Curling’s Scottish Soundtrack, Delivered by Bagpipers from Beijing
BEIJING — The curling arena darkened and strobe lights blotted the ice. A band of bagpipers marched in almost like a vision from another time, or at the very least, another continent.
The musicians are self-described amateurs mostly from Beijing. None of them have ever been to Scotland. But they were dressed as though they had just arrived from the Highlands: red plaid kilts adorned with the little pouches with long tufts of horsehair known as sporrans, all part of the uniform they had ordered from abroad.
The steady squeal of “Scotland the Brave” held its own against the din of the arena — the selection a nod, no doubt, to the curling’s Scottish roots. But the anthem is also sort of a default tune for the instrument; tutorial videos on how to play it were easy to find online. And the band needed that help since their teacher, the only one they could find in China, had recently left the country.
“We just like bagpipes,” the leader of the pipers, Zhang A Li, said after one of their pregame performances — a staple of curling tournaments whether in China or Chicago, “and we all just came together.”
That, in itself, is something of a miracle.
In a way, the band’s formation reflects the sprawling challenge that confronted Chinese officials in hosting the Winter Olympics in a nation with little background or familiarity in the events that would play out. A big air slope was built in a former industrial park, a bobsled course was carved into a mountain and, of course, bountiful artificial snow was needed for a region that gets very little precipitation in winter.
And curling competitions demand bagpipers.
The sport and the instrument are bound by a shared history, one that reaches back centuries to the frozen lochs of Scotland. Yet even beyond those cultural ties, playing curling and playing the bagpipe also seem like kindred endeavors. To the uninitiated, the sport with stones and brooms and the instrument with a bladder and a tangle of reeds can appear unwieldy and baffling. In skilled hands, though, those parts coalesce into something absorbing, even graceful, and undoubtedly one of a kind.
“Why do you choose curling instead of baseball? Well, there’s something you can’t quite explain,” said Scott McLean, who curls and pipes for the Granite Curling Club in Seattle and, as a history teacher, has explored the intersecting roots of both pastimes. “Why do you choose the bagpipe instead of violin? It’s kind of a quirky thing.”
The pipers in Beijing said they were lured by a sound they found mesmerizing. “Loud and clear and penetrating,” as Zhang put it.
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But bagpiping, it turns out, is a pursuit that has yet to find much of a toehold in China, meaning becoming one of those skilled hands is not easy. “I know only a dozen people in China who can play this instrument,” said Chao Luomong, another of the pipers.
The curiosity and hunger for a challenge that pulled in this group is familiar among pipers. Learning the instrument feels like solving a puzzle. Playing it offers a singular form of expression.
“It’s the rhythm of a babbling brook, it’s the rhythm of a season, it’s the rhythm of a doe bouncing down the glen,” McLean said. “It takes me to a place where I can emote the experience, not just play the notes. I think there’s a draw to that to all sorts of people.”
The band — with four pipers joined by two drummers, coming from a range of backgrounds that includes elementary schoolteachers and a freelance stage designer — have played together for a few years, just as curling competitions were starting to ramp up across China ahead of the Games.
In the months before the Olympics began, the band would get together after work, trying to perfect a few different songs. The pipers have experience with an array of other instruments, including the trumpet, clarinet, guitar, saxophone and organ. “We are all versatile,” said Zhang, 36.
But that range was certainly tested by the bagpipe. Zhang is one of the more seasoned pipers, having first learned to play in 2014. None of his colleagues were terribly advanced, so their lessons started from the basics.
“I think the hardest part of learning bagpipes is mainly not knowing enough about the instrument,” Chao said. “Like, when a bagpipe is broken, how do you fix it?”
Aside from the technical difficulty, the Chinese pipers were also surprised by how physically demanding it could be. The bagpipes, Zhang said, “require a strong lung.” He described the strength it takes to achieve the right sound — “controlling the air pressure in the bag, to be stable and unchanging.”
“It takes a lot of time,” he added, “to practice each piece over and over again.”
The group designed the logo stitched onto their uniforms, which includes the letters Y and S, representing the Chinese word for warrior — another homage to Scottish history.
Still, they conceded, they did not pick up the instrument out of an interest in traditions of a faraway place. Curling, for that matter, does not matter that much to them either. At least one piper tried to curl once and said it didn’t stick. They have watched some of the matches on their phones, which they stow in their sporrans. “I honestly don’t know much about the rules,” Chao, 37, said. “What we like most is the bagpipes.”
And yet, the band has been emblematic of a transformational time for curling, as the sport balances the traditions that are ingrained in its DNA with a surge in global popularity in the years since it became an official Olympic event at the 1998 Nagano Games. (In Mexico, some clubs have substituted the bagpipes with mariachis.)
The Chinese pipers gained a worldwide audience as the Beijing Games began, and in the process, received a bit of scrutiny from the Scottish news media. In one article, The Daily Record, a tabloid in Glasgow, wrote that the band had “revealed they love all our traditions — apart from going commando under a kilt,” asserting that custom dictated that men do not wear underwear while wearing the garment.
In the article, Zhang replied, “We try to be as close as we can to traditions, but it’s cold — we have our undies for sure.”
Otherwise, the response has been much warmer. “I’m very happy to have them here,” Bruce Mouat, a native of Edinburgh who represented Britain in the mixed doubles competition, told reporters after a match. He added that the music reminded him of home.
On Wednesday, on the first night of the men’s competition, Chris Plys from the American team noticed them, too. “It’s been a long time since I heard ‘Scotland the Brave’ come out,” he said. “I was not expecting that at all.”
In truth, as conspicuous as they might seem, the pipers have yet to have their breakout moment.
Curling has one of the most taxing schedules of any sport at the Winter Games, with competitions stretching from Feb. 2 to Feb. 20 and with as many as three rounds of matches a day. The pipers play before each round, and each performance follows the same routine, becoming something of a Groundhog Day experience.
On Wednesday night, just as the curlers squeezed in one last practice run, an announcer, joined by the plump panda that serves as the Olympic mascot, tried to roust the modest assembly of spectators sprinkled throughout the stands.
As the band marched out and started playing, the announcer competed against the blare of the bagpipes and kept speaking, introducing the curlers from various countries. There was a smattering of applause right as the band finished their snippet of “Scotland the Brave.” But the clapping, it turned out, was for the Danish men’s team as its members waved to the crowd.
The pipers stood stoically along the edge of the ice, knowing they would be back in less than 12 hours, putting on the same uniform and playing the same song.
Liu Yi contributed reporting.