Bagpiping His Way Around the World: A Conversation with the First Piper
Originally published on PassionPassport.com
“I’m not trying to get a Guinness World Record, although if they give me one, that would be great,” Ross OC Jennings said with a laugh.
Ross is a 27-year-old piper, making his way around the world with his bagpipes and kilt. So far, he’s traveled to 60 countries, and doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon. He wants to see — and play the bagpipes in — every country in the world.
How did you start playing the bagpipes?
I grew up in China and have mostly lived abroad my whole life just because of my parents’ work. I had been in an international school in China for about eight years and then was sent back to boarding school in England. And the school wanted to start a pipe band. They were offering free lessons, so I did it. My mother is Scottish and my father is Irish, so I think my Scottish side of the family has always wanted a piper.
What is it like to play the bagpipes and why are they so unique?
The bagpipes might not be as technically difficult as say, playing the piano, but playing bagpipes is physically exhausting. Imagine a snake charmer from India. The instrument snake charmers play are what you first learn on when you’re learning the bagpipes. It’s called a chanter, and that’s where you learn all the notes. Then once you’ve got the finger technique down, the tunes learned, you move on to the bagpipes and it becomes even more difficult. You have to blow into a bag, inflate it, keep it inflated, squeeze it underneath your arm — and it’s just physically exhausting. The first time I played I managed about nine seconds.
Bagpipes are one of the oldest instruments. They’ve supposedly been around for two or three thousand years. Some people think they originated in modern-day Europe, some people think Turkey, but everyone agrees on the Middle East. Then over time, they spread through Europe and were introduced into the U.K. by the Romans. And then they spread north into Scotland. Although they are conspicuously Scottish, the bagpipes are actually an Arabic instrument, which is what I love most about them. I can go to the Middle East, the Gulf, North Africa and everyone knows the bagpipes and absolutely love them.
What led you to travel the world playing the bagpipes?
It was a combination of different reasons. I wanted to be the first person to do something. I know that’s a little self-indulgent, but I liked the idea of having a record. I went to an adventure travel show in London right after I moved there and the speakers were doing awesome and wonderful things. They were all adventurers — they’d swum the Mississippi or hiked Greenland or skateboarded across Australia. Their life mission was to do what they loved and tell people about their stories.
I left that day thinking, “how the hell can I do that?” I’d already played the bagpipes in a lot of different countries, so I thought, why not try to play the bagpipes in Antarctica. I went home, Googled, and up pops this photo of a piper in 1921 piping next to a penguin. So I had to do the whole world.
How did you actually decide to start your round-the-world trip?
I’d already traveled a lot with my parents while I was growing up, so I traveled with my bagpipes a lot. And I found out, by taking a gap year in between school and university, that bagpipes were quite a good way to earn money while I was traveling. So I thought it would be a good way to finance my trip. That, in combination with the fact that I’ve always wanted to travel full time and tell stories.
I worked in London for about three months, handed in my notice because I didn’t like the idea of sitting behind a desk, and booked my first flight to Tunisia. I didn’t realize that the national instrument of Tunisia is also the bagpipes.
Now it’s been three years and two months. I fund the trip by doing photography work, social media stuff, blogging, and motivational talks or workshops at schools around the world.
How have you decided the route you’re going to take?
It’s totally random. I will be pushed and pulled in different directions depending on urgency, if I have a friend somewhere that I can visit, or if someone gets in contact with me.
To give you an example of how my year panned out last year: it started because an international school in Malaysia asked me to do a performance and a talk. So I traveled Malaysia for a bit. Then I thought that, since I was in the region, there were plenty of other countries in Southeast Asia to visit. Then I flew back to the U.K. (I go back to the U.K. every two or three months because it’s nice to go back and wash my kilt). Then I had a friend contact me from Liberia, in West Africa, and tell me I had to get out there before the rainy season. Then I flew back to Eastern Europe because a tourism board in Montenegro got in contact … and that’s how it goes. There’s no set plan, but I’m getting a little better at planning in advance.
