Ceol Pipes in China- March 2014

In the Summer of 2013 I was visited in my workshop in Achill by a film crew from The International Wood Culture Society (, a not-for-profit organisation, founded by a Taiwanese businessman, and dedicated to promoting the use of wood for cultural pursuits. They spent a day with me and subsequently put together a rather nice video, “Uilleann Pipemaker”, which can be seen here:
In February of 2014 they contacted me again, this time inviting me to attend the second International Wood Culture Expo and World Wood Day celebrations which were to take place from March 20th- 25th in Xian You, China.

Three flights and about 30 hours later, I was on the last leg of the long journey to our hotel for the week, zipping along a 4 lane highway in a shuttle bus, past paddy fields and endless high-rise building in various stages of completion. On reaching the outskirts of Xian You, a minor city of “only” 2 million souls, in the south-eastern province of Fujian (population 100 million), our driver reverted to the local custom of loudly and frequently wailing on the horn, thereby granting himself (in common with every other driver who was indulging in the same practice) free licence to perform any driving feat he desired, on whichever side of the road he deemed fittest in order to progress his journey. The cars and buses were joined in the town by a never-ending swarm of bicycles and scooters, often carrying 2,3 and 4 passengers and laden down will all manner of cargoes from gas tanks to caged animals.

The international flavour of the wood culture expo was underlined at that evening’s dinner table which I shared with wood carvers from the Faroe Islands and Benin, wood turners from Taiwan and Seattle, wood scientists from Holland and a Spanish archaeologist/Egyptologist specialising in wooden artifacts. In all, more than 250 wood carvers, turners, scientists and musicians from more than 70 countries had come to China to attend the expo.

The international theme continued the following morning as breakfast took on an air of Russian roulette, faced as I was with a vast selection of food, almost all of which, to me, was completely unrecognisable. Nary a Flahavan’s progress oatlet, a rasher nor a sliced pan to be seen. I learned the hard way that fish-based food products can insinuate themselves into a buffet table that seems, to the untrained eye, to be reserved exclusively for cakes and pastries . . .

After breakfast I met the other attending musicians: two Swiss alphorn players, an Aboriginal didgeridoo player, a Chinese marimba player and a group of Tanzanian drummers and dancers, and we were told we would be playing at the opening ceremony.
The expo was taking place at an enormous venue, still in the final throes of construction, consisting of a vast public square surrounded by many exhibition halls which housed wonderful examples of both wood furniture and wood carvings for which this area of China is renowned. The opening ceremony began with an amazing dance routine performed by local school girls in traditional dress and bearing giant pink flowers. Speeches followed from a clatter of important dignitaries with impressive sounding titles such as: “Director of Wood Products Division, Unit 5”. At the signal from the co-ordinator, I crossed the vast expanse to centre-stage to perform my piece, I got a “good luck” thumbs-up from the departing Swiss alphorn duet, and I smiled at how bizarre life can be sometimes. And then I launched into The Lark in the Morning jig to the most multi-cultural of audiences, almost none of whom had ever seen or heard of uilleann pipes before.

Xian You is completely off the tourist trail, and consequently our colourful retinue proved to be as interesting to the locals as they were to us. The Chinese were warm, curious, polite and very friendly and wanted nothing better than to have their photos taken with us strange Europeans, Africans, Australians and Americans etc, and our egos quickly got used to having our photos taken hundreds of times each day with smiling Chinese.

We musicians at the expo were expected to play twice a day in the incredibly ornate and vast lobby of one of the exhibition halls, where our performance backdrop consisted of a 3-storey high chandelier overhanging an indoor pond full of goldfish. As the week wore on, our initially solo performances began to merge into a wonderful collaboration of uilleann pipes, alphorns, didgeidoo, drums, marimba and dancers. In particular the combination of the pipes with the didgeridoo worked beautifully together, as the didgeridoo, essentially a versatile drone, was pitched in D, and David Hudson, the didge player, was able to use his circular breathing to pulse air through the instrument to set up a jig or reel rhythm over which I played tunes.

Between our public performances, each of us musicians were provided with an outdoor tent where we displayed our instruments and demonstrated them to passers-by. The pipes attracted a great deal of interest but unfortunately the very warm weather, with temperatures approaching 30°C, began to play havoc with the reeds and I had to move them inside to a cooler climate.

Other events at the expo included 70 wood carvers from around the world who worked for 3 days to produce some beautiful pieces reflecting the diverse cultures of their creators. A 3 day symposium was also taking place, dealing with wood-related themes such as wood-building, forest conservation and sustainability, wood in culture, folklore and writing, to name but a few.

I was particularly interested in some of the wood turning demonstrations, especially by craftsmen from the Shawo region near Beijing where they still use self-powered lathes to produce bowls and simple children’s toys like whistles. These craftsmen are continuing an unbroken tradition that dates back nearly 300 years.

We got to experience Chinese traditional music at a banquet dinner when we were entertained by 4 musicians playing flutes, erhu (2 string vertical fiddle), liuqin (mandolin-type instrument) and guqin (zither-type instrument). And we were also treated to a wonderful Chinese opera which luckily had an English translation running to the side of the stage.

On the 3rd day of the expo, the musicians each had to present a 30 minute lecture on our particular instrument. It was fascinating to hear how the other instruments are made- termites doing most of the work in creating the bore in a didgeridoo for example, and also the similarity in the histories of the uilleann pipes and the Swiss alphorn, both of which saw a decline to near extinction 40-50 years ago, but which are both now enjoying a strong resurgence in popularity. I tipped my hat to the two interpreters who had to translate our diverse and obscure lectures into Chinese!

All too soon the closing ceremony came around and rumours of the musical collaborations that had been taking place during the week meant that all the musicians were asked to perform together on stage as the finale. We had a brief practice where the Tanzanian drummers and dancers quickly got to grips with unfamiliar jig rhythms before taking to the stage with one of the most eclectic ensembles ever!

It really was the trip of a lifetime, an amazing opportunity to see an incredible country that is undergoing unprecedented transition, and it was an honour to be asked to showcase the uilleann pipes to a truly international audience.

Photos of my trip can be seen here:

John Butler
31st March 2014

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