Music Bagpipe dreams

As one of SA's few working street musicians, Russell Hoke blows away downtown pedestrians

The cross streets of Market and Commerce are tremulous with the rush of visitors and San Antonio natives. They hustle from trolley to street corner, some plunging below onto the slices of sidewalk that form the River Walk, while others push their way downtown.

Near a group of stone benches in this area of downtown, also known as Convention Plaza, Russell Hoke and Michael Santos stand and sway to the visceral and loud sounds of their bagpipes, serenading the passersby with a taste of Scotland in South Texas. A few minutes into one of their songs, a group collects to watch them play and applauds when they finish. They eventually move on, and Hoke and Santos must connect with a new collection of pedestrians. That's the essence of being a street musician: Your audience doesn't stay in one place for long.

Piper Russell Hoke plays the bagpipes near the intersection of Alamo and Market streets. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

In a city not known for its street musicians, the mere fact that Hoke and Santos regularly serenade downtown pedestrians makes them a novelty. That they do it on the bagpipes - an instrument known to make Scottish traditionalists weep with joy and non-believers shriek in horror - qualifies them as courageous.

Hoke, 40, is a poet and folk musician, but his output in those fields tends to be sporadic. His love for piping, however, has been a consistent passion for almost 25 years. He began learning the bagpipes in 1981, and joined a piper group soon afterward.

"I played with the Alamo City Highlanders, who no longer exist, until 1986, and then I started playing here regularly," he says, referring to his post at Market and Commerce.

Hoke played solo for years, sometimes taking long sabbaticals, but always returning to San Antonio. "A few months, a couple of years dropped off, I lived in different states. I lived in Colorado, Utah for a while," he says. "I can't even remember all the places I've lived. Piping does that to your brain".

About six years ago, Santos was navigating his way downtown when he stumbled into one of Hoke's performances. "I came by on my skateboard, and I met him, doing what he does now. I became obsessed with him and I started coming here every night," Santos says. Santos was sufficiently impressed to pick up the bagpipes himself, and Hoke put Santos in touch with the Black Bexar Pipe Band, a San Antonio pipe-and-drum outfit that practices twice a week and competes in a couple of tournaments each year.

Hoke and Santos became a bagpiping street duo just a year-and-a-half ago. Their combined sound is joyous, accomplished, and consistently lighthearted. They watch each other for changes, grin at their occasional mistakes, as Hoke keeps time by stomping on the pavement with his right boot.

The group's sets consist mostly of traditional Scottish military tunes, marches, reveilles, and jigs, buoyed by the occasional request. During a recent Sunday afternoon, someone asks them to play "Greensleeves." Santos says the song isn't particularly well-suited to the pipes, but he kindly obliges as Hoke looks on.

Before Hoke discovered the bagpipes, his musical passion was the five-string banjo, an instrument he picked up in 1977 after seeing the movie Deliverance. He was drawn to the banjo because of its vaguely archaic quality, the sense of history found in its timbre. He also loved the fact that he could carry the banjo with him on long walks through the country.

The pipes appealed to him for similar reasons. He is deeply immersed in the history of his instrument. After playing the song "Cock of the North," Hoke talks about Harry Lunan. He explains that Lunan was part of the Gordon Highlanders, a group of Scottish soldiers who would play their pipes into battle. Hoke says Lunan played "Cock of the North" during World War I.

"He piped into German machine-gun fire and didn't get hit," Hoke says. "Guys all around him were dropping." The bravery of Lunan and his comrades in the Scottish Army did not go unnoticed by the enemy. "They called the Scottish soldiers 'Ladies from Hell,'" he says.

Hoke and Santos play a funeral song called "Flowers of the Forest," and Hoke dedicates it to the recently deceased John Burgess, the vaunted "King of the Highland Pipers," described by Hoke as "the most famous piper of the century."

A handful of people venture forward to talk about their Scottish heritage with Hoke and Santos. Hoke listens intently for a few seconds before choosing a tune they might appreciate.

Playing on street corners, Hoke has experienced everything from hostility to zeal. "One evening I was walking down here, and a group of guys asked me to play for them on top of the Menger Hotel. And I made $300 that night in about 20 minutes. They were drunk."

Occasionally, people can be less responsive to the pipes' charms. "Sometimes they'll say 'Shut up,'" Hoke says. "Or they'll cover their ears," Santos adds. Hoke concludes: "We figure, if you don't want to hear it, don't walk so close to the bagpipers. Walk on the other side of the street."

These instances are exceptions to the rule, Hoke takes pains to point out. "Very few people are not nice," he says. "Most people are extremely courteous and very generous. When there's nice weather and we're practiced up, it's paradise."