I challenge you to name one traditional "folk" music that has been adopted worldwide as enthusiastically as Irish trad. I suppose other than American pop music and western "classical" music, Irish traditional music is peerless in its wide spread adoption by musicians around the world. With that, it should be no surprise that some of the best makers of musical instruments used in Irish trad are found not only in Ireland but in such countries as North America, Germany and yes, even China.
Xu Hang (Or "Andy" as he likes to be called of Galeon Flutes & Whistles) from Beijing, China started instrument making back in 2008 - inspired by John Loiacono, a Great Highland Bagpipe player who was teaching English in Beijing at the time. Intrigued by his excellent flutes & whistles that we've now been carrying for a couple years now, I asked Andy if he'd be willing to share his story with us. He happily obliged and sent back a wonderful timeline of his Irish trad and instrument making journey!
Thank you Andy!
I was born in Wu Han, China (well, it’s hard to believe the city got world-wide-well-known in such way).
In middle/high school, I was attracted by the Norwegian band Secret Garden, especially by one magical instrument which is so expressive - the uilleann pipes. Like so many people, I could not distinguish between Great Highland Bagpipes (GHB) and the uilleann pipes at that time.
Besides Secret Garden, I also like albums like Greenwoods: Upon a Celtic Path by Paul Machlis. These were classified as “Celtic New Age” as there were no trad Irish music albums in China at all.
I moved to Beijing, to attend university and major in Applied Physics. As the internet became popular, I was able to find more info about the two types of pipes. I found some albums of GHB marching band but finally realized that was not the type I was looking for. But still, I couldn't find any uilleann pipe albums; what I could find were albums like Celtic twilight, etc.
As the director of the university radio station, I used my platform to play lots of Celtic music through the campus loudspeakers.
I began work with a company that produces radio station devices / hi-fi music players 'till today.
During this time I got to know a New Jersey GHB piper named John Loiacono who was teaching English in Beijing. John had learned GHB making and made himself a set of pipes. We talked a lot about pipe making and I was planning on my future path of uilleann pipes.
The first St. Patrick’s Day activity in China was held in Beijing, and John was the lead piper (and the only piper) of the marching.
Great Highland Bagpiper John Loiacono at First St. Patrick's Day March in Beijing.
Ciarán Somers playing Uilleann Pipes at Ireland Week in Beijing, China
Irish Traditional Music Session with Uilleann Piper Ciarán Somers
John Loiacono (right) with Ciarán Somers
On that day I saw the real uilleann pipes or the first time as Ciarán Somers was invited for a live show and then a session. At the time I didn’t know his name or who he was. So, it was quite a surprise when we got to know each other in 2017 to realize that we had met 9 years earlier!
After gathering enough info from the internet, I started my pipe-making journey. I started with a chanter using David Daye’s brass tubing kit - bellows and bag were self-made with some very simple tools.
My First Attempt at Uilleann Pipe Making
The practice set worked properly (if you were not talking about sound quality or intonation), but the reed didn't hold up as Beijing was too dry and reed tweaking was quite hard for a newbie. After some tries on reed making, I decide to leave pipe making aside for the time being.
Not long after this, John introduced me to a Chinese whistle player - Jay, who had been playing whistles for two years and I got my first whistle from a web store - a Feadog D.
After I taught myself to play with the Feadog D, I wanted to try on more keys, but there were not many choices, or they were too expensive for me. Then I found the famous article: The "Low-Tech" Whistle: How to Make a PVC Whistle.
I tried making some whistles with different keys, then I translated the guide to Chinese and posted it on my blog. This got a lot of attention. Some people made their own ones but more people asked me to make or sell whistles to them.
My Earliest DIY Irish Whistles
And that is how my whistle business began! The first ones were sold for about 20-30 USD.
Irish PVC Whistles Sold in 2009
The brand name Galeón came from my favorite childhood PC game called Uncharted Waters 2 which is about the age of exploration. Galeón is a multi-deck sailing ship used by the Spanish as armed cargo carriers. Why using a Spanish name for Irish whistles? Because there were no Irish sailing ships in that game!
A huge milestone in the Irish music history of China, Joanie Madden came to Beijing for a live concert. Before the concert we contacted her and got permission to watch her band rehearsal.
I gave JM a new model of my low D PVC whistle, she liked it but told me the holes are too separated. She encouraged me a lot on whistle making also.
Joannie Madden Playing a PVC Low Whistle of Mine
Jay with Joannie Madden's Irish Tin Whistle Collection (My PVC Whistle Included)
Joannie Madden Band Rehearsal
Me / Charlee (Bodhrán Player) / Joannie Madden / Jay
We had a gathering in an Irish pub that evening after the concert, around 20 fans from all over China came and we played lots of tunes together. That was Joanie's only trip to China so far, but it had a huge impact.
