that.”

So, don't expect electronic beats or hip-hop samples anytime soon.

“No, although we do have some killer dance moves.”

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mmachosky@tribweb.com or 412-320-7901.

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