Mar 262014



Today is the birthday (1845) of Juhan Maaker nicknamed Torupilli-Juss (“bagpipe Johnny,” I think), an Estonian folk musician, notably a player of the Estonian bagpipes or torupill. He was one of the most popular players in his day and called the king of bagpiper­­­s. During his lifetime Juhan Maaker performed with great success in hundreds of concert halls and became popular all over Estonia and also in Finland. In 1927-28 he took part in five concert tours in Estonia organized by August Pulst, an activist in promoting folk music in cooperation with the Estonian Open-Air Museum Society. He gave 244 concerts in total.  36 pieces performed by Juhan Maaker have been preserved and digitized from phonograph wax cylinders found in the Estonian Literature museum.

After Juhan Maaker’s nephew, Aleksander Maaker (1890–1968), died there was only one surviving bagpipe player in Estonia: Olev Roomet who became the revivalist champion of bagpipe in the country by training 25 new players in 1970’s. Nowadays, bagpipe playing is a part of the curriculum at University of Tartu Viljandi Culture Academy’s Traditional Music faculty and in a number of regular music schools around the country.

It is not clear when the bagpipes became established in Estonia. The instrument was known throughout Estonia at one point. The bagpipe tradition was longest preserved in West and North Estonia where folk music retained archaic characteristics for a longer time. Later when the fiddle was taking over folk music a lot of bagpipe tunes were transcribed for it.

Very often the bagpipes were used for playing dance music; other instruments served this purpose only in the absence of the bagpipes. Some old ceremonial dances, such as the Round Dance (Voortants) and the Tail Dance (Sabatants) were performed together with a bagpiper who walked at the head of the column. Ceremonial music took an important place in the bagpipers’ repertoires in the 17th century, as attested in literary sources of that time. For instance, the presence of a bagpiper was considered essential during weddings, where he had to take part in certain ceremonies. There were special tunes, marches or riding melodies that were performed in the wedding procession, etc. The bagpiper was an indispensable participant in dances and social gatherings. He accompanied minstrels during Martinmas and Christmas. No pub was complete without a good musician.


Like almost all bagpipes, the Estonian bagpipes have a bag, a mouth-pipe (blow-pipe) for inflating the bag, a melody-pipe (chanter) and 1 or 2, rarely 3, drones. The bag (“tuulekott”, “magu”, “kott”, “loots”, etc.) was usually made of the stomach of a grey seal in the western and northern parts of Estonia and on the islands. Most valued were the stomachs of large old seals. The bag that was made of a seal’s stomach, was not spoilt either by dryness or humidity. A bagpiper of the Hiiu island is known to have said that if his bagpipe (made of a seal’s stomach) became wet, it sounded richer because the seal is a sea animal. The bags were also made of the stomach of an ox, cow, elk or dog, but sometimes they were sewn of the skin of a dog, cat, goat or seal (with the fur outward) or even of the skin of a lynx.

The blow pipe (“puhumispulk”, “naput”, “naba”, “puhknapp”, “napp”) was made of wood.  It allowed the player to maintain steady air pressure in the bag. The chanter (“sõrmiline”, “putk”, “esimik”, etc.) was made of juniper, pine, ash or, more seldom, of a cane tube. It had 5-6 holes. The chanter was single-reeded, generally with a parallel rather than conical bore. The bottom end of the chanter sometimes had 1 – 2 holes in the side bored obliquely into the pipe, so that some straws or twigs could be put in to control the pitch. The chanter was placed in an oval wooden stock (“kibu”, “kloba”, “torupakk”, “käsilise pakk”). The stock end of the chanter contained a reed (“piuk”, “keel”, “roog”, “raag”, “vile”).

The drones (“passitoru”, “pass”, “kai”, “tori”, “pill”, “pulk”, “toro”) were made of wooden pipes, different in shape and diameter. The number of pipes determined their length. If there is only one, it is quite long, if two, they are both shorter. In some rare cases bagpipes with 3 drones could be found. The drone consists of 2 – 3 separate joints. In the lower end there is a wooden bell. The joints can be pulled out in order to tune the drone. The drone is placed in an oval or round stock.

Here’s a young contemporary Estonian piper.

When you mention bagpipes to the average person they think of the Scottish Highland pipes – and feelings tend to be love or hate with no middle ground.  Being of Scots heritage with an uncle who played in the Black Watch I tend to get a bit misty over massed pipe bands.  But I also love the enormous variety of European pipes.  Here’s some videos to amuse and delight – I hope.

In the U.K. and Ireland there are numerous kinds of bagpipes – mostly in Celtic regions.  These are pibau cyrn from Wales.

These are the Scottish small pipes. Like most Celtic pipes they do not have a blow pipe; the bag is inflated by bellows under the opposite arm.

The Northumbrian pipes are my favorite of all.  So sweet.

The uilleann pipes, or union pipes, from Ireland were at one point on the verge of extinction; but a few players, such as Seamus Ennis encouraged a revival.  Now they can be heard regularly on movie sound tracks and recordings (often in culturally inappropriate settings – in Braveheart, for example).  They are the most complex of all the European bagpipes. The chanter can play 2 full octaves chromatically, and there are regulator keys that allow the piper to stop certain drones and play chords rhythmically (using his wrist). Here is Ennis in his heyday.

Outside the U.K. you will find bagpipes across Europe, but most commonly in Celtic regions and eastern Europe.  Here are a couple of examples.  First the zampogna from southern Italy.

Then the gaita from Galicia.

If this little parade interests you, you can check out these websites.  I’ve had such fun in the Balkans watching pipers playing pipes that look like whole goats with wooden tubes attached . .  . or in highland Celtic regions of Spain and France hearing the incredibly fluid sounds of simple, small pipes in a farmer’s cottage kitchen.  Both these articles are informative with plenty of links to other specialist pages.

For a recipe to celebrate Juhan Maaker I give you Estonian skillet bread.  It is a rather dense bread made somewhat like Southern cornbread in a heavy cast iron skillet using a blend of plain flour, barley flour, and whole wheat flour, with a little baking powder as a rising agent. It can be served with soups and stews plain, or like scones with butter and fruit preserves.


Estonian Skillet Bread


4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 ½ cups barley flour
½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
⅓ cup whole wheat flour
2 tbsps packed brown sugar
½ tsp salt
½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp caraway seed (optional)
1 large egg, beaten
1 cup buttermilk
2 tbsps vegetable oil


Preheat the oven to 375° F/190° C. Brush an 8 inch cast-iron skillet with 2 tablespoons of the butter.

Sift the dry ingredients and caraway seeds (if using) together in a large bowl.

Whisk together the egg, buttermilk, and vegetable oil. Add the dry ingredients and mix until blended. Do not overmix. You will have something between a batter and dough.

Spoon the mixture into the skillet and smooth the top with a rubber spatula. Drizzle the remaining butter over the top.

Bake until golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean, about 50 minutes. Serve slightly warm with butter.

Serves 6.