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Pipe bands bring Celtic culture to Colorado

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By Hannah Hemperly

The melodious bellow of bagpipes and the steady tapping of drums heralded the first concert of the annual Summer Concert Series at the Littleton Museum on Wednesday.

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Despite the rain, the Denver and District Pipe Band — comprised of almost 70 bagpipers, drummers and dancers — performed traditional and modern takes on Celtic marches, jigs and reels for 300 attendees.

Sponsored by the Friends of the Littleton Library and Museum, the Summer Concert Series has been free to the public for more than 25 years. 

 “We’re actually trying to bring an authentic Irish evening,” said John Thornton, band drum major. “Over there, this is normal summer weather.” 

Earlier in the day, peacocks that usually grace the museum’s lawn followed the band’s procession around the grounds.

“Don’t be surprised if peacocks show up,” Thornton told the audience.

The birds were not the only ones impressed. For the past three consecutive years, the band has won the bagpiping championship in the Rocky Mountain region.

 “Don’t cheer too loud because their heads swell up, and they can’t play the pipes anymore,” Thornton said, eliciting laughter from the crowd.

Susan Thornton, John Thornton’s wife and Littleton’s former mayor, has been playing the bagpipe for the band for nearly 30 years. 

 “I like to say it’s either off, or it’s loud,” Susan said. 

She appreciates the instrument for its unique challenges and ancient heritage. It is played by blowing air into four reeds through a bag, giving it the name bagpipe.

“It’s a very physical instrument because you have to blow hard and squeeze hard,” Susan said. “It’s a good exercise physically and mentally.”

Traditionally made of African blackwood, the bagpipe can weigh up to eight pounds, adding to the difficulty of playing it. Today, plastic pipes are becoming the norm.

The Denver and District Pipe Band plays the Great Highland bagpipe from Scotland, a special instrument historically intended to carry and deliver messages across long distances.

Riley Crisler, 10, is a highland dancer with the band and likes the traditional Celtic stories in the songs. 

 “I like how all of them have their own stories,” she said. 

One example is The Lilt, a traditional Scottish dance that the highland dancers performed on Wednesday night. Traditionally, Scottish dancing was restricted to males. The Lilt tells the story of the first dance the women created. 

 “After the men went to war, the women did not want to lose a piece of their culture,” said highland dancer Rebekah Sabados, 19. “We carried the tradition when the men were dying off in battle.”

Along with breaking the tradition of male-only dancers, today, women wear the Scottish kilt, attire originally for men. 

“Technically, all the women in this band are cross-dressing,” John quipped to the crowd.

Sabados, who has been dancing since she was 5, along with her two sisters, has competed internationally in Celtic dancing. At least 20 families are involved in the dancing part of the band, led by instructor Christie Jones. 

Jones’ daughter, Mackenzie, has been dancing since she was 2. 

“Oh, she’s been dancing out of the womb,” Sabados said.

Sabados loves the Denver and District Pipe Band, not only for the heritage it brings, but also the sportsmanship and community that she has seen.

 “I love the culture,” Sabados said. “It’s like a community. These girls are my sisters.”

The band plays 25 to 30 concerts yearly and competes in championships across the country. 

To learn more about the Denver and District Pipe Band, visit http://www.ddpb.org or call 720-443-CELT. The Summer Concert Series calendar can be found at www.littletongov.org/index.aspx?page=438&recordid=4323.