Chicago’s (and perhaps the world’s) only blues/funk bagpiper, Honey Blo studied woodwinds with jazz musician Duke Payne when Payne was his math teacher at Betsy Ross Elementary School. When he saw Payne play the bagpipes during a school assembly, he was hooked. “He was teaching and playing music,” he remembers, “and he had all the teachers, the women, after him. So that kind of influenced me when I saw him playing the bagpipes, too. I bought my own bagpipes, and I started doing some lessons with him. I used to see bagpipes with the Irish and Scottish, but I never thought that I would be able to take it to the level that I took it.”
He stayed in touch with his mentor, sneaking into jazz clubs before he was legal to see him perform and continuing to ask him for pointers. “Basically they were verbal lessons,” he says, “because I learned from a master—the master will never tell you their secrets. So a lot of stuff I had to learn on my own.”
Despite the instrument’s limited tonal and harmonic range, Honey Blo coaxes a remarkable range of taut, sonically intense textures from it, perfectly melding its drone-based modal sound with the blues scale. In his hands, in fact, the pipes sound for all the world as if it they could have originated in Africa and migrated to the New World on slave ships, like the banjo.
Now 53, Honey Blo—who also plays flute, clarinet, and tenor sax and sings—plays around town on a regular basis, mostly “corporate gigs” and private parties, although he’s also been known to pop into clubs like Lee’s Unleaded and the Taste Entertainment Center to sit in with the band. He’s recorded five CDs, some of which are available on his Web site.
For aspiring pipers with a taste for funk and blues—especially kids who might otherwise be tempted to veer off onto more dangerous paths—he conducts workshops at the offices of Third World Press (7822 S. Dobson; call the press at 773-324-0348 to set up an appointment). “So many of them,” he says, “their parents fell off, they don’t have guidance. My grammar school teacher guided me to jump into this music business, and that’s what we need—a lot of brothers and sisters to influence a lot of these younger brothers and sisters to get into the music business and do positive things with the music.”