The uilleann pipes inspire extreme reactions in listeners. Some, already resistant to piping from their experience of the much louder bagpipes, opt to keep their distance, but, once bitten by the bug, many seek out piping tunes and pipers.
That is what has happened to a group of young musicians in Cuba, who have taken the lead from Na Píobairí Uilleann to make piping their own: a nascent Buena Vista Pipers’ Club, with piper and Na Píobairí Uilleann chief Gay McKeon channelling a low-key and self-deprecating Ry Cooder.
McKeon is a formidable strategist. A former head of GE Ireland, and an accountant by profession, he has overseen a number of key developments over the past eight years. The establishment of Pipecraft, a pipe-making training centre in Cloghran, along with the refurbishment of Na Píobairí Uilleann’s headquarters on Dublin’s Henrietta Street have addressed two of the challenges that had hobbled the piping community for decades: getting hold of pipes within a reasonable time frame and at an affordable price, and having access to a space where archives and piping classes could take place on demand.
The success of Pipecraft has seen waiting times for a full set of pipes drop from eight to 10 years to somewhere between 12 months and two years: a boon for players who were previously solely dependent on the (generous) loan facility operated by Na Píobairí Uilleann.
The potential of the web is also being exploited by Na Píobairí Uilleann, which has launched two apps recently. The first, Moving Cloud, makes the 3,000 videos on its archive accessible to musicians and listeners using smartphones and tablets; the second, Pipecraft, gives users access to more than 50 hours of video footage featuring the skills of leading pipemakers.
Our man in Havana
The Cuban connection has lent further momentum to Irish and international uilleann piping lately. McKeon visited Havana for their first Celtfest Cuba in 2011, and his piping classes there were a hit.
The flame was further fanned by visits from Paddy Keenan and Jimmy O'Brien Moran, who ran workshops with a dozen pipers in Havana, the most promising of whom, Alexander Suárez Méndez, is coming to Ireland this summer.
Students from Pipecraft have donated pipes too, the piping equivalent to the Send a Piana to Havana initiative. Mendez, a 23-year-old Havana native, had previously played the Galician bagpipes, but it was McKeon’s playing of the uilleann pipes that seduced him fully.
“In 2011, I began workshops with Gay McKeon, and since then I have fallen in love completely with the music and the instrument,” says Mendez. “Here it was impossible to get uilleann pipes, let alone a teacher. I know Kilian Kennedy (co-founder of Celtfest Cuba) and that was my first encounter with the uilleann pipes.
“That day for me was unforgettable. The sound, the thousands of possibilities that it offers, added to the interpretation of the best uilleann pipers: it convinced me enough to want to learn how to play and to improve every day. It attracts me to its complexity because it keeps me delving into it, and every day I learn something new.”
Mendez in Ireland
Mendez is planning a visit to Ireland this summer, to advance his playing and reed-making skills. "For me, going to the Willie Clancy Summer School is very big," he says. "It is a great opportunity to deepen my studies and to show the work that I have been doing with Gay McKeon and with other Cuban uilleann pipers. My teacher has grand expectations for my visit to Ireland and I intend to make good use of my time there."
Sorah Rionda is getting fortnightly piping lessons from McKeon via Skype. She recently moved to Italy from her home in Havana, and she is one of a growing number of female pipers who are taking to the instrument with enthusiasm and authority. Pipes were once the domain of men, but McKeon figures that up to 40 per cent of emerging pipers are women. Rionda has a a set of pipes on loan from Na Píobairí Uilleann, and is relishing the journey she is on with them.
“I love this instrument and the sound and the melodies more each day,” she says. “I received a set of uilleann pipes thanks to Gay and Na Píobairí Uilleann, and it arrived at Christmas. It was the best year’s end in my life. [Playing the pipes] is like swimming in the sea. It gives you a sweet and poetic hug. You have to play with all your body, you have to use your two arms, so it is like dancing and playing music at the same time. The uilleann pipes are you, and you are the uilleann pipes.”
Na Píobairí Uilleann's strategy 2014 -2018 is available on pipers.ie. On Thursday, Damien Dempsey, Liam O'Connor, Seán McKeon and more headline a fundraising concert for the Cuban Uilleann Pipers at the Grand Social, Dublin