Folk music has many associations, not all of them good, most of them bad. English folk music in particular has a reputation for being lumpy, twee, parochial and terminally uncool, all beards and tankards and nit-picking over the finer points of tradition. We tend to think of folk as something conservative, something that holds and constricts, not something Dionysian and un-tame, that liberates and releases. And yet it is the trancey austerity of folk tunes that drew me to them in the first place (I discovered folk at the same time as I discovered rave). They have the power to elicit a curious atavistic feeling, to facilitate an undoing.
A good tune needs to be repeated many times. Not for me the Irish way of playing a tune twice then hopping to the next and the next. I want thickness and depth.
Like a mantra there is a delicious pleasure in hearing a tune again and again, a delight that unfolds from the tightly structured narrative of the 32 bar form: tension-release, tension-release, statement-development-resolution. A good tune is like a story. You never tire of hearing it even though you know the ending. And when skilled musicians extemporise, weaving variations and harmonies around the warp, their embroidery makes it something exceptional, a unique piece of folk art. There should be a sadness when it ends.
The bagpipes lend themselves to repetition. Their traditional role was not marching people into battle, but leading people into the dance. All across Europe, since the Middle Ages and probably from Antiquity, people have leapt and stepped in time to reed pipes, the textured layers of the drone and the rich timbres of the chanter carrying them onwards, urging them upwards. And when musicians and dancers start to forget themselves, lose themselves to the crowd and the groove and the tune and the repetition, something wonderful starts to happen. An intensity. A feeling of flow, that things are cooking, that this could happily go on forever.
There's magic in the music. Bagpipes are the original trance instrument - a design classic, still in use after 700 years.
To illustrate what I mean, here are some musicians playing on the Greek island of Karpathos. The bagpipe is a tsabouna, an unusual instrument in that you can only play 6 notes on it. The art is to play it almost as a percussion instrument. I also like the bells on the lyra player's bow which give his playing an extra bite. Art music this ain't. Listen right to the end and you'll hear that things go up a notch. Something starts to change. Somewhere a goat-footed god is starting to jig.