OPINION – Alastair Campbell: Why I’m playing Hava Nagila on my bagpipes

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OPINION – Alastair Campbell: Why I’m playing Hava Nagila on my bagpipes

Ambassador for Time to Change mental health campaign explains how he found a way to promote kindness through music during Mental Health Awareness Week

Alastair Campbell

So, write about kindness, Jonny Benjamin tells me as he takes up the reins of Jewish News for a week.

Ok, will do.

I thought you might say write about mental health, this being Mental Health Awareness Week.

But then kindness is related to mental health, isn’t it?

A kinder world is a happier world.

But then I also felt I should have a Jewish angle to my kindness angle.

I’ve found it in music.

Chapter 1: In case you hadn’t heard, I play the bagpipes. I have been playing more in lockdown even than in normal times, which is quite a lot. And before anyone cracks the usual borderline racist anti-bagpipe jokes, my neighbours complain when I don’t play, not when I do.

This month I should have been playing at the wedding of Georgia Gould, leader of Camden Council, whom I have known since she was a small child. She and her husband-to-be Alex Zatman, both proud Jews, threw me a pretty tough challenge– ‘bet you can’t play Hava Nagila.’ Georgia knows the best way to get me to do something is tell me I won’t be able to.

I googled ‘Hava Nagila on bagpipes’ and it was clear Georgia and Alex were not the first to think this famous Israeli folk song could be played on the pipes. There are all manner of renditions on there, from the tuneful to the hideous, depending on the quality of the player. I then googled ‘Hava Nagila bagpipe sheet music’, and yet again struck lucky.

Hava Nagila is hardly a tune written for the pipes, so it took a bit of time to get a proper feel for it, then practise and memorise it sufficiently to feel confident I would do Georgia and Alex proud.

Then along comes Covid Bloody 19 and the wedding is off for a year.

Hava Nagila on the bagpipes

Chapter 2: I played my bagpipes outside our house in north London on the first Thursday during which the country came together to clap for carers. I was particularly keen to do so because right next door to us is a Whittington Hospital nurse, Matilda ‘Sissy’ Bridge. She arrived home from work mid-clap, my daughter Grace spotted her and suggested I march her up the street while people were applauding. I did and she loved it and the film of it went viral –  in a good way, not the way of coronavirus.

I have played every Thursday since. On week 2, I noticed clapping on the pavement four doors down by our neighbours Maurice Monina, and his partner, Valerie Moss, also proud Jews, and I immediately thought on seeing them … I bet they’ve never heard Hava Nagila on the pipes before, and I bet they’d enjoy it.

They hadn’t; and they did. Dancing in the streets Gospel Oak style.

Next thing I know, I am getting requests emailed and posted on social media. Then Grace tells me she just bumped into Maurice at the corner shop and he asked if I could play Danny Boy. As it happens, I couldn’t. Back to Mr Google. ‘Bagpipe sheet music Danny Boy.’ There it is. Now I can.

Coming to a street near you, Thursday 8pm, Hava Nagila followed by Danny Boy, followed by the tune I wrote especially for Sissy, Our Neighbours, Our Nurses. Who would have thought it would take a crisis like Covid to get my bagpipe composing juices flowing? Have the pipes ever been kinder to my neighbours as now? Get good out of bad.

  • Alastair Campbell is Ambassador for Time to change, mental health campaign


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