It seems somehow fitting that a band from a school named after a Scotsman is one of only three from outside of the United Kingdom to ever win a world bagpipe championship title.
The 47 members of the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band can blow their own horns for being six-time world champions, and, depending on the outcome of this year’s competition taking place Saturday in Glasgow, they could make it a lucky number seven with their third in a row.
The piping hot pipers have been dubbed “the Beatles of the bagpipe world,” and the fab 47 are the subject of a new documentary, Battle of the Bagpipes: A Journey to the World Pipe Band Championship, that aired last week on the CBC showing what it’s like to play in the band as they prepare for last year’s competition.
“We wanted to tell the story of the band’s rise to the top at the Worlds through the eyes of these incredibly talented pipers and drummers, and of the sacrifices they’ve made to get there,” said film producer Jordan Paterson of SFU’s Learning Instructional and Development Centre.
Filmed on location in Scotland by SFU cameraman Thomas Buchan in the days leading up to the annual competition, the hour-long documentary focuses candidly on eight band members, illustrating how each generation embraces playing the revered – and reviled – instrument which is now more than 5,000 years old.
At the heart of the senior band are the Lee brothers, Jack, pipe sergeant, and Terry, pipe major. Both have been members for more than three decades.
Taught to play the pipes by their great-grandfather, who emigrated from Glasgow in the 1940s, they’ve passed the family tradition on to the next generation through their sons Alistair, Andrew and John Lee.
“The film tells the story well, it captures the mood and spirit of the band as we prepare for what has become a defining moment for us every year,” said Terry Lee.
The world championships draws thousands of spectators and more than 200 bands to Glasgow Green each year.
“The pressure is definitely on,” said Jack Lee of the possible three-peat. “But another win is possible. We know what we have to do. We have to be very thorough. We will play well and the instruments will be well-tuned. There should be no surprises.”
Lee said the SFU pipers and drummers are ready for both events in the elite Grade one division, including the March, Strathspey and Reel, and the Medley, a five-to-seven minute performance chosen and arranged over the course of several months by the band.
This year the band will also join with one of their closest rivals – Northern Ireland’s Field Marshall Montgomery band – for a sold-out concert in Belfast prior to the competition.
“We’re rivals – each of us has won six world championships – but we’re also friends,” said Lee.
The bands have jockeyed for position for years, with the Irish band placing second in the last two years to SFU’s first place. Prior to that, SFU placed second twice while their rivals took first.
Lee says with a record number of bands – 239 are competing in various levels of competition this year – and the quality of competitors continually rising, the challenge to stay on top is intense.
The 2010 World Pipe Band Championships event will also be streamed online live through BBC Scotland’s website on Aug. 14.