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Swiss bagpipe undergoes modest revival

A 15th century church fresco in Ascona depicting a piva player

If it weren't for the devotion of teacher and musician, Ilario Garbani, the piva may have been relegated to the dusty shelves of a Ticino heritage museum.

“The folk music that is popular in [the southern Italian-speaking canton of] Ticino is not authentic. It’s only played for tourists,” Garbani explains. “That’s why I decided to begin my research into Ticino musical traditions 25 years ago.”

“I interviewed elderly people, and came upon many traditional songs. And people told me that the old songs were played on the piva and not the accordion as popularly assumed, but I had no idea what that was.”

Garbani interrupts the conversation and takes the piva’s goatskin bag between his forearm and chest, exhales into the blowpipe and lets his fingers dance across the holes of the instrument’s single chanter. His foot starts to tap as he plays (see video).

Oral traditions

The bagpipe is thought to date back to pre-Christian times and there were hundreds of different types across Europe. The various Swiss models disappeared over the past few centuries as the fife and drum became more popular among marching military formations, and it was the mandolin and accordion that sounded the piva’s death knell in Ticino.

Last believed to have been played sometime in the 19th century, the piva has at least survived in the oral traditions of Ticino and northern Italy. “Piva, piva, l’oli d’uliva” (piva, piva, olive oil), is the start of an old children’s rhyme commonly recited at Christmas.

And if you “have returned with the piva in the bag” you are ashamed, disappointed or discouraged.

A few years before Garbani began his research, a well-preserved bagpipe chanter was found among a pile of junk in a cupboard of a house undergoing restoration in the village of Sonogno in the Verzasca valley.

Church frescoes

A musicologist recognised it for what it was. And the puzzle was complete with the discovery of church frescoes throughout Ticino depicting musicians playing, among other instruments, the piva.

In 1980, a Swiss-German folk musician and instrument builder, Urs Klauser, became the first to reconstruct the piva based on a fresco in the village of Maggia.

But the piva’s revival began in Ticino, its place of origin, more recently when Garbani not only started to play thanks to Klauser’s reconstruction but to make his own instrument and give lessons as well.

“It’s wonderful when you play an instrument you’ve made yourself, having learned the craft of working wood. I find it very meditative when I have time to spend working on the lathe.”

He currently has 40 pupils and claims to have taught about 100 people over the past five years.

“People take lessons for a variety of reasons,” Garbani says. “Some have discovered an interest in Celtic culture, and they mistakenly believe the piva is a Celtic instrument.”


Since the piva is relatively easy to learn, he says other students use it as a first step towards taking up the better-known Scottish variety, or to play traditional Christmas songs.

The Christmas association has much to do with the travelling Italian musicians who are remembered for making a stop in Ticino each year during the festive period.

They played Christmas songs on the traditional bagpipe of southern Italy, the zampogna.

The zampogna is Garbani’s favourite bagpipe, since its double chanter allows musicians to play more complex melodies. He is also a student of the Lombardy model, the baghet, and various French bagpipes, and he performs at social gatherings and organises his own summer folk festival.

“I’m getting more requests to play at events all the time, but when someone from Ticino hears the piva being played, their first reaction is: What does it have to do with Ticino, it’s not a traditional instrument from here?

“There is still the prejudice that it’s a boring instrument, and should only be played at Christmas. But my festival is becoming more popular every year.”

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Cavigliano

A bagpipe consists of an airbag and a melody pipe, the chanter. It most often includes one or more drones, which is a cylindrical tube with a single or double reed.
Its roots are believed to pre-date Christianity.
Hundreds of different types of bagpipes developed across Europe over the ages.
The tradition of playing the Ticino bagpipe, the piva, died out in the 19th century, before being revived about 20 years ago.

Ilario Garbani carried out more than ten years of research on traditional music in Ticino’s Onsernone valley, culminating with the publication of the songbook, “Canzoniere della Mea d’Ora in 1992.

Garbani performs in various duos and trios keeping alive music traditions of Ticino and northern Italy.

Also of note is the folk music group, Tritonus, which for more than 20 years has been rediscovering traditional Swiss music and performing the songs on once forgotten instruments.

Tritonus member Urs Klauser in 1980 became the first to reconstruct the piva.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR