Two Grade 1 pipe bands at worlds

Of the 23 Grade 1 bands competing in this weekend's World Pipe Band Championships on the Glasgow Green in Scotland, six are from Canada.And two of the bands that hail from B.C are based within a 20-minute drive from each other - both boasting about a dozen Tri-City residents each.

Depending on who you talk to, it's either a "fierce rivalry" or a "healthy competition" between the two internationally acclaimed musical groups.

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The Port Coquitlam-based Dowco Triumph Street Pipe Band - a 41-year-old ensemble sponsored by The Dowco Group of Companies - will state that it has "paved the way" for the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band as it was the first band outside of Scotland to clinch a world title (in 1979, it won the sash under lead drummer Willie McErlean - a Coquitlam resident - and placed fifth overall under pipe major Hal Senyk). At last year's worlds, the 45-member Dowco took the top prize the Grade 1 qualifier for the second year in a row, scoring both the piping and drumming with first-place finishes. And for the final, the band ranked eight overall.

SFU, on the other hand, acknowledges Dowco's gains but is firm with its reputation. This year, its 50 members aim to bring home the highly coveted first-place trophy for the seventh time. In 2008 and 2009, the band secured back-to-back championship victories and, last year, it placed third overall behind eight-time winners Field Marshal Montgomery from northern Ireland and Scottish Power. SFU placed second in 2011, again finishing behind FMM.

Because of their close proximity, Dowco and SFUPB often see each other on the competition circuit in B.C. and Washington State."We're fierce rivals," said Dowco pipe major and PoCo resident David Hilder, whose wife, Shaunna, is the pipe sergeant and their son, Liam, is a piper. "We absolutely compete against each other... but we can contribute both of our successes to each other."

"It's a healthy rivalry," added SFUPB manager and Coquitlam resident Rob MacNeil, noting the success of SFU's pipers and drummers at solo events and the strength of its leaders (see sidebar).

Luckily, for the first day at the worlds on Saturday, the two groups won't be seeing much of each other. For the first round, SFUPB is in Heat 1 while Dowco is in Heat 2.

The format for this year's event has changed, with organizers hoping to draw bigger crowds. Six bands qualifying from each of the two heats will advance to the Sunday final. The Saturday qualifier will consist of a Medley and a March, Strathspey and Reel (MSR) while the final requires bands to play another Medley and MSR, meaning shortlisted candidates will have to perform four times (in the past, finalists from previous competitions didn't have to pre-qualify).

"It should pan out to be quite an interesting final," Hilder said. "The expectations are that we'll be in the final. We're one of the favoured ones to make it."

MacNeil is equally confident. Last month, his full band played a rare public concert in Vernon and, most recently, there have been near-daily practices at SFU and at the Surrey home of pipe sergeant Jack Lee. This week, SFUPB is bunkering down in Stirling, Scotland, to hone its sound and to acclimatizewith members who hail from Greater Vancouver, Seattle, Calgary, Winnipeg, Washington State, California, Minnesota, northern Ireland, Scotland and New Zealand.

Dowco members also come from far afield - namely, Greater Vancouver, Washington State, California, Detroit, Chicago, Australia and Denmark - to train either in person or live stream via Hume Park in the summer and, in the winter, Douglas College and the Masonic Hall in New Westminster.

Still, tensions aside, all this piping and drumming by the two bands has only meant good things for young musicians locally.

Dowco has two 14-year-old drummers, including Amber Stone who has been with the Grade 1 band since she was 12 (she travels with her piper brother, Aaron, 18, twice a week from Mt. Vernon, Washington State, for practices). On the SFU side, its junior Grade 3s - the Robert Malcolm Memorial band - was crowned last year's world champions, also under the direction of MacNeil.

As a result of the win, five RMM members were promoted the following day to the Grade 1 SFUPB. They are Langley brothers Brian (piper) and Graham (drummer) Haddon, and pipers Daryl Techy and James MacNeil and drummer Gavin Macrae from the Tri-Cities.

"It means a great amount to me that I have finally made SFUPB because the whole point of joining the RMM/SFU organization was to make the senior band, which I have been working my whole life for," said James MacNeil, who was the lead drummer in the Grade 2 band last year. "The jump from Grade 2 to Grade 1 is very big. The bands in Grade 1 are bigger, stronger and demand perfection."

He added, "Going into a successful Grade 1 band as a rookie is very hard. Experience is the only thing that makes it easier."

To follow Dowco and the Simon Fraser University pipe bands at the World Pipe Band Championships in Scotland on Aug. 17 and 18, visittheworlds.co.uk/.

jwarren@tricitynews.com

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