From the Scottish Highlands to Sharjah - the remarkable musical journey of the bagpipe

The instrument has been playing for at least 10,000 years, with roots in ancient Persia

The Sharjah National Band regale South Korean music fans with the neyanban at the 2023 Seoul Friendship Festival. Photo: Sharjah Book Authority
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Lovers of Greek traditional music would have spotted something familiar making a guest appearance during a performance of the Sharjah National Band last week at the Thessaloniki International Book Fair.

Amid the drums and tambourines, the large inflated animal skin with wooden pipes attached bore a striking resemblance to the tsampouna, an instrument still played widely on the islands of Greece.

In fact, they were looking at a neyanban, also known as a habban or jirba, but also a direct ancestor of the bagpipe, a family with more than 130 offspring worldwide.

Played across the Arab countries of the Gulf, the neyanban originates from Persia, specifically Iran’s southern coast and the city of Bushehr. The name, in Farsi, literally translates as “bag pipe.”

The music of Bushehr has developed under the influence of a multicultural society
Mohammadreza Beladi

The neyanban or habban of the UAE is traditionally accompanied by the double-sided Yowah drum, chanting and rhythmic dancing.

Mohammadreza Beladi is devoted to the music of Busherhr, with a doctorate attained last year on the history of the neyanban from the University of Huddersfield in England. He is also director of the Leymer Folk Music and Dance Group of Bushehr.

“The music of Bushehr has developed under the influence of a multicultural society,” he writes in his thesis.

“It is therefore influenced by the culture of immigrant ethnic groups, such as Arabs from the [Arabian] Gulf, Africans, and Indians, on the one hand, and other Iranian ethnic groups within the country.

“This instrument has managed to cross the borders of its traditional area of spread and its sound can now be heard in many countries around the world.”

Beladi’s research identifies bagpipe-like instruments in Persian stone carvings as old as the eighth century BCE. Two figures discovered in south-west Iran in the 19th century appear to be playing bagpipes.

A much later – but still ancient – carving from the time of the Sassanian kings around the 3rd century to the 7th century CE also depict instruments that are almost identical to the neyanban.

All of which came as a bit of a shock to British music historians who had always assumed the bagpipe to be Scottish in origin. In fact, the Highland version is just one more twist in the story of the instrument.

For centuries, Arabs merchants had settled on the Gulf coast of Iran. Many Dubai families have Persian roots. This cross-cultural fertilisation brought the neyanban or versions of the instrument, not just to the UAE but also to Bahrain and Kuwait.

The principle behind all bagpipes is simple. A large animal skin, usually goat, is sewn into a bag, with bamboo pipes attached to one leg. Another leg has a nozzle that allows the bag to be inflated. Pressure from the bag forces air into the pipes, producing musical notes.

The advantage of the bag, Beladi explains in a YouTube video, is that “it enables the musician to play the instrument without blowing all the time”.

Roots in Rome

Similarities in appearance suggest the neyanban could have spread from the Middle East to Greece. From there it was a short jump to ancient Rome, where the first-century emperor Nero is known to have been a fan, producing a coin showing him playing the bagpipe.

There are even suggestions that instead of fiddling while Rome burned, as legend has it, the emperor may have been playing the bagpipe.

Roman soldiers took the bagpipe to the eastern edge of the empire – to Britain and as far north as Hadrian’s Wall. A bronze figure of a bagpipe player has been found at the Roman fort of Richborough, near England's Kent coast.

The bagpipe is known to have been part of the musical culture of everywhere from Egypt and North Africa to Russia, Scandinavia and Central Europe. It was not until medieval times that it became widespread in Europe, probably then reaching Ireland and Scotland.

The best known version of the instrument is the Highland bagpipe, which has the addition of a drone, a single pipe that plays a continuous note. Marching into battle to the skirl of the pipes, the Scottish regiments won a ferocious reputation across the British Empire.

The presence of British forces in Arabian Gulf in the last century introduced this version of the bagpipe to the region, where it was adopted by local regimental and police bands, including the Dubai Police Band and the UAE Armed Forces Band.

What might have be seen by some as foreign import was actually the reel coming full circle.

Updated: May 26, 2024, 3:05 AM