Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty Images
Ibrahim Ahmad, the son of the owner of the Imperial Bagpipe Manufacturing Co., tests a bagpipe at a factory in Sialkot, Pakistan. The Pakistani city is the largest producer of the instruments most commonly associated with Scotland.
Ibrahim Ahmad, the son of the owner of the Imperial Bagpipe Manufacturing Co., tests a bagpipe at a factory in Sialkot, Pakistan. The Pakistani city is the largest producer of the instruments most commonly associated with Scotland. Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty Images
Bagpipes and Scotland? Aye, it's a natural association: Played for centuries, the instrument is especially identified with the Scottish military and traditional Scottish dress, tartan kilts and shawls.
But bagpipes and Pakistan? Nae, you say? Think again.
Turns out no place in the world manufactures more bagpipes than Pakistan. And no city in Pakistan makes more of them than Sialkot.
Naeem Akhbar is chief executive of Halifax and Co., a more than 70-year-old bagpipe manufacturer in Sialkot. Here, he plays the most expensive bagpipe his company produces, which sells for $700 in Pakistan and more than $1,600 in Europe and the U.S.
Naeem Akhbar is chief executive of Halifax and Co., a more than 70-year-old bagpipe manufacturer in Sialkot. Here, he plays the most expensive bagpipe his company produces, which sells for $700 in Pakistan and more than $1,600 in Europe and the U.S. Mike Shuster/NPR
Like so many other cities in Pakistan, the city of 1 million residents on Pakistan's eastern border with India-administered Kashmir is a cacophonous mix of cars and trucks, with smells of spices and sweat. Buses and auto-rickshaws spew thick white exhaust, children scream and workmen hammer.
Sialkot is also a little bagpipe crazy. There are more than 20 bagpipe and drum bands in the city.
And Halifax and Co. is just one of numerous bagpipe makers in Sialkot, says Naeem Akhbar, Halifax's CEO.
"Quantity-wise, Sialkot is No. 1 in the world to make the bagpipe," he says.
It's a complex instrument. The bag is an air reservoir. There are three drone pipes on top whose notes never change. And there's the chanter, the pipe below the bag where the melody is played.
"Every time when we play it, we have to tune it before playing," Akhbar says.
He brings out his top-of-the-line instrument. It sells for about $700 in Pakistan and more than $1,600 in Europe or the U.S.
Intertwined With Colonial History
Akhbar's grandfather, who made reeds for musical instruments, started the business back in the 1930s when this was all part of British India.
"One of the gentlemen from British forces, he came to his shop to get one of his bagpipes repaired. And [Akhbar's grandfather] said, 'You leave this bagpipe with me and come after three, four days and you take the bagpipe and I will repair it.' When he came back, [Akhbar's grandfather] has made the whole bagpipe new," he says.
Halifax and Co. made bagi pipes primarily for the colonial British Army until the British left India in 1947. After that, it catered to Pakistani and Indian clients.
A lathe operator in the workshop of Halifax and Company turns out wood spindles that will be part of the pipes in toy bagpipes.
A lathe operator in the workshop of Halifax and Company turns out wood spindles that will be part of the pipes in toy bagpipes. Mike Shuster/NPR
Naeem Akhbar turned the shop into an export business in the 1970s.
"Then I went abroad. I showed the bagpipe samples to the different Scottish people, to English people, and they gave me quite a lot of orders for those bagpipes because they were as good as the Scottish ones," he says, "but the price was almost 10 times lower than that price."
Akhbar has a few pipers among his employees. Their playing has something of an eastern sound to it. His bagpipes are made from premium materials, like black wood from Africa. Halifax also makes thousands of small or toy bagpipes for the tourist market in Scotland, and drums and other percussion instruments, mostly for school kids.
Multifaceted Manufacturing Center
Bagpipes are just one example of the unexpected things that Sialkot produces; the city also makes medical instruments sold all over the world and sporting equipment.
Zafar Iqbal Geoffrey's company makes kilts and shawls and jackets in many of the traditional tartan designs, like MacKenzie, Black Watch or Royal Stewart.
M.H Geoffrey and Co. celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. A century ago, it didn't start out making traditional Scottish kilts.
"At that time we started our business with the polo sticks," he says.
Only a few years ago, the company started manufacturing uniforms of a different sort — the dress coats worn by officers of the North and the South during the American Civil War, for Civil War reenactments.
Geoffrey first saw these coats on the Internet. When asked how much he knew about the American Civil War, he responds, laughing: "Not very much."
But he knows enough, he says, to manufacture a wide variety of coats worn at the time.
"Sack coats, frock coats, general frock coats, shell coats, so many items we are making," he says.
Sialkot's businesses are not without controversy. It is not uncommon for children to work in the city's back-alley workshops. But European importers won't buy from producers who use child labor.
In the manufacturing area of the city, there are signs everywhere: child labor strictly prohibited.