Ally Band

by Ry Beville

How does anyone get so good seemingly overnight?

When Ally and her band took the stage at Snow Splash nearly two years ago, when she began playing her bagpipe furiously over the rock chords, it was as if she were emerging from some creative chrysalis. After she finished the first song, the crowd roared and she looked genuinely surprised, as if she didn’t deserve such resolute approval. That was probably the last flash of the Ally of before, a young musician comfortable enough with her instrument but not yet with an audience. That show also came at the beginning of a new direction for her, with a good back-up rock band and original songs instead of some of the more traditional performances she had been doing, often with other Japanese bagpipers.

It’s understandable that some of these ‘lads’ would strive for authenticity, having brought to Japan an instrument so legendary and so closely tied to Scotland and its culture. But playing in the traditional ways left little room for innovation. That’s where Ally had been heading all along, perhaps—into a music of her own.

That she would eventually be tearing down the roof at a festival known for hosting great musicians was not at all evident when I first saw her play some time in late 2006. She was bartending part-time at an underground Irish pub on the outskirts of Tokyo. To our surprise she came from around the bar one night and suddenly performed on the bagpipe. She was a wreck, sweating as much from nervousness as the physical demands of the instrument. It was, in a way, endearing—to see a young Japanese woman, an obvious novice, trying so hard on an instrument most people would associate with old, kilted men. It was also inspiring. Then I found out she was studying to become a veterinarian. I snapped a portrait of her (above), thinking how special this individual was, how cool it would be ten years later to have an early picture of a star.

It’s six years later, she has her veterinarian license, she has just released her debut album, and the time seems ripe to tell her story.

Ally reminisces about a moment in 2004 when a friend of hers who played guitar in a punk band whipped out a bagpipe and started playing during a live show.

“I was really young, I didn’t have any clue what I wanted to do, but I did have an interest in England. When I saw that bagpipe, my path was clear.”

The timing was good for her. She had already entered university and decided to go on the exchange program to England.

“I looked everywhere for a bagpipe instructor, contacting any leads I could get. Finally, about a month later, someone replied, telling me about the National Piping Centre. I took a 30-minute train there, walked right in and said, ‘I want to learn.’ The receptionist was skeptical at first, but then I told her I was there for a year and wanted to study weekly, so they introduced a teacher.”

Before students get a real bagpipe, they practice on a chanter for some time. Ally’s campus was spacious, allowing her to practice daily, sometimes very early in the morning.

“Then one day my teacher told me I was ready for my own bagpipe. I think that if I had been there longer, it probably would have taken longer, but he knew I was leaving and he wanted me to practice on the real thing. At first, I had trouble making any sound at all come out of it. But just about the time I was supposed to head back to Japan, I had learned about two or three standards. I thought, ‘I can work with these.’”

Ally’s parents didn’t know about her bagpipe pursuits and were reasonably shocked when she came home with the instrument. Luckily, her father had been a musician and said, “Well, at least you did something interesting over there.”

She briefly quit school and then reapplied in the Kanto area, deciding to become a veterinarian. In Tokyo there were others playing bagpipe, fellow passionate hobbyists from whom she learned a little more.

“But for the most part, I just taught myself and practiced on my own. I started practicing like mad, close to three or four hours a day. There wasn’t much else I was doing besides studying at school and practicing bagpipe. For me, bagpipe was more fun than screwing around with friends. Even now, I still play about three hours a day. I work, eat, go to the studio, then go home. It’s something I’ve grown accustomed to.”

She began groping with original material around the time she was working and performing at the bar.

“But the first song I really thought worth recording was this year. I feel like it’s all been just practice until now. I was playing just to perform for others, but recently decided I wanted to take it to another level, with ad lib playing, that kind of stuff. People said it would take seven years to master the bagpipe. It did.”

Her aspirations for a CD go back earlier, to around 2008, when she started performing in Shibuya with another band.

“I started that band only to better bring people to the venue. But when you do a live show, people ask if you have a CD. I wanted to preserve the music in some kind of form.”

The Ally Band released its first album in March of this year. Live, she gets support from guitar and drums, though the CD has a few extra instruments. It’s a generally fast-paced work with power chords laying down harmony.

“We sold less than I expected. We had a decent label but I realized that we have to do more live shows. Then people will buy it; they’ll think, yeah, that’s good, I want that!”

Ally is presently focusing on collaboration with other artists. She notes that the bagpipe is in B#, but that an electric bagpipe allows her to play in other keys. She’s especially interested in jamming with a didgeridoo player.”

“I’m 29-years-old. I have to play with others. I have to learn.”

I point out how much time and opportunity she still has ahead of her. She gives a slightly innocent, almost sad nod.

“Kore kara da yone (It’s all from here on out, isn’t it?)”

She once again seems like the Ally of old. But one song on the bagpipe would prove that very wrong.



















こうしてAlly BandのファーストCDが今年の3月にリリースされた。ライブではギターとドラムがサポートで入るが、CDにはそれ以外の楽器も加わっている。パワーコードを使ったテンポの速い楽曲が多いのが特徴だ。





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