Nova Scotia

Man hopes North Preston youth march to beat of pipe and drum band

Jermaine Downey hopes his lifelong passion and enthusiasm for the bagpipes will rub off on young people in North Preston, N.S., as he works to start up a pipe and drum band.

Jermaine Downey sees the band as a way to inspire young people to make good life choices

Jermaine Downey shows off his chops

5 years ago
Duration 0:49
Jermaine Downey is starting up a pipe and drum band in North Preston, N.S.

Jermaine Downey hopes his lifelong passion and enthusiasm for the bagpipes will rub off on young people in North Preston, N.S., as he works to start up a pipe and drum band.

He sees the band as a way to inspire young people to make good life choices.

"I think music builds discipline," Downey told CBC's Mainstreet. "It's no coincidence that music builds leaders. I've met leaders through music and I've developed leaders through music."

He realizes a pipe band won't be a cure-all for the social problems that affect peoples' lives, but he thinks bagpipes and pipe bands are a powerful force for good.

"I've seen the ramifications of not using peace and peace concepts. I've seen youth die," said Downey, 44, who has worked in the military and in Ontario's prison system.

Getting the band together

In about two weeks, he hopes to have the first gathering of potential pipe band members in North Preston.

Downey said there are at least three young people interested and he hopes several more will come forward.

Jermaine Downey says a friend once called him the 'Jackie Robinson of bagpipes.' (Diane Paquette/CBC)

His goal is to make it to the World Pipe Band Championships in 2018 and it doesn't matter to him whether his team is actually playing the bagpipes or sitting in the bleachers. He just wants to get there.

Downey first discovered the bagpipes when he was about five while attending the Natal Day Parade in Dartmouth.

"Remember those balloons you used to get with the elastic? My mom used to get me one of those. I would carry that balloon all day. I'd bring it home and make a set of bagpipes out of it ... I'd use twigs and sticks and I'd march around the yard until that puppy broke," he said.

Bagpipes 'are in his blood'

When Downey was 12, he made a phone call to Citadel Hill and inquired how he could learn to play the bagpipes, an instrument he often drew pictures of as a child.

He then joined the cadets and perfected his craft in its band.

Downey's commitment to the bagpipes has never wavered despite having no Scottish heritage, but he feels the bagpipes are "in his blood."

In the early years that he played in pipe bands, he was the only black person among the players.

"A friend of mine just recently — we were out having a few pints — he referred to me as the Jackie Robinson of bagpipes," said Downey. 

"I found that to be quite interesting. That was a pretty big feat at the time."

'The power of bagpipes'

In fact, Downey said the bagpipes have kept him alive more than once. 

As a young person, he was overweight. He eventually lost the weight, but developed an eating disorder, which landed him in hospital as an adult.

"My doctor looked at me and said, 'If you don't get out of here, after being in the hospital for six months, you're going to die.' So I had to figure something out," said Downey.

"The only thing that saved me was my bagpipes and the motivation to get back on them. Is that the power of bagpipes? I think so. It can do much in a person's life."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Diane Paquette is based in Halifax as a producer for Mainstreet Nova Scotia.

now