International musicians watch the process to make bagpipes at the Mid East bagpipe factory in Sialkot. Agence France-Presse
Sialkot: Umer Farooq’s grandfather and father made bagpipes. Now he is the third generation to take up the tradition in Pakistan, which is thousands of kilometres from Scotland yet sells thousands of bagpipes each year.
The fresh smell of wood floats through the Mid East factory in Sialkot, on the eastern side of Punjab province, where Farooq is one of the managers. Workers are busy standing or sitting on the ground.
Covered in sawdust, they carve the wood and polish it. Rosewood or ebony serve as the blowstick, into which players exhale. The drones — long pipes with a lower tone — follow a similar process. They are then attached to a bag, and often covered with tartan, a coloured plaid fabric typical of Scotland.
“In my family, all the boys know how to make a bagpipe, step by step,” said Farooq.
“When we were seven or eight, we would go to the factory. It was like a school, but the teachers were our dads and uncles.”
Honing such a craft is not easy.
South Asia has had for centuries its pungi, a wind instrument used for snake charming, and shehnai, a traditional oboe.
But the bagpipe had to wait until the mid-19th century for British colonialists to bring it to subcontinental India, of which Pakistan was a part before independence and partition in 1947.
“Anywhere the British army went, they took pipers with them,” says Decker Forrest, a Gaelic music teacher at the University of the Highlands and Islands in Scotland.
Locals seized on the tradition, which remains popular till this day, with dozens of bagpipe bands available for weddings and religious festivals.
“People love the bagpipe,” smiles Yaser Sain, the leader of a Sialkot trio who play at least two performances each day, he says.
Proudly he shows pictures on his mobile phone of the band in colourful costumes.
Forrest says Pakistani bands put the emphasis on how they look, rather than musical technique, “which is less important to them.”
At the world bagpipe championship, which is held every year in Glasgow, they are “the most beautifully dressed,” he says. The kilt, however, is not de rigueur among the Pakistanis.
The Pakistani military, born out of the colonial British Indian Army, also still has a soft spot for the instrument.