Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Eclectic music man


Lowland pipes, played by Bernie Precious, are from
the South of Scotland. These smaller pipes are more conducive
to playing indoors than their larger cousin the bagpipe.

Hear bagpipes and think of kilt-wearing Scotsmen, but the history of this woodwind instrument may go back more than a thousand years. Consisting of blowpipe or bellows, bag, chanter and drone, this complicated instrument emits a sound that is an acquired taste to some and a cherished tradition to others. Local musician Bernie Precious plays the pipes and recently shared with me some of his unusual collection of musical instruments.

Lowland pipes, played by Bernie Precious, are from the South of Scotland. These smaller pipes are more conducive to playing indoors than their larger cousin the bagpipe.
Bernie Precious demonstrates how to play the nyckelharpa,
a traditional Swedish stringed instrument.

The nyckelharpa, shown here played by Bernie Precious, is a traditional Swedish
instrument related to a fiddle or a hurdy-gurdy.

Bernie and his wife Elaine moved to their countryside home in the northern Lot-et-Garonne (47) a few months ago and they are still settling in. The floor of Bernie’s studio is crisscrossed with cords, and instrument cases encircle the room.

Each of Bernie’s instruments comes with an origin story and during my visit I receive lessons in history, geography and sociology. He sits down at a small organ and points out that its shell is actually a carrying case. Organs like this were brought by pastors or priests to the battlefields during WWI to accompany hymns, he tells me.

Bernie Precious plays a tune on a portable organ dating from
World War I.

As he moves from banjos to mandolins to pipes, Bernie tells me his own story too. Born and raised in London, he moved to Scotland when he was in his mid-30s as a research scientist at the University of St. Andrews. There he met his future wife Elaine.

In addition containing Scotland’s oldest university, St. Andrews is known for golf and is home to what many consider to be the world’s oldest golf course. His friend was shooting a documentary about golf and asked Bernie to score the film, thus launching Bernie on a quest to find and master traditional Scottish musical instruments.

“My friend [the filmmaker] said I should think ‘sepia,'” Bernie says. “It was the only instruction he gave me.”

Bernie Precious plucks out a tune on a mandolin, an Italian relative of the lute.

Bernie has had little formal musical training. Other than taking piano lessons when he was 16 from a neighbor, he is a self-taught musician. His first instrument was a recorder that he learned to play when he was around 7. Four years later, he took up guitar, and by the age of 14, Bernie was playing in a local blues band.

Bernie Precious demonstrates the low whistle,
possibly the world’s oldest tuned instrument.


“I was a keyboardist [in several bands] for years,” he tells me. “But it became pretty boring [playing the same songs over and over]. I even fell asleep one night during a show.”


Bernie Precious demonstrates the banjo, one of many
musical instruments in his collection.


When he retired, Bernie and Elaine sought a sunny location in which to live. After spending a bit of time in Greece, they moved to southwest France two years ago. This past year, Bernie connected with the Folk Forum 47 Club that puts on monthly concerts and other musical events in Lauzun. The club’s First Friday Folk concerts include traditional songs performed by a core group of singers and guest artists performing folk music from around the world.


Musician Bernie Precious plays the hurdy-gurdy,
an instrument of Arabic origin.

Beyond the tuning pegs of Bernie Precious’s hurdy-gurdy
is a hand-carved figure

Each July, Bernie and Elaine join thousands of lovers of traditional music at Le Son Continu Festival at the Château d’Arts near La Châtre, located in the center of France in the Indre (36) department. Here more than 100 craftspersons demonstrate and sell their handmade traditional and ethnic instruments including bagpipes, accordions and hurdy-gurdies. Several instruments in Bernie’s collection were made by artisans he met at the festival.

Bernie Precious demonstrates a Weissenborn,
which he describes as a second cousin to the steel guitar.


This banjo, fashioned from a gourd, was made in America by a friend of
musician Bernie Precious.

I ask Bernie what kind of music he enjoys listening to and, after thinking for a moment he rattles off a list of a couple of dozen artists and genres. His taste, quite unsurprisingly, is eclectic.


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