After Concert Gathering with Joannie Madden
During that year I upgraded my whistle design with some machined parts. This enabled me to create a headpiece with higher precision.
Next Version of My PVC Irish Whistle With Machined Head
I resumed my pipe making, and upgraded the bellows design, still using David Daye’s chanters.
Those pipes were totally OK for beginners, and I sold about 15 practice sets during 2011-2012 (all inside China), but due to lacking of pipe tutors and reed issues, almost all the customers gave up on the pipes, or turned to the cheap Pakistani makes which was quite frustrating so I gave up on pipe making again.
At the end of that year, I began making aluminum whistles, with a separated Delrin headpiece. It’s a 3 layer "Oreo" structure fastened with a brass pin. These are made with a high-precision CNC machine, which is outsourced from a good friend who is running a small workshop.
Another milestone in the Irish music history of China was the forming of a trad Irish band named Steerage, It’s the only ITM band in China to this day.
- Jay (Whistle & Flute)
- Charlee (Bodhrán / Mandolin / Bouzouki / Banjo)
- Xin (Fiddle)
- Wang (Guitar)
- Hou (Keyboard Accordion)
- Me (Audio/Visual Tech and Whistle/Pipes on Occasion)
2011 Steerage Performance in Irish Pub
Of all the band members, I’m the only one who had to keep office hours, and my whistle making was also taking a lot of time. So, the other players made more progress than me on music playing.
Saint Patrick's Day Session with Steerage
Ciorras and Davy Spillane came for a concert, and then lecture on Irish music & instruments in the Central Conservatory of Music of China
Another couple photos (below) from another live show by Ciorras and Davy Spillane. The two bands had a great conversation afterwards.
In this year I expanded my product line to include the Tweaked Series which is similar to the Freeman’s Bluebird, and is great for beginners. My Aluminum Series is made with better quality. I also made a small batch of brass high whistles.
This was a quite a busy year for Steerage. We were invited to more activities like the embassy dinner and Irish Ball Beijing. We had more live pub gigs and started accepting commercial performances and taking radio interviews.
Jay (the whistle player) started to give online and offline whistle classes in Beijing. Through today he already has had over one thousand students, but considering the huge population here, it is still a small amount of interest.
During this time I made more pitches for my aluminum whistle series, and a prototype wooden whistle.
Wooden Whistle Prototype
I hosted an Irish Music Salon and gave a lecture about sound characteristics of different whistle designs. Jay held a whistle contest and a live show.
The first sold Hybrid blackwood whistle. Hybrid means the lower body is wooden while upper body and head are Delrin.
Steerage with Ambassador at the Embassy
Steerage's Tech Setup at the Embassy
Japanese flute teacher/player Hatao began carrying my instruments on his website.
Hatao and Akio came to Beijing for a whistle workshop and then a pub concert.
Made some Pratten flute prototypes based on Terry McGee's plans.
My First Irish Flute Prototype
Started supplying my instruments to Tawu in Taiwan who is running a music class/store in Taipei.
Tin Whistles at Tawu's Shop
Tawu's Shop in Taipei
My Irish flute design becomes more refined.
3-Piece Pratten Flutes
I started running a WeChat forum. From 2016 'til now, I've written 120 articles on a variety of Irish music related topics including whistle reviews, Irish culture, instruments, music theory, session and concert notices etc. I have also translated several Chiff & Fipple interviews. Now I have nearly 2000 followers, so I'm able to connect with real whistle/flute fans here in China.
Visit Hatao’s whistle shop in Kyoto Japan
Irish Flutes & Low Whistles at Hatao's Shop
More Instruments at Hatao's Shop
I change my Hybrid whistle design to only use delrin on the head.
2017 Model Wooden Hybrid Whistle
This year I also made a 4-piece Pratten flute with lined headjoint, started making a Firth Pond design and started doing business with Ciarán Somers as well.
Since late 2018, we have had a regular session in Beijing 1-2 times a month. The session is organized by Siobhan Keane, who is the daughter of Tommy Keane and has been working in Beijing as a foreign teacher or two years.
Hatao and Shimoda Concert in Beijing
2018 Wooden Whistle Design
Embassy Activities with Siobhan / Jay / Me
Met Niall Keegan and he tried and liked my 4-section Pratten
Jay headed off to the University of Limerick for the one-year Masters program in ITM performance. His mentor is Dr. Niall Keegan. We’re expecting that Jay will bring back the real Irish music from his time in Limerick.
Session with Kevin Rowsome Family
Charlee opened a bodhran class in Beijing.
Visited Hatao’s second instrument shop in Tokyo. Photo with shop manager and my whistles & flutes in the background.
Making Aluminum Tuning Slide
Fine Reamed Inner Bore
Hybrid Whistles Before Final Polishing