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In Pakistan, Sounds Of A Different Kind Of Drone

Jul 26, 2012
Originally published on July 26, 2012 10:35 am

Bagpipes and Scotland? Aye, it's a natural association: Played for centuries, the instrument is especially identified with the Scottish military and traditional Scottish dress, tartan kilts and shawls.

But bagpipes and Pakistan? Nae, you say? Think again.

Turns out no place in the world manufactures more bagpipes than Pakistan. And no city in Pakistan makes more of them than Sialkot.

Bagpipe Central

Like so many other cities in Pakistan, the city of 1 million residents on Pakistan's eastern border with India-administered Kashmir is a cacophonous mix of cars and trucks, with smells of spices and sweat. Buses and auto-rickshaws spew thick white exhaust, children scream and workmen hammer.

Sialkot is also a little bagpipe crazy. There are more than 20 bagpipe and drum bands in the city.

And Halifax and Co. is just one of numerous bagpipe makers in Sialkot, says Naeem Akhbar, Halifax's CEO.

"Quantity-wise, Sialkot is No. 1 in the world to make the bagpipe," he says.

It's a complex instrument. The bag is an air reservoir. There are three drone pipes on top whose notes never change. And there's the chanter, the pipe below the bag where the melody is played.

"Every time when we play it, we have to tune it before playing," Akhbar says.

He brings out his top-of-the-line instrument. It sells for about $700 in Pakistan and more than $1,600 in Europe or the U.S.

Intertwined With Colonial History

Akhbar's grandfather, who made reeds for musical instruments, started the business back in the 1930s when this was all part of British India.

"One of the gentlemen from British forces, he came to his shop to get one of his bagpipes repaired. And [Akhbar's grandfather] said, 'You leave this bagpipe with me and come after three, four days and you take the bagpipe and I will repair it.' When he came back, [Akhbar's grandfather] has made the whole bagpipe new," he says.

Halifax and Co. made bagi pipes primarily for the colonial British Army until the British left India in 1947. After that, it catered to Pakistani and Indian clients.

Naeem Akhbar turned the shop into an export business in the 1970s.

"Then I went abroad. I showed the bagpipe samples to the different Scottish people, to English people, and they gave me quite a lot of orders for those bagpipes because they were as good as the Scottish ones," he says, "but the price was almost 10 times lower than that price."

Akhbar has a few pipers among his employees. Their playing has something of an eastern sound to it. His bagpipes are made from premium materials, like black wood from Africa. Halifax also makes thousands of small or toy bagpipes for the tourist market in Scotland, and drums and other percussion instruments, mostly for school kids.

Multifaceted Manufacturing Center

Bagpipes are just one example of the unexpected things that Sialkot produces; the city also makes medical instruments sold all over the world and sporting equipment.

Zafar Iqbal Geoffrey's company makes kilts and shawls and jackets in many of the traditional tartan designs, like MacKenzie, Black Watch or Royal Stewart.

M.H Geoffrey and Co. celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. A century ago, it didn't start out making traditional Scottish kilts.

"At that time we started our business with the polo sticks," he says.

Only a few years ago, the company started manufacturing uniforms of a different sort — the dress coats worn by officers of the North and the South during the American Civil War, for Civil War reenactments.

Geoffrey first saw these coats on the Internet. When asked how much he knew about the American Civil War, he responds, laughing: "Not very much."

But he knows enough, he says, to manufacture a wide variety of coats worn at the time.

"Sack coats, frock coats, general frock coats, shell coats, so many items we are making," he says.

Sialkot's businesses are not without controversy. It is not uncommon for children to work in the city's back-alley workshops. But European importers won't buy from producers who use child labor.

In the manufacturing area of the city, there are signs everywhere: child labor strictly prohibited.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Nothing says Scotland more than bagpipes. And no place manufactures more bagpipes than Pakistan. I know, I know. Pipers wear traditional Scottish dress - tartan kilts and shawls. The bagpipe has been played for centuries in Scotland. Still, if you want to hear some serious piping and get the best bagpipes cheap, you have to go to Sialkot, Pakistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE AND STREET NOISE)

MIKE SHUSTER, BYLINE: Sialkot, a city of one million on Pakistan's eastern border with India-administered Kashmir. Like so many other cities in Pakistan, a cacophonous mix of cars and trucks, buses and auto-rickshaws spewing thick white exhaust, the smell of spices and sweat, children screaming and workmen hammering. Sialkot is also a little bagpipe crazy. There are more than 20 bagpipe and drum bands here. And Halifax and Company is just one of numerous bagpipe makers in Sialkot, says Naeem Akhbar(ph), Halifax's CEO.

NAEEM AKHBAR: Quantity-wise, Sialkot is number one in the world to make the bagpipe.

SHUSTER: It's a complex instrument, the bagpipe. The bag is an air reservoir. There are three drone pipes on top, whose notes never change. And there's the chanter, the pipe below the bag where the melody is played. The pipes contain reeds, and a piper must tune the instrument.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAGPIPE TUNING)

AKHBAR: Every time when we play it, we have to tune it before playing.

SHUSTER: Naeem Akhbar has brought out his top-of-the-line instrument that sells for about $700 here in Pakistan, and more than $1,600 in Europe or the U.S.

Naeem Akhbar's grandfather started the business back in the 1930s, when this was all part of British India. He made reeds for musical instruments.

AKHBAR: One of the gentlemen from British forces, he came to his shop to get one of his bagpipes repaired. And he said, you leave this bagpipe with me and come after three, four days, and you take the bagpipe and I will repair it. When he came back, he has made the whole bagpipe new.

SHUSTER: Halifax and Company made bagpipes primarily for the colonial British army until the British left India in 1947, then for Pakistani and Indian clients. Naeem Akhbar turned the shop into an export business in the 1970s.

AKHBAR: Then I went abroad. I showed the bagpipe samples to the different Scottish people, to English people. And they gave me quite a lot of orders for those bagpipes because they were as good as the Scottish ones, but the price was almost 10 times lower than that price.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHUSTER: Naeem Akhbar has a few pipers among his employees. Their playing has something of an Eastern sound to it. His bagpipes are made from premium materials, like black wood from Africa. He also makes thousands of small or toy bagpipes for the tourist market in Scotland.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHUSTER: And Halifax also makes drums and other percussion instruments, mostly for school kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

SHUSTER: Bagpipes are just one example of the unexpected things that Sialkot produces. Sialkot makes medical instruments sold all over the world and sporting equipment.

Zafar Iqbal Geoffrey's company makes kilts and shawls and jackets in many of the traditional tartan designs, like Mackenzie, Black Watch or Royal Stewart. Geoffrey's business celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. A century ago, it didn't start out making traditional Scottish kilts.

ZAFAR IQBAL GEOFFREY: At that time, we started our business with the polo sticks at that time.

SHUSTER: Only a few years ago, Geoffrey's company started manufacturing uniforms of a different sort, the dress coats worn by officers of the North and the South during the American Civil War for Civil War reenactment. He first saw these coats on the Internet. I asked him how much he knew about the American Civil War.

GEOFFREY: Not very much.

(LAUGHTER)

SHUSTER: But, he said, enough to manufacture a wide variety of coats worn at the time.

GEOFFREY: Sack coats, frock coats, general frock coats, shell coats - so many items we are making here.

SHUSTER: Sialkot's businesses are not without controversy. It is not uncommon for children to be working in the city's back alley workshops. But European importers won't buy from producers who use child labor. In the manufacturing area of the city, there are signs everywhere: Child Labor Strictly Prohibited.

Mike Shuster, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.