China encore is more than a pipe dream...

John Johnston
John Johnston
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JOHN Johnson, amateur drummer with the City of Sheffield Pipe Band, says he felt like Mick Jagger.

The group was being mobbed by 14,000 fans. Cameras were flashing. Girls were cheering. A police escort had to be called.

They had just played in the Chinese city of Chengdu and to say they’d gone down well is an understatement. The crowd adored them. As they left the venue police had to hold well-wishers back.

“I have no idea why we were so popular,” says the 57-year-old. “But it was like being rock stars. Maybe it was the kilts.”

Whatever the reason, the bagpipe-blowers were such a hit during the 2009 visit - part of an international cultural festival - city officials have invited them back to play in the Chinese new year on February 2. They will be the only overseas act appearing.

“We didn’t need asking twice,” says John, an NHS worker, of Woodseats Road, Woodseats, Sheffield. “We always have appreciative audiences but nothing like that. A couple of days later we played again and a woman came up. She said she’d seen us on TV and travelled half a day to watch us live. You need a beer when that sort of thing happens.”

Cheers, indeed.

The group were one of 60 different music acts from across the globe to play the - deep breath - International Festival of Intangible Cultural Heritage. They were recommended to organisers by The Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association. Other acts included South African Zulu drummers, Ukrainian dancers and Australian folk bands. But none whipped up the same frenzy as Sheffield’s finest. Which is why the authorities have asked the group - which has members ranging from eight to 85-years-old - back for new year.

“It’s an honour,” says pipe major Theresa Brown. “And it’s so fantastic to be able to see these other cultures while also being appreciated for what we do.”

Certainly no-one would begrudge the band those opportunities. The 70-strong group, after all, is 103 years old, has raised thousands of pounds for good causes and played more civic shows than you could shake a drum stick at. Tonight, ahead of their trip, they will be officially presented with a Sheffield flag by the Lord Mayor.

“At the moment, we play under a Union Jack,” says John, whose wife Lisa, 37, and children Sam, 15, and Ellie, 10, also play. “But it will be an honour to play under the Sheffield flag.”

A concert marks the flag presentation tonight at the group’s base at the South Yorkshire Fire Service Training Centre, in Beaver Hill Road, Handsworth.Starts 7.30pm. £5.