The pipes are calling

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 April, 2011, 12:00am


Davy Spillane's first encounter with the uilleann pipes was not one you would call glamorous. It had no immediate, profound effect on him. And he didn't overflow with passion the first time he laid hands on the pipes. Instead, his initial experience with the instrument that would some day bring him fame came more from chance than any divine calling.

'I never really had great passion for it at first,' Spillane tells Young Post. 'I started playing the whistle, like those flageolet whistles, then I moved on to the uilleann pipes [pronounced illan] ... out of curiosity, really.'

Spillane has not given up playing the whistle. He still keeps one on stage with him all the time. Not to take anything away from his skill with a whistle, but Spillane wasn't dubbed the official piper to the stars by blowing hot air out of his mouth.

The uilleann pipes are a highly evolved instrument with deep roots in Irish traditions. Along with the Irish harp, they are the national instruments of Ireland.

'The pipes have their origins in the bagpipes,' Spillane explains. 'Uilleann is the Irish word for elbow, so they are elbow pipes. Basically they are like an oboe, and sound similar, except the air is blown from a bag [by squeezing the elbow towards the body] rather than by mouth.'

Like any artist, Spillane displays an intense bond with his instrument. For him, it is even deeper since he makes and fine-tunes his whistles and pipes himself.

He says that the pipes are designed for 'the temperate climate in Ireland' and prior to his arrival in Hong Kong for his performance with the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong last week, his biggest concern was how the pipes would hold up in a city notorious for its humidity. He has an almost over-protective bond with his pipes, like a parent towards a child.

Music has always been a part of Spillane's life. When he was growing up in Ireland, it was normal for school children to pick up a traditional musical instrument.

'It was a time in Ireland in the very early 1970s, when folk music was quite popular,' recalls Spillane. 'So it was more natural to play traditional instruments. At all schools people spent time playing traditional music and in most schools you would also take part in folk music. Whether students kept up with it is another story.'

But Spillane did continue playing the pipes. In fact, he went on to become the foremost piper in the world. His career brought him to the forefront of not only Irish folk music but also contemporary music. He has collaborated with musicians such as Enya, Bryan Adams, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello and Sinead O'Connor, among others.

But perhaps his biggest claim to fame may be his role in helping to bring Riverdance to the world. In 1994, Spillane worked on the album East Wind, produced by Bill Whelan of the Irish folk group Planxty. The following year saw Spillane appearing on the Whelan-produced Riverdance album, which was highly influenced by East Wind. Eventually the theatrical group soared to international popularity, with Spillane performing as a guest soloist in the original line-up.

'We laugh about it a bit in Ireland because people all over the world think that it is Irish music, and in a way it is because Bill Whelan wrote it, but it is really de facto syncopated eastern European music,' he says.