Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, April 2, 1998

By George F. Lee, Star-Bulletin
Tina Berger, bagpipes covered in an island print,
practices with the Police Pipes & Drums.

A fine set of pipes

Bagpipers in full regalia
come together to celebrate Hawaii's
Scottish heritage

By Burl Burlingame


AS near as anyone knows, the first time the bagpipes were played in Hawaii, it was courtesy a military piper from a British warship in the early 1800s, who serenaded the Hawaiian court and a group of missionaries one night.

"As soon as the missionaries left, he stepped up the music and started playing jigs instead of hymns," said Larry Coleman, the Jedi master of Hawaii piping. "The royal Hawaiians quite liked that."

Coleman rides herd on the Honolulu Police Pipes & Drums, performing Saturday and Sunday at the annual Hawaiian Scottish Festival at Kapiolani Park.

drums The modern history of Hawaii and Scotland are intertwined, dating from the immigration of Scots to Big Island ranches during the mid-1800s. Scots, famed for their technical expertise, became engineers on many plantations.

One link is "Hawaii Aloha," which comes from the Scots hymn "I Left It All With Jesus," written in the 1840s by James McGranahan. "Kamehameha the Fourth took an instant liking to the hymn, which was presumably brought here by missionaries, and he had Lorenzo Lyons rewrite the words to 'Hawaii Aloha' and placed in a Hawaiian hymnal," said Coleman, adding that much of the research on this subject is courtesy Hardy Spoehr, a local historian.

The tonal scale of the melody works well on the bagpipes. Coleman's group began playing "Hawaii Aloha" several years ago, and the melody is beginning to catch on with other bagpipes organizations, ironically, going back to Scotland where the melody originated.

"That's not unusual," said Coleman. "Look at the melody for 'Hawaii Pono'i' -- it's a bit like 'God Save the Queen,' isn't it?"

By the turn of the century, the "Scottish Thistle Society" was regularly celebrating Burns Night every year, and if there was a piper in town, he played. But the real boost to Hawaii piping came from one of the first-recognized female master pipers, via a Hawaiian carnival master.

"Aggie Wallace came here in the late 1930s, brought in by showman EK Fernandez as a kind of sideshow attraction," said Coleman. "She was originally from Scotland, then Canada, then New Jersey -- where she was awarded silver-plated pipes for her playing ability -- and then she went to Hollywood, where Fernandez discovered her and brought her out to Hawaii."

Here Wallace stayed, training generations of Hawaii pipers, including Coleman.

"I had trained as a competitive piper when I was young, but grew tired of it. Aggie worked with me in her little apartment over 20 years ago, and made it fun again," said Coleman.

His real job was an investigator with the Navy, and he often ran into a police sergeant named Doug Gibb. They kept in touch as Coleman and other pipers created local piping bands with names like the Shamrock Pipe Band or the Celtic Pipers and Drummers of Hawaii. "Doug loved bagpipe music, and recognized the police and fire traditions that many piping organizations come from," said Coleman. "As for himself, Doug only wanted to learn the play 'Amazing Grace' on the pipes."

But then Gibb became police chief, and asked Coleman to organize a pipe band within the police department. That didn't work out -- "Takes at least two long years to train a piper" -- and the Celtic Pipers were asked if they'd represent the police department.

To a one, they said yes. "They recognized what the pipes stand for, things that are important to police -- integrity, honor, credibility, courage, loyalty -- and we became the Honolulu Police Pipes & Drums," said Coleman.

Recently, the organization has begun to represent the city fire department as well, generally at public events, and sometimes at private ones as well. "On the mainland, it's understood that a piper will play at the funeral of a policeman or a fireman; that's the tradition," said Coleman.

The police pipe band did play at the funeral of the department's Sister Roberta, who had been a bass drummer in a pipe band in her youth.