When you get to a new place, what do you do while you’re there?
There are two aspects to that. The first involves piping: where I’m going to bagpipe and how I’m going to bagpipe. And the other aspect is where I’m going to stay.
When I’m arranging to play the bagpipes somewhere, I always do three things.
One, I try to talk at a school, whether that’s an international school or a local school. That gives me an opportunity to dip into the expat crowd, which is most familiar to me. It also means I’m able to tap into the local community.
The other thing is a challenge involving the bagpipes. So hike up a mountain and play the bagpipes at the top.
The last thing I do is try to do some kind of piping event. If that fails, then I’ll just perform in a public place. That sometimes gives me really heartwarming interactions, but it’s also just a great way to interact with locals. But I never busk; it’s just a performance for me.
What kinds of songs are you playing?
There’s an unwritten rule with piping that you never have sheet music in front of you when you’re performing, so you have to learn everything by heart. And there’s a repertoire of about 15 tunes that most pipers will know wherever you are in the world, which is quite nice because you can get together with other pipers and you’ll be able to play those tunes together.
What I’m trying to do now is learn different tunes because in schools, after about one or two minutes of bagpipes the students get bored and want something they like.
And the other day, I was chatting with a Shanghai taxi driver and he was like, “You must learn the Chinese National Anthem on the bagpipes.” So I worked out how to play it and decided that’s a good thing to do for each country.
What have you learned about music through this type of traveling?
This is going to be dripping in cliches, but music breaks barriers. Whether or not it’s a language in and of itself, that’s a different conversation. Music has words sometimes, of course, but if it’s just an instrument like the bagpipes, it’s amazing how they’ve been able to put smiles on people’s faces. Maybe it’s the kilt and bagpipe combo … but even the grumpiest of policemen have been able to smile as a result of my piping.
There’s definitely a unique aspect to the whole musical journey. And the bagpipes are such a conspicuously Scottish instrument, so I think that has the wow factor. If I was going around playing the guitar, maybe that would have a different impact.
What have you learned about your own culture through this journey?
Well, that the bagpipes aren’t actually Scottish. It’s important to maintain and look after these cultural entities, but you have to take it with a pinch of salt, because the idea of something definitely being from somewhere — the bagpipes or the kilt being from Scotland. If you look at different points through history, people borrow languages, instruments, cuisines, etcetera.
In terms of learning about Scotland, it’s interesting how Scotland has impacted the world in different ways, but also how Scotland has been impacted by the world, too. So many cultures have adapted what is stereotypically known as Scottish culture. To give you an example, the bagpipes that I play are called the Great Highland Bagpipes. They’re so well known because of the British Empire, because every British regime would have their own pipe band. They introduced the bagpipes everywhere — and that’s why Qatar, Brunei, Hong Kong, I think even Mexico, all have pipe bands.
Have there been any challenges along the way?
The bagpipes require a bit of an effort to travel with … just because of security. If the people at security know what it is, they want to share a lovely story with you. Or they’re like, “What is this?” I always allow an extra 30 minutes at the airport just in case.
Working for myself and worrying where my money’s going to come from next month is terrifying. But I have to remind myself of the little things, like that it’s actually cheaper for me to travel full-time than it is to be based in the U.K.
What has all of this traveling added to your life? Has it changed you?
Absolutely — I think I change every week, every day. It’s nice to have the overarching goal of trying to get to every country. But then life hits and I start wondering how I’m going to fund it. It’s a challenge, but I’ve learned to be patient and super flexible with my plans.
I live out of a bag, and I don’t mind it. But when I go into my room back home I realize that I didn’t miss anything, and didn’t remember that I had a lot of the things I left behind. It’s a reminder of how simply we can live our lives.
I’ve learned — and this isn’t just unique to me — that the world is a surprisingly small place and it is exceptionally friendly.
Follow Ross’ journey around the world on Instagram.