Sorry Scotland -- Bagpipes were an Arab instrument first!
By Joseph Gedeon
When you think of bagpipes you think of Scotland right? The truth is, you shouldn’t.
While it has never been pin-pointed, most academics believe you shouldn’t look much farther than the Middle East.
“The bagpipe is traditionally thought of as being linked to Persia,” director of the Centre for Byzantine Research at Oxford Dr. Peter Frankopan told Gulf News. “This is easily distinguished considering Persia’s long dateable legacy and longer recorded history being more closely linked with music from the shepherd world.”
In this sense, Dr. Frankopan understands that the bagpipe is familiar to all societies that look after livestock. That’s how bagpipes ended up spreading from the Middle East through Europe and even going as far as China.
“Arabic music had a great influence on Europe,” Dr. Frankopan explained. “Along with the bagpipe, there were specific instruments whose names come from Arabic words and are derived from instruments across the Middle East, North Africa and Spain.”
Some of these instrumental icons include the ‘oud’, which gave its name to the lute and the ‘qitara’ — the ancestor of the guitar.
Dr. Lisa Urkevich, the chair of musicology and ethnomusicology at the American University of Kuwait, believes this concept holds weight.
“I know they’ve been in Persia since at least 900 AD,” Dr. Urkevich said. “But if you look at Oman and Jordan you see that their bagpipes came from the British fairly recently. “
Although native to Persia, the roots of the instrument have no bearing in certain parts of the Arab world that play the instrument. To Dr. Urkevich, countries like Oman and Jordan benefitted from western military culture when British troops brought in the European bagpipe in the 1970’s and have been using it since.
“The only place we really find bagpipes are in Persia and the Gulf states, specifically in the upper Gulf,” Dr. Urkevich continued. “But the reason I believe it was adopted so quickly into society is because people were so used to that sound from Persia.”
Studying music since she first moved to the region in 1994, Dr. Urkevich spent nearly 20 years of field work to write her most recent book, Music and Tradition of the Arabian Peninsula. This involved meeting and recording musicians from around the area to understand and track and understand their style. From this experience, she picked up a whole new meaning to the Arabian genre of music.
“I went into all the different regions of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states,” Dr. Urkevich said. “We went back time and time again to double check and because I covered such a big area we were able to see the similarities; to find patterns — we saw that there were trade routes that would carry this kind of music back and forth.”
And to Dr. Urkevich, it is still something that you won’t have to look to hard to find.
“It’s still very popular at weddings,” Dr. Urkevich said. “It’s part of their culture.”
But while it may be popular in some crowds, in general traditional bagpipe music hasn’t been in much demand. Because of this, some of the UAE’s most well-known schools are ceasing to teach it. In fact, according to the Glenn Perry, the founder of the Dubai Music School, the musical landscape of the UAE has changed dramatically over the past few years.
“In the early days of our school students would come in and want to play the bagpipe,” Perry, a former casual bagpipe player, said. “But when bagpipes started to lose their origin by becoming synthetic, it messed up the culture of the music.”
Being the first music institute in the country, the Dubai Music School had been a witness to the transformation of the Gulf music scene for the past 35 years.
“I’ve trained thousands of people from the Middle East teaching them to play all kinds of instruments,” Perry said. “In those days it was quite popular to play the bagpipe.”
Perry believes that’s because of the embedded culture of the instrument.
“You know it’s quite the misconception,” Perry said. “The truth of the bagpipe is that it comes from right here in the Middle East. We’ve seen traces of it throughout the region for over a thousand years.”
Considering that Dr. Frankopan, Dr. Urkevich and Glenn Perry hold different opinions over the small details is only a testament to the age-old myth about the bagpipe. Despite the details, the experts are able to agree on one thing: the origin of the bagpipe is rooted in the Middle East.