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Pakistani bagpipe business a throwback to colonial times

When it came time for a musical demonstration of the bagpipe maker’s finest product, the player wasn’t wearing traditional Scottish highland dress but rather Pakistan’s national outfit, a salwar kameez and sandals.
The piper produced a wince-inducing series of squalls and sharp honking sounds. “He needs more lung power,” joked Naeem Akhtar, chief executive of Halifax and Co., a musical instrument maker in this manufacturing city in northeastern Pakistan.
Bagpipe playing is largely a lost art in Pakistan, a remnant of its colonial past, but bagpipe manufacturing is not. Sialkot claims to be the largest exporter of bagpipes outside of Scotland.
Halifax’s small factory makes musical instruments — African-style drums and Irish folk harps among them — and wholesales them to countries around the world, but it all began with bagpipes.
Thirty-eight years ago Akhtar’s father started making reeds for the bagpipes. It is a family affair; he has two sons who are already in the business.
The signature Scottish wind instrument harkens back to the country’s imperial past. Prior to 1948, Pakistan was a part of British India. British regiments stationed in Sialkot included soldiers’ bands that played bagpipes they had brought with them from Scotland.
To avoid the costly and time-consuming process of sending a broken instrument back to Scotland to be repaired, one British soldier brought his bagpipe to the local market where Akhtar’s father was working and asked if the artisan could fix it. One week later, in Akhtar’s telling, his father made an exact copy of the bagpipes and challenged the soldier to pick out which one was the original.
Bagpipes made in Scotland are expensive to produce and are geared toward professional bagpipers. The ones made in Pakistan cost far less and are marketed for tourists and casual bagpipe fans. Halifax also makes toy bagpipes for children.
Sialkot is a bustling manufacturing hub where the per capita income is reportedly nearly double the national per-capita income.
Akhtar and other businessmen say it is a model of privatization and entrepreneurial initiative.
Rather than relying on government funds, local businessmen joined together to construct an international airport that boasts 32 flights a week — three for cargo. Operating since 2007, it is the first international airport in the country built by private citizens and a measure meant to boost business.
Successful industries in the region include those that manufacture medical and surgical instruments, leather jackets, martial arts equipment, soccer balls and of course, bagpipes. The reeds are all made from cane imported from France. The tartan cloth is domestic Pakistani stock.
Today, 65 to 70 people work in the Halifax factory, which makes more than 200 different items.
It is smaller companies like this that may suffer most if there is a mass exodus of Western retailers doing business in the region as some fear. The Walt Disney Co. has instructed its vendors and licensees to begin transitioning out of “high risk countries” like Pakistan and Bangladesh over fears of unacceptably low safety standards.
Disney’s decision came as a result of a fire in Pakistan’s financial capital Karachi last September that killed 262 people and another fire in the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka, in which 112 people were killed.
Two weeks ago another devastating blow: A factory in Bangladesh collapsed and more than 500 bodies have been removed from the rubble so far. Dozens of people are still missing.
But Halifax proudly gave a tour of its facilities and insisted its workers are treated well.
The local factories have more jobs than employees, factory owners say, so they recruit in other communities and they train workers as young as age 15 to take up the trades.
“Everyone has money in Sialkot, even the factory workers,” CEO Akhtar said.
But daily power blackouts known as load-shedding have plagued factories for the past three years. Outages in the industrial city currently last about 16 hours a day and the increased costs have been bad for business owners. Once a price is listed in a catalog or agreed upon with a client, it’s impossible to raise prices, businessmen said, so factory owners absorb the estimated 10 percent profit loss from energy shortages.
“Everyone in the export business is facing the same problem,” Akhtar said.
There isn’t much demand for bagpipes here — the only players are ceremonial players in the Pakistani military or private band members that play at weddings or other occasions. The wedding players are all retired army men, he said.
The instruments Halifax makes are not meant for local markets, said Akhtar.
“You can’t buy bagpipes in Pakistan.”

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