As a private organization, the Honolulu Police Pipes and Drums can play private functions, asking only an honorarium for band expenses. "No one gets paid," said Coleman. "The money goes for equipment." (To book the band, call secretary Donnie Graff at 672-6852 or 691-2147.)

Coleman said that while the appreciation of pipe music is growing in Hawaii, the number of pipers available waxes and wanes. "Most are still with the military, and they transfer in and out."

Rounder Records
Battlefield Band, from left: Alan Reid, Mike Katz,
John McCusker and Davy Steele.

Music of the battlefield

Top Celtic ensemble plays at the academy

By Burl Burlingame


SINCE bagpipes are the only musical instrument classified as a weapon of war, it's appropriate that Scotland's Battlefield Band has always had a set of pipes at its heart.

OK, the band is named after a Glasgow suburb, and pipes and kilts haven't been used in battle since the fall of France, but there's something irresistibly haunting and noble about the wail of the pipes. The very sound is primitive and intricate, elaborate and savage, and it cuts right through the din of battle -- or the din of modern civilization. No wonder Napoleon called kilt-wearing Highlanders the "ladies from hell."

Mike Katz, Battlefield Band's newest piper, loves the "insolent sound" of the pipes. "Ye can't beat for sheer volume, and the fingering is so intricate," he said, by phone from a small island near Seattle. "Because there's a drone going on, there's a straight continuum to the melody. Always a wee harmony going on. A great deal available from such a simple instrument."

Originally from Los Angeles, Katz picked up the pipes from his older brother, and picked up both his Scots burr and his Scottish wife while attending Edinburgh University. He's still an American citizen, although "I'd been to Scotland when I was young, and quite liked it."

Katz replaced piper Iain MacDonald, who performed with Battlefield Band the last time they toured the islands. The band's other new member is guitarist/citternist Davy Steele. On keyboards is Alan Reid, who's been with the band nearly 30 years, and fiddler whiz kid John McCusker, who joined in 1990 at age 17.

As the Fort Worth Star-Telegram pointed out in a concert review, "Ireland's Chieftains aside, the Scottish band may well be the best traditional Celtic band in existence -- a unit that, after 25 years and numerous personnel changes, is functioning in top form. The band plays with a good-humored spirit, inspired and at times awe-inspiring musicianship and nearly perfect balance of material AND the strengths of the four members..."

"It's pretty much a democracy," said Katz. "We write our own songs, and we try to popularize lots of old songs that don't get played very often."

These "old songs" are just as likely to be a Creedence Clearwater Revival tune as a 17th-century strathspey, mind you. It may be bagpipes he's playing, but Katz listens to jazz musicians like Ornette Coleman and funkmeisters like George Clinton off-stage. This jazzy phrasing translates to his fingertips.

Battlefield Band's line-up has changed, but the instruments haven't.

"Stylistically, it'd be foolish to change it. It took a long time to get the right balance," said Katz. "The pipes sound simply right with a fiddle, and Davy adds the roundness and Alan does amazing things with the keyboards."

Although Scotland may be chockablock with pipers, it's best to be prepared when traveling with bagpipes. "It's a hardy instrument, but you have to be prepared," said Katz. "You bring spares. Once during a sound check, the chanter suddenly split wide open in my hand, right in the middle of a tune! A defect in the wood, I s'pose. Luckily I had another, and it didn't happen during a concert. Ye just can't run down to the corner store and get bagpipe parts."


For Scots and Scots-at-heart

Hawaiian Scottish Festival

bullet Featuring: Music, games, food, dancing, medieval swordplay, lots of kilts, etc.
bullet Time: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
bullet Place: Kapiolani Park
bullet Admission: Free
bullet Call: 235-7605.

Battlefield Band

bullet Concert time: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
bullet Place: Honolulu Academy of Arts
bullet Admission: $15
bullet Call: 532-8768.

Tartan Day

Monday is the national day of recognition for Americans and Canadians of Scottish heritage. Wear something plaid.

Do It Electric!

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