WALK past the Caledonian Hall in Kopeopeo on a Wednesday evening and you may be surprised to hear the sound of bagpipes billowing out into the street.
A few curious passersby often poke their head inside, watching as members of the Whakatane Scottish Pipe Band practise. If they’re lucky enough, onlookers may even catch sight of the pipers marching down the access road behind the hall.
These Wednesday evenings are much more than just practice sessions, however; they are signs of new life within a musical tradition that has been disappearing from small towns across New Zealand.
After experiencing years of its own quiet hibernation, the Whakatane Scottish Pipe Band has decided to rebuild itself.
In its roughly 65 years of existence, the pipe band grew steadily, maintaining around 30 members at one point. It enjoyed its heyday through the 1990s, but started to dwindle as time went on.
Long-time member John McKay, who joined the band back in 1981, recounts how numbers started to drop off as members moved away and interest faded.
“When the band was really active, Alan McCauley was the pipe major and he had a few really good initiatives,” John says.
“He introduced piping in schools, so we picked up a lot of school kids and we had a really good band going. But then they all went to university and it all just sort of fell flat.”
“I also bought a business and so the amount of time I could put into it was limited,” he says. “And we were practising out at Ohope and it was just a bit far. And so we put things on hold, and just sort of waited to see what would happen.”
It would be some years before things started to pick back up and, during this time, only John and a few others participated in the occasional event.
This all changed three years ago, when Bevan George moved to Whakatane and immediately started looking for a pipe band to join.
“I put some feelers out and found out that there used to be one,” Bevan says. “So I made contact [with John] and it kind of grew from there.”
Bevan, originally from Manawatu, moved here from Auckland, where he had spent the previous 11 years with the New Zealand Navy. His interest and involvement in pipe bands spans nearly 27 years, even playing while in the navy.
John was keen to have Bevan involved and the two worked together to breathe new life into the band. Over the past two years, they have focused on bringing in new members, setting up a standard song list, and trying to perform at more events. Their most recent outing was the Whakatane Christmas Parade where they were also joined by band members from Gisborne.
Bringing their practice sessions to its new location in Kopeopeo was an important step in this process, as it offered a more centrally located place to meet.
“That, I think, is what made the difference,” John says. “We almost instantly picked up people in town who were interested. We’ve got learners, we’ve got ex-members coming back.”
For John and Bevan, revitalising the band is an important step in keeping this tradition alive and well.
“Every little one-horse town in New Zealand used to have a pipe band,” John says. “But as different things came along, it just sort of stopped.”
“You don’t hear pipe bands on the radio that often. It’s really a little bit unique. So we’re lucky that we have some keen young learners now.”
The band currently has around 18 members and is looking to add more. As they’re still in the “rebuilding” stage, they’re taking things slowly and working a strong foundation.
“Bagpipes is one of the hardest instruments to learn,” Bevan explains. “It takes time. It’s all about keeping everyone interested and developing.”
Because bagpipes have a rich culture and history, the two hope to continue its enduring legacy for the next generation.
“Pipe bands make an occasion,” John says. “They make an occasion go from just ‘we went there’ to ‘we went there and there was a pipe band!’”
After a holiday break, practices will resume on February 12. The band is available for hire to play at events or functions. Anyone interested in learning more can visit their Facebook page at Whakatane Scottitsh Pipe Band, or call Bevan on 021 2376801.