[JPL] More on Rufus Harley
drjazz at drjazz.com
Sun Aug 27 11:06:08 EDT 2006
Piping up for jazz and peace
J. Mark Scearce
RALEIGH - It's been two weeks since Rufus Harley died in Philadelphia of
cancer, but it's taken the news media nearly all this time to recognize his
passing and, I would say, a good deal longer before realizing the meaning
of his absence.
In that two weeks, the news media have been obsessed with Mel Gibson's
drunken tirade, Israel's tit for tat with Hezbollah and the thwarting of
another plot to bring down trans-Atlantic jets, all in the name of Malibu,
Palestine and the differences between. But what Rufus Harley's passing
reveals to us, should we take the time to notice, is the difference one man
can make in closing up cultural divides.
Rufus may have lived his life in Philly, but he was a Tar Heel born (near
Raleigh) and bred -- for at least his first two years -- like so many great
jazzmen before him and since. But none took up the bagpipes to make their
Dizzy, Sonny, Dexter, Trane -- they all swung with Rufus. An
African-American with Cherokee blood, he played his pipes in kilts, dashiki
and kufi. And in Rufus' hands, the pipes made his argument for him
--according to a New York Times reviewer of the late 1960s, making them
sound "far more Middle Eastern than Scottish."
And his argument? That the pipes had African roots. That playing them
"helped me discover my identity." That the pipes made him more "aware of my
cultural heritage." That the grief in the wake of the death of JFK was best
expressed by the wail of the pipe band that accompanied the slain
president's casket. Rufus took this all in, then switched, from sax to
I've heard it expressed that we celebrate happiness around the world in a
variety of ways, but in grief we are all the same. Out of grief, Rufus
Harley took up the pipes and sought himself.
There he found the jirba of Bahrain and the zukra of North Africa.
Aristophanes wrote of blowing bladders in "Lysistrata," and Romans employed
pipers which they called utricularia. Regino of Prum in the early 10th
century lists the musa (root of medieval French muse, meaning bagpipe) in
his treatise on harmony. And there are ancient Syrian sculptures of pipers
warming bags beneath their arms.
The pipes were originally made from the stomachs and bladders of sheep and
goats, with the chanter fitting where the little neck once connected and
the drone and blowpipe where its little front legs once stood. The best
sheepskin even today comes from Iceland: thick, absorbent, airtight and
close-grained. The point is, as Rufus knew, the Scottish Highlands isn't
all there is to piping.
There are Northumbrian pipes, Irish, French, Belgian. The Catalan cornamusa
is no more, but the Galician gaita of Spain survives. The German bocks look
like nightmarish saxophones, a cross between Hieronymus Bosch and Tim
Burton. Shakespeare writes of a "woolen" set in "Merchant of Venice,"
suspected to be more sheep than musical instrument: "stomach with fleece
Rufus Harley didn't claim the pipes for queen and country. He claimed the
pipes to cross cultures. Where Bravehearts divide, Rufus used his pipes to
unite. And in a variation on the old swords to plowshares, Rufus took an
instrument built for war and applied it to America's hard-fought music.
He beat the kilts and cabers, sheafs and swords right out of it, and swung
it: a black man blowing an instrument meant to frighten grown men into
flight, and made it an instrument of peace -- a veritable peace pipe in an
age that desperately needs it still.
(J. Mark Scearce is a composer and director of the Music Department at N.C.
© Copyright 2006, The News & Observer Publishing Company
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