As manager of the Swamibapa Pipe Band, Kanu Patel is used to getting puzzled looks from onlookers whenever his 50-piece band performs in festivals and street fairs. After all, it’s not everyday that you see a Scottish-Indian bagpipe band – in full Scottish regalia – coming around the corner.
“Yeah, people definitely think it’s unusual,” said Patel. “And they look at us for a while because they haven’t seen anything like this before. But eventually they just enjoy the music and they end up really liking us.”
Secaucus residents, however, might be a little more accustomed to the sight than most.
Patel believes the band is the only one of its kind in North America.
Swamibapa – the man, not the band – is the spiritual leader of a denomination of Hinduism known as Shree Swaminarayan Gadi Sansthan, and many of his followers belong to the Shree Swaminarayan Temple on Penhorn Avenue.
In the beginning
Growing up in Gujarat, India – the birthplace of many Indians in Secaucus – Patel said he didn’t see his countrymen playing bagpipes.
“I never saw a pipe band in India when I was there,” he said, adding that in India, bagpipes are generally only played in military settings and are not played for entertainment or religious purposes as they are in some other places.
As it turns out, however, Acharya Swamishree adores pipe music, and over time, his devotees started bagpipe bands as a way to honor him.
Even before the Swamibapa Pipe Band was started there were already “sister pipe bands in Africa and the UK,” Patel said. “So that motivated us. We thought it would be a great idea for us to have a pipe band here so that we could also honor Swamishree, who is like our pope, when he comes here.”
And so the Swamibapa Pipe band was formed and now plays each August during Swamishree’s annual visits to Secaucus.
It was an ambitious dream for a group of men who had never played pipes before.
“We downloaded a bagpipe learning guide from the internet and also bought a book online for research. That helped to get us started,” Patel recalls. “Me and few lead members of the band taught ourselves from books, and then we would teach all the other band members. We had lessons every week. Basically, we started from zero and grew from there.”
After practicing on their own for about 18 months, the band solicited outside instruction from a musician named Barry Freeman, who volunteered his time to help the band members develop more sophisticated skills.
The band’s initial performances were centered around the temple or at Indian cultural events. It was a few years before Swamibapa, which eventually added drummers to the line up, went public.
The band, which Patel believes is the only one of its kind in North America, now performs at art and cultural events in the tri-state area.
As the band gained more exposure, its repertoire, which initially included just Hindu and Scottish songs, expanded.
Patel said he is now trying to work “patriotic American songs into the [repertoire], like ‘America the Beautiful.’ We now try to fit the tunes to suit the audience. We played ‘Amazing Grace’ on 9/11[at the town’s ceremony in honor of residents who died in the 2001 terror attacks].”
The band’s success has enabled it to attract members from as far away as Pennsylvania and Connecticut. One Connecticut parent drives her son six hours – three hours each way – to the band’s weekly Sunday practices, Patel said.
“You know, the band has really helped us attract our youth to the temple,” Patel observed. “It reconnects them to the culture and the religion. If it weren’t for the band and the music, you know kids, they might not do it otherwise.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.