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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Perhaps you heard it above the bursts of fireworks and firearms when the sharp, singular sound of Scotland came rolling across the hills.
At that moment when the old year became the new, the pipes, the pipes were calling, from glen to glen and down somewhere near Irving and Unser NW.
That was Suzanne “Aden” Kemp and her bagpipes.
For the past eight years – weather permitting – Kemp, 33, has climbed atop her precariously pitched roof to serenade her Paradise Hills neighborhood at the stroke of midnight with her rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” played on her authentic Great Highland bagpipes.
The song and her bagpipes, it should be noted, originate in Scotland, where New Year’s Eve is known as Hogmanay. For Kemp, who is fond of her Scottish blood and traditions, risking life, limb, frigid air and falling celebratory projectiles for her Celtic midnight concert makes complete sense.
“It’s a traditional song to play on New Year’s Eve, and I felt I should share it,” said Kemp, a wry smile across her face. “It’s just something that needs to be done.”
Tradition is as much a part of the bagpipes as the hefty pull of breath needed to make the instrument groan to life. With the exception of her rooftop performances, Kemp wears the traditional uniform of a piper – tartan kilt, a cap called a glengarry, a tie she picked up in England, clan crests, shoelaces tied around her socks up to her lower calves.
Kemp started learning about all that at the wee age of 12, inspired by her pubescent crush on Leonardo DiCaprio and his character Jack in “Titanic.”
She loved when Jack took the aristocratic Rose below deck to party with the third-class folk, who knew how to get down to the ebullient strains of the pipe and drum.
“I thought even then that was my kind of party, my kind of environment,” she said. “And so I thought one way to be a part of that was to learn to play the bagpipes.”
She got her chance in 1999 when a local band offered free bagpipe lessons.
After mastering the basics, she continued her training abroad in 2003 while visiting her grandparents in Coventry, England. There, she was mentored by legendary piper Jim Tudhope of the Royal British Legion Triumph Pipe Band and Guy Rylett and Ryan Lessels of the Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band in Ireland.
Back in the United States, Kemp continued her studies, tooting under the tutelage of Piper Major Bruce Hitchings at the U.S. School of Piping and Drumming in, of all places, Flagstaff, Arizona, in 2009, and through private tutoring via Skype with Stuart Cassells, he of the famed bagrock band (yes, there is such a thing) Red Hot Chilli Pipers in Scotland.
Just as she expected, playing bagpipes was her kind of party. And, for a while, it was her everything.
She played for her high school choir, played at her high school graduation. She played at any event, from funerals to weddings to birthday parties to parades. She played for city functions and for movie stars. She played at Celtic festivals and all sorts of St. Patrick’s Day gatherings (never mind that she plays Scottish, not Irish, bagpipes). She played along the Rio Grande and on the banks of the Nile in Egypt.
She played with the Phoenix Pipe Band, the New Mexico Fire and Police Pipes and Drums and the Mac-Tire of Skye Pipes and Drums in Albuquerque.
She earned her nickname Aden after piping the ditty “Barren Rocks of Aden” during a radio performance.
She’s a Grade 2 piper, the second-highest ranking. Someday, she said, she hopes to reach Grade 1.
But she’s been a bit busy with other things besides blowing. She works as a high school substitute teacher and volunteers with the University of New Mexico’s Refugee Well-being Project, which pairs students like her with refugee families to help them navigate their new communities.
She recently graduated from UNM with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and plans to work toward becoming a therapist who specializes in caring for refugees.
This sense of globalism and her love of other cultural traditions – such as playing bagpipes – was ingrained in her early by her globe-trotting parents, who met when both taught English to pilots in Japan and took her and her brother along as they traveled.
“I’m really a big supporter of multicultural stuff,” she said. “It’s why I feel it’s almost a duty I have to share the Scottish culture of the bagpipes with as many people as I can.”
As we roll into a new year, let us open ourselves up to unfamiliar sounds, traditions and cultures that do not have to usurp our own but can add color and community and a little “Auld Lang Syne” to our worlds.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
Find Suzanne at Bagpiper Suzanne “Aden” Kemp on Facebook.