Pipe opens doors to the past

Most Europeans view the bagpipes as an exclusively Scottish musical instrument, played by a man in a tartan kilt
Most Europeans view the bagpipes as an exclusively Scottish musical instrument, played by a man in a tartan kilt. However, the traditions of the bagpipe — or duda, as it’s known in Belarus — existed in Eastern Europe long before the Scots adopted them as their own. Slovakia is applying to include its tradition of bagpipe playing on UNESCO’s World List of Intangible Cultural Heritage next year, currently collecting the necessary documents. Not long ago, Slovak activists addressed Belarus for support and proposed joint application, which we are considering, since the duda has been used in Belarus for centuries. Outside the University of Culture, you may hear one being played. Below is our report on visiting a unique musical homestead in Volozhin District.  

Instruments with character

Alex Los is a one-man band: a self-taught musician with a professional artistic education. He is an ethnographer and restorer and directs batleika shows. Ales runs Khutar Dudara (a Pipe Player’s Farmstead) and is a lea­ding Belarusian restorer of ancient folk instruments, as well as a researcher of piping traditions.

Being charmed by Belarusian bagpipes in the late 1970s, Mr. Los has devoted almost half his life to this instrument. He now offers musical master classes, while making pipes himself. His first instrument will celebrate its 30th birthday this year!

“In the past, I was still learning techniques, and had to spend a lot of time on this aspect. However, when a set of pipes was eventually ready, I felt such joy! Now I make two sets of pipes annually and could probably make more, but don’t want to feel like I’m a production line in a factory. It’s more important for me to open a door to the past for our young people, connecting generations through folk music,” he says.

The Belarusian master’s works are now touring all over the world, played in Ukraine, Poland and Germany. One of his sets of pipes is being used in Belgium: in 1993, a famous Brussels museum of musical instruments bought a set for its collection. Mr. Los also makes mandolins, liras, zhaleikas and gudoks: the ‘great-grandparents’ of modern violins. Ales finds an ori-ginal solution for each instrument so there are no two made identically. He tells us, “They’re all different, just like people: each needs its own approach. Sometimes, when I’m making a pipe, I’ll discover that its sound doesn’t resonate properly, so I change something. Each one is made to order, so they must suit their future owners.”

Karelia birch — known as chachotka in Belarus — is the primary wood used in making pipes, while the bellows are usually produced from goatskin. “This is one of the most popular animals in our folklore. Pipes formerly had ritual significance; every year, a goat was sacrificed on Kolyady Night, its skin used for making bellows. La-ter, traditions became neglected and musicians played a single instrument all their lives,” Mr. Los notes.

Ales learnt how to make instruments from old masters, touring towns and villages to accumulate knowledge. He comments, “Among my friends was a cabinet maker using only hand tools. I have a small studio, including all the necessary tools and saws, but sometimes lack enough time to work.”

Transforming wood into sound

Mr. Los’ studio is under the same roof as his home. He moved to Borok in 2009, having bought the land in the late 1990s. It formerly belonged to the family of teacher Mikhail Tishkevich. Yakub Kolas came to visit Mikhail in his Borok home, which is placed so beautifully beside the forest, away from prying eyes. It’s also near the River Yershovka, and is only 2km from the Minsk-Volozhin road.

“I dreamt of this house for many years and have now created my own paradise. I’ve lived in Poland, Germany and America, spending almost ten years abroad, earning good money. However, my soul yearned for my native Belarus, so I returned to Minsk and, some time later, moved from the noisy city to this farmstead. It’s been a long journey,” he admits.

Several years ago, Mr. Los turned to eco-tourism, registering his Pipe Player’s Farmstead to welcome guests, and opening a museum of folk instruments. Every weekend, the house transforms into an ancient medieval musical salon, where his pupils join professional musicians in playing. Ales’ collection numbers over 50 folk instruments, with some kept at home and others in Minsk. Among them are five varieties of cembalo, in addition to violas, gudoks and pandoras, several saxophones and Portuguese and Florentine mandolins. All are original and hand made.

The master takes a violin, commenting, “It’s hardly possible to find such a beauty now. Only a few people make such instruments with their own hands. In the past, people were eager to handcraft items, and there were many masters. I often see tourists attempting to record everything with their tablet devices and I always ask them to put these aside, so that they can concentrate on watching and listening. They reply that they’d rather record and then listen later. I have no idea how to fight such an attitude.”

Mr. Los believes it’s vital to support Belarusian musical traditions and national culture, so is keen to join Slovak colleagues in applying for piping to be included on UNESCO’s List of Intangible Heritage. “In the past, the pipe was the most popular instrument across our lands. No folk holidays were celebrated without it. Belarusian pipers represented our culture everywhere, even attending a Parisian agricultural exhibition. Later, the pipe was excluded from the list of basic folk instruments and was forgotten for many years. These days, pipes and most other folk instruments are little known, even to students at musical colleges and universities. The number of masters and musicians is falling but I hope that musicians from all over the globe will demonstrate interest in Belarusian piping traditions with the help of UNESCO,” Mr. Los underlines.

By Yuliana Leonovich


Magda Pospiskova, Minister-Councillor, Slovak Embassy: 

As in Belarus, pipes were popular in Slovakia, traditions being passed from one generation to the next. Our country is proud of its musical past and it’s important for us to preserve it. We’re pleased that Belarus has supported our decision to join the Pipe Culture multi-national file. We’re ready to render all possible assistance in establishing ties between artistes and masters — all who contribute to preserving our intangible heritage. I hope our application will be granted and that the world list will receive another element next year.
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