Bagpipe Albums | Essential 10 | Songlines
Thursday, May 9, 2024

Bagpipe Albums | Essential 10

By Chris Wheatley

Criminally castigated and distinctly uncool, bagpipes are a mainstay of many traditional musics and are also increasingly finding favour as an experimental instrument of choice. Chris Wheatley picks out ten albums filled with more than just hot air



Davy Spillane

Atlantic Bridge (Tara, 1987)

A master of the uilleann pipes (Irish bagpipes), this was the Grammy-winning player’s first solo album, full of effortlessly fluid and engaging material. The spells Spillane weaves will leave you breathless, not least thanks to some superstar backing from banjo wizard Béla Fleck and folk legend Christy Moore. Spillane’s other credits include collaborations with Kate Bush, Elvis Costello, Mike Oldfield and a host of other greats.



Estonian Bagpipe (Tutl, 2006)

The tradition of bagpipe, or torupill, playing in Estonia dates back hundreds of years but modern ensemble Ro:Toro, although classically trained, have added a modern twist, incorporating multi-layered percussion, saxophone and elements of jazz improvisation to create something quite special. In this innovative quartet’s hands, water basins, bicycle spokes and even electric guitar are transformed beyond recognition. Permeating throughout you’ll hear the driving power of Sandra Sillamaa and Cätlin Jaago’s pipes.


Various Artists

Bagpipes of Greece (Topic Records, 2005)

A fascinating collection put together by noted ethnomusicologist Wolf Dietrich, these historic field recordings capture traditional bagpipe music as played by shepherds and peasants across the Greek islands. Once in danger of extinction, the art of making and playing the various forms of bagpipe found in this part of the world has recently enjoyed a revival.


Mohsen Sharifian

Luka (Zang Records, 2022)

Born in the Southern Iranian province of Bushehr, multi-instrumentalist and composer Mohsen Sharifian is among that country’s most important artists when it comes to preserving and promoting traditional folk music and dance. His ney-anbān bagpipe plays a prominent role on this wonderfully evocative set, where clashing hand percussion rhythms circle underneath intoxicating melodies and drones.


Jean Baron & Christian Anneix

E Bro Roué Morvan (Keltia Musique, 2000)

The title of this intriguing album refers to the Breton king, Morvan (d818), who ascended to the throne following the death of Charlemagne. This collection of ancient folk tunes is performed by two masters of their craft, on the high-pitched binioù kozh bagpipe and the bombarde (a type of oboe) – the interplay between the two instruments is mesmerising.


Emin Yağci

Tulum: A Sound from the Black Sea (Felmay, 2011)

A droneless bagpipe with two chanters (the part of the instrument on which the melody is played), the tulum is native to the Black Sea region of Turkey, and nobody has done more to promote its sound than Emin Yağci, who died in 2023. With percussion, chants and the distinctive flowing tones of the tulum, this is a terrific collection of recordings.


Rufus Harley

Bagpipe Blues (Atlantic, 1965)

Bagpipes and jazz may seem an unlikely combination. Indeed, the extraordinary Rufus Harley is one of the plucky few pioneers to have attempted it. This wonderful album boggles the mind and enchants the ears with its melding of martial sounds, free-wheeling bop and Harley’s mercurial playing. The amalgam of styles may not be for all, but those who love it will really love it.


Orchestra Macaroon

Breakfast in Balquhidder (Backshore Productions, 2004)

There’s an indefinable, extra-special quality about Breakfast in Balquhidder, a record on which the eclectically minded Orchestra Macaroon are joined by an international cast of guest musicians. The results sound like nothing else – an irresistible and constantly surprising mix of cool jazz and global folk sounds, where grand piano and double bass blend organically with the smooth drones of the bagpipes.


Martyn Bennett

Bothy Culture (Rykodisc, 1998)

Where to start with Martyn Bennett? The Canadian-Scottish bagpiper’s music elevated the art of Celtic fusion to a place where electronic experimentation and abstract ideas blossomed and swayed while retaining a warming, human feel. Bennett passed away at the age of only 33, but he leaves behind an extraordinarily enjoyable, if tragically small, catalogue of work, full of humour and excitement.


Afro Celt Sound System

Volume 1: Sound Magic (Real World, 1996)

A mainstay of WOMAD for years, the ground-breaking Gaelic-West African ensemble’s list of collaborators includes the likes of Robert Plant, Peter Gabriel, Sinéad O’Connor and Davy Spillane. The band possess a fine knack for producing silky smooth, highly polished future-folk which never loses sight of its traditional heart. This, their debut, still sounds fresh and enticing, with the uilleann pipes featuring strongly throughout.

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