[JPL] More on Rufus Harley

Dr. Jazz 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The pipes were originally made from the stomachs and bladders of sheep and 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. 
State University.)
© Copyright 2006, The News & Observer Publishing Company

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