Piping hot

Bagpipes have a distinctive sound — that reedy, pulse-racing, ear-splitting squawk; equal parts drone and melody — that make them hard to mistake and easy to classify. And, as Battlefield Band piper Mike Katz notes, "The standard dance forms for traditional bagpipe music, we're quite lucky in that there's probably about four or five different rhythms. It's not millions and millions of things, so when you try to make up tunes, your hands just come up with things."

Trying their luck: Battlefield has been pushing the boundaries of traditional music for more than 40 years. Photo by Simon Hollington.

But there's really nothing standard about Katz's composition "The Mines of Golkonda" which leads off Battlefield Band's most recent album, Zama Zama Try Your Luck (Temple Records) and is "kind of like a Bhangra track, Punjabi dance music."

The tune is inspired both by the Bollywood-style tunes popularized by Slumdog Millionaire and the diamond markets in the Indian city of Golkonda: Wealth in all of its iterations inform Zama Zama. So, even with its base in traditional Scottish music (Battlefield Band formed in 1969 and is now in its fifth decade of forwarding folk music), the album draws inspirations from Hawaii, Africa, Central America and even WNC in the form of Nina Simone's "Plain Gold Ring."

Actually, Battlefield Band — whose motto is "Forward with Scotland's Past" — was performing world music before the term was coined. "Now, young people play [Scottish music] and you can learn it in school, but 30 years ago it was different because the country was much more homogeneous," Katz explains. "Now it's normal if you play it in Scotland."

He adds, "Bands like this have forged the way for people to play acoustic music in a language that's pretty communal." And while bagpipes — not to mention some of Battlefield Band's other exotic instruments: whistle, bouzouki, accordion — might not be familiar in, say, China, Katz points out that the band meets with a positive response around the world.
"Uzbekistan was our most famous crazy trip. … We've been to a couple of unusual places, and when you meet people they tend to be pretty cool." (Of that 2003 tour, keyboardist/vocalist Alan Reid wrote in the group's online tour blog, "We had heard that one of the most famous Uzbek performers was present and wanted to sing. He doesn't appear too much in public anymore for some reason, so it was an honor that Sher Ali was there to hear us, and to sing a song or two. So after a few numbers we introduced him. Suddenly from nowhere a band of five musicians leapt on stage, playing traditional Uzbeki instruments.")

The bagpiper cuts an apt (if reluctant) figure as a world-music spokesman. Born in Los Angeles, Katz moved to Scotland in 1987 and a decade later joined Battlefield Band as its first full-time American player. (The group has had a number of lineup changes during its tenure — with alumni such as guitarist Pat Kilbride and bouzouki player Jamie McMenemy going on to prominent solo careers — though founding member Reid has remained a constant figure.) Katz now speaks with a Scottish lilt, though he says he "doesn't think much about being too precious about countries" — indeed, Katz has "certainly spent more time touring around the states since I've been in the band than I ever did when I lived in the states."

(Of the band's turn at last October's LEAF festival, Katz blogged, "The Lake Eden Arts Festival is a great event held at what is now a sort of holiday camp outside Black Mountain, N.C. but was initially, I am informed, a sort of retreat set up by former Bauhaus artists who had come over from Germany. The festival is brilliant and we are ably looked after by all the folk there, most notably Steve Thompson, but also all of the WNCW 88.7 boys and the Pisgah organic brewery.")

That sort of broad world view is captured in Zama Zama, which possesses political themes enhanced by the recent worldwide economic crisis. The album's title comes from a newspaper article about a group of South African illegal gold miners. Tunes like "The Auchengeich Disaster" (about a mining accident) are straightforward in their intent. Others, like Katz's composition "Counting Cowries" — inspired by the ancient use of cowrie shells as currency — or fiddler Alasdair White's "Eadar I's Leodhas," for his mother on her retirement, are more conceptual.

"We didn't really intend to make a big, heavy, political record," Katz notes. And to hear the songs performed live, the listener can almost overlook the heavy themes — especially given the group's humorous banter and energetic delivery. Still, there's a legacy to sad songs that Battlefield Band must uphold. Says Katz, "Some of the best traditional songs are pretty miserable. It's much easier to have emotional import in a song that has these kind of themes than if you were constantly writing songs about the sunset."

what: Battlefield Band
what: Scottish band with a 40-year history of ancient and modern fusion
where: Diana Wortham Theatre
when: Friday, March 19 (8 p.m., $30, $28 seniors, $25 students, $12 children. dwtheatre.org)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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