On St. Patrick's day, the Cleveland Firefighters Memorial Pipes and Drums, a bagpipe band, will arrive at St. Patrick's Church on Bridge Ave. to kick off the busiest day of their year. The 35 pipers and drummers, outfitted in traditional kilts, will play the 9:30 a.m. mass, then scoot via chartered bus to the Cleveland Fire Department's Memorial Service at Erieside and Lerner Dr. at 11:30. Immediately afterwards, they'll head downtown for the parade for what is considered their flagship performance. They'll grace the Arcade at E. 4th at 2:15, descend to the Flat Iron Cafe at 3:15, play the 4:30 mass at St. Colman's on W. 65th, scamper back to the Flats to play Carney's Top o' the Flats at 6 p.m. and then wrap things up with a rousing set at the Great Lakes Brewing Company at 7 p.m. Then their day really gets started.
Throughout the day, band members admit that they'll partake in more than an occasional beer, but they say everyone else's drunkenness is more important to them on St. Patrick's Day.
"We always say the drunker you are, the better we perform," says Pat Slife, the band's musical director. He adds that last year's parade was the first time he'd ever seen a grown man pick up and throw a piece of actual horseshit at someone else's face. "It's pretty fun to watch."
The Memorial Pipes and Drums, established in the fall of '91, was and still is intended foremost to "honor the fallen."
Pat Logan, the band's pipe major and one of its original founding members -- he's a Cleveland firefighter who intends to retire next year -- says that playing memorial services are far and away the most important thing the band does.
"We played for the Barack and Hillary debate, back in '07," Logan says outside Hoopple's bar, where the band has assembled during their weekly rehearsal slot. "But if a firefighter had died and there was a memorial service, we would've packed our bags and left in heartbeat."
Logan says the most memorable performance in the band's history was probably in 1999, when they traveled to Worcester, Mass., to honor six firefighters who had died in service there.
"There were firefighters who came from all over the world," Logan says. "Thirty-five thousand of us. We were walking 10 abreast across the city streets."
Many of the group's current members weren't particularly musical when they joined. The only requirement, says Kenny Rybka, the band's manager, is that they have an interest in the music and are willing to learn.
Rybka is an elaborately (almost Victorianly) muttonchopped dude. He says that most of the pipers take lessons from a man named Sandy Haim, who's something of a legend in bagpiping circles. Haim's a Scotsman who was born in 1929 and became a pipe major for the British army back in the 50s. Now, he teaches pipes and makes reeds at his home in North Royalton. Even some of the group's most tenured pipers still take lessons from him.
Pipe Sergeant Ben Dockstader explains the traditional Scottish instrument in the warmth of a Hoopple's booth: Basically there's a bag full of air which can be regulated and allows the player to produce continuous sound. Of the pipes themselves, which sprout from the bag not unlike arrows in a carcass, one is a "chanter" which is played like a recorder and creates the melody. The others are "drones" which drone nonstop on single harmonizing notes and create that classic (and much-parodied) bagpipe sound.
Slife says that the band has a wide assortment of sets that they perform -- a set is usually three tunes performed in succession --- ranging from "traditional" to "fun." Asked if they played any pop, or at least something other than Irish folk tunes and ceremonial dirges, Slife proudly says that they do a mean version of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," after which a minor squabble ensues about whether or not the diddy appeared in Disney's The Lion King. It did.
Slife says that when they rehearse on Tuesday nights, they generally use "practice chanters" which are considerably quieter than the blasting pipes.
"Otherwise, we'd all go insane," he says.
But this St. Patrick's Day, they'll all be in their element, proud of their city and their profession. Not all of the group's members are firefighters -- Rybka says that according to bylaws, at least 51 percent must be, though in Cleveland the percentage is closer to 80 -- but they all deeply honor those who do serve. This year, in addition to their frenetic schedule on March 17, they'll be playing with the Cleveland Pops Orchestra at Severance Hall on the 15th for the first time in the band's history.
Right now they're sitting at Hoopple's, enjoying one another's company. Though they swing some high-profile gigs, and are regarded as one of the finest bagpiping outfits in the city, they aren't (and don't pretend to be) professional musicians.
"This is a hobby for all of us," says Rybka, "We've got to pay $1,000 for our pipes, a few hundred for our kilts. That's out of our own pockets. We wouldn't do it if we didn't love it."