Brìghde Chaimbeul at Flow festival: why sitting in a dark room with the bagpipe soloist was the right decision

I know there's a party going on out there, but hear me out...

There were some spiteful clashes on the opening night of Helsinki’s Flow last night, but at least we’d been given time to explore the festival’s abandoned power plant site before being forced into difficult decisions.

The site of Suvilahti really is as hulking and impressive as I was hoping it would be, all chimney stacks and skeletal gas cylinder rigs and colossal brick buildings, down by the sea. This was meant to be Flow’s final year here, but a stay of execution will now allow 2024’s festival to go ahead in this unique space; definitely for the last time, I’m told.

Besides the main stage, there are two “tents” that feel more like semi-permanent sheds than the uncomfortable circus big tops we go for in the UK, various soundsystems squeezed between the industrial buildings (topped by Resident Advisor‘s techno-heavy Front Yard), and Flow’s quiet crowning glory, the Ballon 360 stage: a small, seated amphitheatre in the round, with a giant white orb suspended above the stage, wrapped in a thin LCD lighting rig to form its Saturn ring. Ambient jazzer Nala Sinephro is still demonstrating the beauty of the arena approaching 10pm, and is a large part of the clash dilemma. It’s almost impossible to leave her blissed out spiritual jazz band, but Jockstrap are no doubt about to be typically excellent in the Black Tent and are rumoured to be playing new material (reportedly, there were and they did), and there’s still time to see Suede wilfully not act their age on the main stage too. I didn’t choose them either, although I did get to see the final chorus of ‘Beautiful Ones’ sung perfectly from Brett Anderson‘s striding skinny white jeans (you can still find them) as I marched toward my destination – an almost pitch black room inside one of the giant brick buildings, to see bagpipe soloist Brìghde Chaimbeul: not so much ‘not my type on paper’ as ‘not my type on paper right now’. But The Other Sound x Sun Effects venue is evidently Flow’s experimental hideaway, and those of us who have left the obvious party outside (and there are plenty of us sat here in the gloom) are smugly rewarded by 45 minutes of… not what I was expecting.

Chaimbeul (who’s from the Isle of Skye) provided bagpipes on ‘Blood and Butter’ from Caroline Polachek‘s latest album Desire, I Want To Turn Into You. And earlier this year she performed shortly before Tilda Swinton took to the stage at SXSW. But the word ‘bagpipes’ comes with only one image – of a guy stood on the Royal Mile brazenly honking out ‘Scotland The Brave’ in the instrument’s one setting: LOUD. Chaimbeul doesn’t play the traditional Great Highland bagpipes, though; she’s a reviver of the Scottish smallpipes, which are responsible for the double-note drone that glues me to my seat. It’s a very mellow sound, that pulsates through the cavernous space, carrying with it a flutter of notes played impossibly quickly at times. Chaimbeul often sounds like she’s playing a sequencer rather than this 18th Century instrument, and more than once I crane my neck to check that she hasn’t triggered an electronic element. As far as I can tell, apart from on the closing track, she hasn’t.

It’s beautiful and baffling that one person can be making such a sound with so little, which, unlike our man on the Royal Mile, constantly sounds like it’s always a hilltop away.

Further surprises come when Chaimbeul begins to sing whilst playing, until I later learn that the smallpipes are bellow-powered. The songs she sings are all in Gaelic, and are all about death – one a folklore song about a Swan that only sings when it’s about to die, another sung from the point of view of a ghost. That Lankum‘s Radie Peat performed on Chaimbeul’s debut album The Reeling suddenly makes sense beyond their shared approach to combining ancient Celtic music with experimental drone, bringing traditional music to a new audience.

And so Chaimbeul ends on a piece that “was designed to the conjure the devil”, as the dormant back screen shows a close up of a tree and what’s this at the top? A big fat slug.

Unfortunately, I then had to return to the party that I hadn’t wanted to leave an hour ago. I’ll be surprised if I see anything else as unexpectedly gripping all weekend.