Norfolk bagpipe band raising money for Scotland world championships with Saturday performance

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NORFOLK — On a cold Thursday night, 10 bagpipers of the Siren City Pipe Band sat in folding chairs around card tables on the third floor of the First Lutheran Church.

Everyone held thin practice pipes — chanters — shaped like middle school recorders. Their gaze was fixed on binders of sheet music.

“Let’s get into the grace note,” Chaz Stuart announced. “OK, lock fingers. Let’s get it.”

The chanters sounded nearly the same as real bagpipes: Highland notes poured into the church’s rec-room air.

They were practicing for an important gig on Saturday. If the Siren City Pipe Band is to represent Norfolk this year at the World Pipe Band Championships, it needs money — an additional $30,000 for Glasgow, Scotland, hotel costs.

The band is performing at a Robert Burns Supper at the Sheraton Downtown Norfolk Waterside Hotel. Sponsored by the Virginia Arts Festival, the gala’s proceeds will go toward the band’s trip in August.

Traditional “Burners” dinners are held across the country on or near the Jan. 25 birthday of the celebrated Scottish poet Robert Burns, who lived from 1759-96. Poems are read, kilts worn and bagpipes played.

Scotland’s national dish, haggis — boiled sheep stomach stuffed with minced pudding made of sheep liver, heart and lungs, mixed with beef or mutton — will be eaten.

“And toasted,” said Liam Nunes, the band’s music director.

No Robert Burns Supper is complete without a toast to haggis. At such affairs, Burns’ 1786 poem, “Address to a Haggis,” is often read:

“Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face / Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!”

Nunes, 26, has heard the lines hundreds of times. His mother emigrated from Scotland before he was born. She raised him in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, where she soaked his childhood in traditions from her homeland. The family frequently traveled to Highland Game festivals featuring caper tosses and Nunes watched as burly men competed to throw large poles the farthest. But, he was always much more interested in the games’ musicians — with bagpipes.

He started at 10 and competing by 14. His mom would drive an hour to Worcester for his pipe band teams’ rehearsals.

“It’s really a lot more like a sport than it is a band.”

Scottish pipe bands are composed of about 60% bagpipers and 40% percussionists who play tenor and bass drums, Nunes said. The competition music is similar to a mix of jazz and military-style drumming — the skirl of skirling bagpipes and snare drums.

“We spend 365 days a year trying to perfect about five to 10 minutes of music.”

In 2017, Nunes was transferred to Norfolk working as a Navy Seebee and quickly started reaching out online to any bagpipers or groups. He and three others founded the Siren City Pipe Band in 2021.

Now, the band has about 30 members, offers discounted and free bagpipe lessons, supports its youth band of a dozen children, City of Norfolk Pipe Band, and has reached a skill level that Nunes believes is high enough to compete in the home of the bagpipe.

Band members are paying for their own plane tickets. Tickets are no longer on sale for the Robert Burns Supper but the band is open for other bookings and donations: sirencitypipeband.com.

If they raise enough money to compete, Nunes said:

“I think we’re ready for it.”

Colin Warren-Hicks, 919-818-8138, colin.warrenhicks@virginiamedia.com