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Rufus Harley: Pipes of Peace

Samuel Chell By

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Proudly calling attention to the 'us' in the words 'music' and 'Rufus,' Harley uses the bagpipes and their sound as an iconic but loud and clear message: 'To be American is to be every nationality.'
Rufus Harley
Pipes Of Peace

Not too many subjects would seem more assured of cinematic success than a profile of the world's first and only recognized jazz bagpiper—whose life story ended, moreover, with his appropriation of the title "International Ambassador of Freedom." On the other hand, when a title says it all ("Mouse plays flute to seduce elephant!"), the film director's task can be all the more daunting, since everything that follows is necessarily anticlimactic. On the whole, filmmaker George Manney has constructed a warm and compelling picture of Rufus Harley, transforming him from a mere curiosity or musical freak into an emblem of a city, a nation, and an ethos of peace, love and harmony.

Born in North Carolina in 1936, Harley moved to Philadelphia, where he became proficient on woodwinds, studying under the same teacher as John Coltrane. But it wasn't until John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963 and his witnessing the Scottish Black Guard bagpiper corps in the funeral procession that Harley discovered his voice and vocation. Shortly after obtaining his own set of pipes, he was signed to a contract by Atlantic Records, and the result was Bagpipe Blues (Atlantic, 1964), the first of four albums released on the prestigious label during the last half of the 1960s. He guested on albums by saxophonists Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins and flutist Herbie Mann, but by the 1970s the novelty had worn out, leaving behind a unique musician who was little more than a curious footnote to the decade of the Age of Aquarius.

The instrumentalist's comeback began with appearances on recordings by artists with a broad- based appeal—first, Laurie Anderson and later, The Roots. Soon Harley was back, not simply as a musician but as a kind of homespun philosopher and promoter of political good will, becoming a virtual poster-child for American values and democratic, multicultural ideals by the time of his death from prostate cancer in August 2006.

The filmmaker tells Harley's story by cutting in space rather than time, alternating among an extended interview with a fully costumed and equipped Harley in his working space, footage from a 2004 or 2005 Brotherly Love All-Star concert, and numerous interviews with associates of the late musician-phenomenon. From the interviews, but primarily from Harley himself, we piece together the bigger picture, learning some fascinating details such as Harley's defying Celtic traditions by playing the instrument on the left side of his body rather than the right and re-tuning the drone from A and D to Bb and Eb in order to accommodate the flat keys favored by jazz musicians.

Although there are a sufficient number of recognizable names and faces, the most eloquent statements are by Harley's son and daughter, whose very presence is visible testimony to the love and admiration professed by all of the interviewees. Legendary jazz producer Joel Dorn is our primary source of information about Harley's early recording endeavors as a jazz pioneer, while Laurie Anderson attests to the impact of Harley after his reincarnation as a phenomenon in world music circles.

Of those interviewed, the most articulate is the barely credited, keyboardist/composer Joshua Yudkin, who offers illuminating anecdotes while addressing Harley's specific language. Making the connections between music, mathematics and physics (in layman's terms), he doesn't so much "explain Harley's philosophy as confirm the method to the apparent madness that enabled the eccentric musician to extract from his multi-colored musical bag a message of peace, love and harmony for all who belong to the human community—whether Philadelphia's, America's or the world's.

For this reviewer, the lingering impression is Harley's emphasis on the music of the bagpipe as a maternal, nurturing language. He dismisses the diversity of "doh-re-mi" and embraces exclusively the bagpipe's distinctive "mi" sound as the phonetic equivalent of every child's cry for its mother and as a semantic reference to the first-person pronoun. But it's not the egotistical self that the bagpipes administer to. Proudly calling attention to the "us" in the words "music" and "Rufus," Harley uses the bagpipes and their sound as an iconic but loud and clear message. "To be American is to be every nationality," he proclaims, and the pipes and their song are suddenly transformed into irrefutable evidence clinching his case.


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