Cast In Concrete #8: Scottish Octopus Modernize the Bagpipes


Cast In Concrete tracks Vijith Assar as he records New York City’s street musicians. 

Who: Scottish Octopus
Where: intersection of Lafayette Street and 8th Street, in front of the cube sculpture
When: 11/17/2012, about 5pm.

Things didn’t go so well when I tried to record Andrew Forbes a few weeks ago over near NYU. A second expected bagpiper didn’t show up, whooshing wind noises made my recording unusable, and there was also one unpleasant incident wherein a particularly nasty gust made off with a big chunk of the money in his case, forcing his enchanted onlookers to break free of their trances and run around trying to gather up the fluttering bills. I gave up pretty quickly, and then he disappeared into the wind himself, so to speak.

Spending all afternoon wandering around Chinatown looking for one of those old guys who play the huqin, an ancient bowed string instrument, turned out to be a similarly fruitless endeavor (though in all fairness, I may have been lying to myself just a little bit about my chances and true motivation, considering the number of dollar dumpling shacks I stopped at along the way). Fine, whatever, back to the 6 train to head home. But — could it be? Yep, there was Andrew again, right in front of the spinning cube sculpture at Astor Place, and on a day when Mother Nature finally seemed willing to cooperate. My luck finally seemed to be changing.

Better yet, this time he was posted up with his genial drummer Michael Morales, who was pounding away on what must be the weirder minimalist drum kits I’ve yet encountered out here. There was a tiny splash cymbal resting atop his snare, bouncing up and down as he played, ostensibly to mute the ring, though it also had the unfortunate side effect of blocking my view of the chicken scratch he has scribbled all over the drum head. “I have been writing on my snare for a long time,” he tells me later, “Sometimes it’s set lists and song names, sometimes some doodle drawings. Also some inspiring quotes to drive me. Even some notation to keep me thinking while playing.” (Guitarists, that last one is a much better idea than your stupid stickers.) Mounted to the top of his hi-hat stand, a metal ashtray about the same size as that splash cymbal which held an enormous chunk of burning sage, the glowing embers releasing a concentrated trail of aromatic smoke that meandered down Lafayette Street like an animated scent that might eventually attract a cartoon character to a freshly baked pie. “I always have a few people who follow the sage and the sounds and stumble upon us busking,” he confirms. Maybe that explains why the hard case for his kick drum was full of bills (which, thankfully, stayed put this time).

Even if there are eight limbs flailing around, the band is obviously named primarily after Andrew’s instrument (see also: the famous bagpipe joke), but having now watched him perform both alone and as part of a duo, it’s clear that Morales adds a lot to the equation. Your proof? The biggest difference in the audience compared to a few weeks prior is that toddlers were going nuts this time around. I mean, sure, whatever, adults too, but over the course of an hour or so of recording there were more tiny little tots bopping up and down than I’ve seen yet in front of any other busker I’ve encountered in New York. I stopped counting.

Bagpipes are a deceptively powerful instrument, which you may not realize until you’ve heard them from a few feet away and/or had them overload your mics, but that also means they’re a fine counterweight for a drum kit. Combining them, at least in the manner these two do, also creates a strangely compelling time travel sensation, because although the pipes are well outside the comfort zone for most of the people who are going to end up reading this, a drummer like Morales can propel them along into something that could pass for modern, at least enough to survive outside period pieces and dramatized police funerals on Law & Order. Tomorrow we’ll be expected to take stock of our blessings, and one that we all share is that we are lucky to live in a place where things like this routinely happen right around the corner from $1.25 falafel sandwiches. So, anybody know where I can find that huqin player? I’ll bring the keytar.

Pirate Jigs [FLAC, via MediaFire]
Pirate Jigs [mp3]

In The Hat: $14

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