On Saturday 1st our lunchtime concert will be something that I confidently predict few people will have heard before. The six pipers and percussionist that make up Zephyrus will create an amazing wall of sound that should properly blow people’s minds. Forget everything you think you know about the bagpipe and its music … this will be totally different, as well as being full of great tunes and great rhythms.
But who are Zephyrus and how did this concert come about?
In the early 90s I was a music student at Dartington College of Arts. I was starting to get interested in traditional music - folk music, if you like - and one day someone gave me a cassette of a band called Blowzabella. What a sound! Raucous, driving rhythms, great tunes and … a whole lot of peculiar sounds I couldn’t entirely name. It was something completely new to me, and I played that tape over and over again.
I started to learn more about them. They were interested in instruments with drones - i.e which could play a tune but also had a long continuous note sounding underneath. So there were bagpipes (but … they sounded really different to normal ones), and there was also something called a hurdy-gurdy - not a barrel organ but a weird sort of mechanised violin which you played by turning a handle with one hand and fingering a keyboard with the other. And they were interested in English folk music but also in a special tradition from central France which used the same instruments.
I found out that these bagpipes were made in Somerset by one of the band’s members - a chap called Jon Swayne. He’d got interested in an instrument called the ‘Border Bagpipe’, associated with the English/Scottish border area but which might have been much more widespread at one time (and in fact there used to be bagpipes all over Europe, not just on the Celtic fringes). It was a smaller, quieter thing than the fearsome Highland Pipes, and had a much sweeter, mellower sound. More house-trained, you might say!
In due course I got my own set of pipes from Jon and learned to play them. For my final recital in ‘94 I wrote a bagpipe trio which was performed in the Great Hall with Jon, myself and Dave Faulkner (who, with his band the Eel Grinders, also played at my wedding to Susie in 1997).
Folk music with bagpipes - especially that central French style - became something I really loved. Susie and I used to go up to huge events like Le Grand Bal de Bath, where you’d be in a big hall dancing bourées and schottisches to fantastic French bands like La Chavanée.
We all know what bagpipe bands are, don’t we? A few dozen blokes in kilts knocking out Scotland The Brave (or maybe Sailin’ or Mull OF Kintyre) … they’re all playing the same instrument, all playing the tune, and … that’s sort of it. Seen the band of The Scots Dragoon Guards on New Year’s Eve? Yes, that’s the image of bagpipe music!
Except that people started to think it could be different. What if your pipe band included low, medium and high-pitched instruments? What if they played in harmony? Could you have different melodies weaving around each other? And what if the instruments themselves were smoother and warmer-sounding?
In the mid-90s I saw a French band doing just this at the Sidmouth Folk Festival. Fantastic! And then Blowzabella’s Jon Swayne starting experimenting with the same ideas, first as a trio, then as a sextet. He wrote some very special bespoke music for six bagpipes, and Zephyrus was born … twenty years later, they’re still going!
After last year’s Nourish, I had the idea it would be nice to get some pipe music for 2018 - and to be honest I was thinking about the street music that takes place in Fore Street during the food festival.Some French or maybe Irish music perhaps. It occurred to me that Dave Faulkner - the guy I’d played with back in 1994 - might be able to help, especially as I knew he lived locally.
Talking to Dave, the idea of Zephyrus came up (he was a founder member of the band), and that’s where a light bulb went on in my head! Our Saturday lunchtime concert has become the ‘something different’ one, and this would definitely, definitely definitely be that! It seemed to me that if you wanted something very exciting that would get people talking, to put in the middle of that big festival day, This Would Be It.
And so now the band is coming to do its extraordinary thing in Bovey Tracey on 1 Sept. Can’t wait for this one!