Hearing bagpipes…away from Scotland


The skirl of bagpipes may conjure up the chilly moors of Scotland, but a British colonial legacy means the unique sound is echoed on Punjab plains. Not only do people play the instruments, they manufacture them and claim to export more than any country except Scotland. “Pakistan is the second country after Scotland which exports bagpipes,” said Farooq Ahmed, owner of the Imperial Bagpipe Manufacturing Company, who says he ships abroad up to 6,000 ebony and rosewood bagpipes a year. “Many of our clients prefer local bagpipes because we sell a good quality ebony wood bagpipe for $400, which would cost 1,000 pounds in Scotland,” he added.
The bagpipes’ wail might be mocked in popular culture but Ahmed’s 25-year-old son Ibrahim has been brought up on a musical diet of little else, learning the business and traditional Scottish tunes along the way. His hometown, Sialkot, has made Pakistan one of the world’s top manufacturers of bagpipes and other musical instruments in a trade worth $6.8 million a year. “Guaranteeing the export of high-quality products is something that requires meticulous craftsmanship and finesse,” said Ibrahim, checking over bagpipes at his father’s factory, which turns out around 200 bagpipes a month.
“We receive export orders mostly from the UK, US, Australia, France, Germany, New Zealand and China. I love playing a bagpipe… It is a great source of relaxation,” said Ibrahim, who is also a member of a local pipe band in the town. “We have great potential,” he said of the industry, thriving against the odds.
“I have just received 147 queries by e-mail from different countries including the UK, with buyers showing interest in importing ebony wood and rosewood bagpipes, jackets, caps and shawls for bagpipers,” he said. Showing off his talents, Ibrahim played some local hits, British and Irish classics including Highroad to Gairloch and Scotland the Brave on rosewood bagpipe — in his words a “cool” musical instrument.
Sialkot, which is also home to a vibrant export industry in products from footballs to surgical instruments, has more than 20 private bagpipe bands, run mostly by students and businessmen. “This is the kind of fever that allows us to draw the conclusion that bagpipes are still a popular musical instrument in Pakistan,” said Zafar Iqbal Geoffrey, bagpipe exporter and owner of MH Geoffrey and Company.
He said there are seven big and 100 small factories in Sialkot manufacturing bagpipes, musical instruments, bagpipers’ uniforms and other accessories. “It is not dying…Rather it is very popular in Pakistan, as well as in the UK and other countries… It is a traditional instrument and its demand is on rise both domestically and internationally,” he added.
“We exported bagpipes and related musical instruments to the tune of $6.8 million in 2010 as compared to $5.1 million dollars in 2009,” he said. The history of bagpipe production in Sialkot dates back to 1920 when a trader from Scotland came to explore whether the city was a possible outlet. “It is since then we have been manufacturing bagpipes and other related musical instruments in this city,” Geoffrey said. Another bagpipe manufacturer and exporter, Muhammad Suleman Sajjad, gleefully said that Pakistan was the top exporter in the region, outstripping India, the country’s bitter rival.