It’s mid-November, the 2022 pipe band season in the Northern Hemisphere is a distant memory and the solo piping season is all but done. It was very pleasant to read the news yesterday that a big entry is planned for next year’s New Zealand and South Pacific Pipe Band Championships, which will take place in March 2023. In this article we look back to a report and photos from Piping Today magazine of the 2019 New Zealand Championships.

From Piping Today #96, 2019.

While many bands in the northern hemisphere dust off the cobwebs ahead of their summer competition season, all eyes and ears turned to the piping and drumming world’s furthest outpost for the New Zealand National Championships in late March 2019.  Held this year in the distinctively Caledonian-flavored city of Dunedin – which incidentally hosted the first truly nationwide pipe band competition back in 1926 – the setting itself couldn’t have been much better for bands. Known as a lively university town, the vibrancy of Dunedin with its plentiful green practice space and wealth of motel-style accommodation made it a fine stop for the traveling circus of pipe band people to do their thing.

The vast expanses of the Otago Cricket Oval as the contest venue provided ample room all round, with a packed main stand and the most delightful grass under foot for a steady march in. Though staged two weeks later than its traditional mid-March slot, this year’s event was blessed with sunshine and pleasant temperatures throughout its two-day running.

One of the New Zealand scene’s signature features is the Saturday morning street march, which brings town centers to a standstill as large crowds clamour to see what all the noise is about and get an up-close look at the legions of bandspeople who have invaded their city. The concept also serves well to highlight the almost ‘Olympic’ feel of the entire event, as the National Championship moves to embrace a new location each year. 

•The Grade 4A Waimatuku Southern Scenic Highland Pipe Band in the Dunedin street march

Though there’s a full panel of judges across all disciplines dotted along the route, with bands encouraged to dress to impress to meet the drill and deportment aspects, this doesn’t mean there is a lack of scope for innovation. No-one showed this better than the ILT City of Invercargill under the direction of pipe major Ali MacKenzie and lead drummer Davy Clark. Their inventive street march set gets underway with a head-turning drumming intro which snubs the sacred three-pace roll medium, leading into a couple of lively hornpipes to saunter confidently down the street. The Invercargill group would later go on to comprehensively secure the Grade 2 title in amongst a strong field, paving the way perhaps for a return to the top grade if they can continue the momentum of their fine teaching programme.

As it has been for the last three years, the Nationals were livestreamed and broadcast around the world thanks to the team from Brassbanned, run by Australian Tim Kelly, with bass section pioneer Tyler Fry providing colour commentary and a series of on-field interviews to add a new scope to the coverage with his distinctive dose of enthusiasm. 

•Day one of the 8 hour long broadcast of the 2019 NZ pipe band championships.

This much welcomed technological advance allowed enthusiasts the world over to tune into all the action, culminating in the hotly-contested Grade 1 competition. Featuring four first-rate bands, all of which have been regular visitors and, indeed, finalists at the World Pipe Band Championships over the last decade, the National Championship serves up the toughest and most challenging single day of competition outside of the Worlds itself, with bands drawing a MSR set on the line, before returning shortly afterwards to air their Medleys. It’s perhaps this full-on element – not to mention the stunning Kiwi scenery and hospitality – that regularly draws in many pipers and drummers to have a tune in the off-season, all of which helps elevates the level of hype and standard of the competition.

•Day two of the 10 hour long broadcast of the 2019 NZ pipe band championships.

First up was the Manawatu Scottish Society, who have for years punched well above their weight on the world stage, peaking with 9th place finishes at both the 2007 and 2013 Worlds. Led by long-serving pipe major Stewart McKenzie with distinguished New Zealand solo piper Stuart Easton as pipe sergeant, the Palmerston North-outfit were again strong contenders. Also in the piping ranks was Boghall and Bathgate-stalwart Jonathan Simpson, owing to a connection with pipe major McKenzie, who himself enjoyed a summer with Boghall in the mid-2000s. The band’s energetic medley set featured the Gordon Duncan classic Just for Seamus, and a pair of tidy performances in both circles brought the band into the mix for the big prize. The drum corps, led by Perth, Australia-based South African Gary Potter, and boosted by regular guest player and World Solo Drumming runner-up Gareth McLees, came through to capture the drumming title. 

The Auckland and District pipe band from the country’s northernmost and most populated city fielded a huge unit, with over 22 pipers lining up under the charge of pipe major Ben McLaughlin and former SFU-man Louis Norton heading the drum section. Like many of their rivals, they also welcomed players from afar, with several members of the high-flying Grade 1 Johnstone Pipe Band, including pipe major Keith Bowes Jnr, making the trip to aid Auckland’s assault.

The New Zealand Police came into the event as the reigning champions after dominating proceedings at Tauranga the previous year. Now led by pipe major Scott Giffin, a Glasgow-native now based in Wellington, with the back-end being driven by the unmissable beard of lead drummer Angus Crowe, the group welcomed a large contingent of overseas players to bolster their title defence. Their medley featured a number of well-known favourites such as The B52 hornpipe by Eric Rigler, and hit a rousing finish with Murray Blair’s classic New Paradigm reel. Despite a considerable turnover in key personnel since its 2018 win, the band remained well and truly in the hunt again, and in fact headed the field after a tight MSR contest. 

Last up was the Canterbury Caledonian Society, hungry to reclaim the crown after losing out in 2018 following a six-year winning streak under the stewardship of Richard Hawke and James Laughlin. Now led by Richard’s son Jamie, with Brayden Drummond taking the helm of the drum corps, they drew the rarely-heard march David Ross of Rosehall in their MSR before presenting a new medley with original compositions from Australian Simon Blackshaw. In the end, the band did enough over the two runs to emerge top of the pile and duly captured its seventh title in eight years.

Given the tragedies which occurred just two weeks prior at the Al Noor Mosque, it was an emotional win for the Christchurch-based band. Fitting tributes to those who lost their lives were also made with laments and a minute’s silence held during the massed band proceedings, as the quintessentially Kiwi spirit shone through strong.

While this year is likely to see only the Canterbury Caledonian make the huge pilgrimage to Glasgow Green, the high standard and young talent on display from across New Zealand bodes well for the future, as the top bands continue to raise their game and push each other on to new heights from down under.

All photos: Susanna Buckton, courtesy of RNZPBA. First published in Piping Today #96, 2019.