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The best and last Bagpipe Artisan of Acquafondata

Acquafondata is a town in the mountains on the border of Lazio and Molise famous for its Bagpipes Festival (Festa della Zampogna).

And maybe you wouldn’t travel through the forests, in the dappled shade of the roads towards Acquafondata unless you had a special reason or somewhere else to go along the road. We saw no obvious recognition of agriculture or other primary industry, though there must be goats and wild boars that haven’t leaped out for our casual view.

It was lunchtime when we drove into town and while I was scanning the town square, Claudia uttered a single word – ‘Bagpipes!’ with enough force for me to look to the other side and see a bas relief of bagpipes on the stone wall beside the road.

Claudia scanned her database and reported that – yes – Acquafondata, a town of about 300 people, including hamlets, has been famous for manufacture of bagpipes – an Italian instrument known as a Zampogna.

In the square, we settled into the Vittoria restaurant noting that this must be a town attracting special festivals as the restaurant could seat about half the town’s population!

While dining, served by one large friendly family, my mind turned once again to some 50 years ago when the sounds of bagpipes were part of my schooling in, of all places, Sydney, Australia.

Enquiring about the life and industry of the town, our friendly hostess informed that there remains only one bagpipe maker in Acquafondata, settled in the house at the end of the village.

Bagpipe maker

Luigi Carcillo, the bagpipe ‘engineer’, has his workshop laboratory next to his home and his equipment comprises a wood lathe for turning the ‘pipes’ plus hand tools for wood carving and preparation of the bag.

The timbers are all local, olive, cherry and plum trees. The partly completed pipes – or more correctly – chanters and drones – are draped around the walls of the laboratory. He takes one and tips out a reed which he fits and puts the chanter to his lips.

The mournful wail of a bagpipe comes forth and I am taken back to boarding school in 1964 where, every morning the pipers would practice, the beginners starting with a single pipe, just like a recorder, and the cacophony of sounds would raise over the grounds and nearby hills, waking the dead and bringing life to the school.

Luigi explains that the olive wood produces a more strident tone and the plum, a sweeter note. He shows how he makes a reed, from plastic or classical (canna marina) cane, and I am reminded of my latter years as a failed saxophonist seeking the ideal reed.

Luigi gets up and goes to a large bin and extracts some assembled sets – chanters and drones fitted into the stocks. This is the song set of the instrument.

Taking the set of pipes in one hand and a single pipe in the other he explains that Italian bagpipe playing consists of two instruments, the single chanter or folk oboe (in this area called ‘ciaramella’) played alongside the bagpipes in pairs. I learned no more about the tuning or sound balance, yet it was obvious that the bagpipe is as much a personal instrument as a violin.

Traditionally the bags that provide the store of air were made from goat hides that were removed from the slaughtered animal in one piece, cured, turned inside out, then tied off with openings for the blow pipe and stock.

This tradition becomes an obvious catalyst for the initiation of the local bagpipe industry in the countryside around Acquafondata. Today, however, bagpipe makers, such as Luigi, are substituting the traditional goat and sheep hide bags with a synthetic bag.

Luigi has no signs on his door to attract the lost piper. It seems that those who seek will find him at the annual festival in August, when maybe 100 couples will arrive and fill the square and Vittoria restaurant with sounds of the Zampogna.

Luigi is now retired. I wonder who his apprentice will be to save the art of bagpipes in the mountains on the border of Lazio and Molise.