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Bagpipes play up a storm in Pakistan's boomtown

One Pakistani city has turned into a boom town by manufacturing and exporting a diverse array of products from bagpipes to replica Civil War uniforms. NBC's Amna Nawaz reports from Sialkot, Pakistan. 

SIALKOT, Pakistan – It's not a sound you expect to hear in Pakistan. And yet, here we stand, in the heart of the country's Punjab province, listening to the theme song from “The Titanic” played on traditional bagpipes.

The Pakistani teenager serenading us with the soaring wails of this iconic Scottish instrument was taught to play by his father, who was taught by his father before him.

And his bagpipe was made right here in Sialkot, a city of 3 million that's emerged as the world's leading manufacturer of the instrument. More than 100,000 locally made bagpipes are exported every year.

M.H. Geoffrey's factory is one of over a dozen in the city. His grandfather began the business when a British army officer, part of the colonial forces in the region in the 19th century, approached him to get his own bagpipe fixed.

"My grandfather not only fixed that one, he made two more!" Geoffrey said.

Today, Geoffrey's company makes and exports nearly 3,000 bagpipes a year.

In a narrow, high-ceilinged room covered in sawdust and lit by an over-sized skylight, five workers squat before their lathes, expertly churning out intricately carved bagpipe parts. When the power goes out, as it often does in Pakistan, a single generator spurts to life, filling the room with a deafening hum.

Farooq Naeem / AFP - Getty Images file

Ibrahim, the son of Farooq Ahmad, owner of the Imperial Bagpipe Manufacturing Company, tests a bagpipe at a bagpipe factory in Sialkot, Pakistan.

Every piece is handcrafted. Every bagpipe is hand-assembled. The cheapest bagpipes cost around $100; the most expensive, over $1,000. But Geoffrey, like many local businessmen, has also found other niche markets.

A combination of cheap textiles and skilled seamstresses prevalent in Sialkot led to the costume wing of his company. They now make, sell and export hundreds of replica U.S. Civil War uniforms every year.

The vintage, leather goods wing followed soon after – manufacturing everything from footballs to cleats.

“Anything you need made? We can make it here. Anything at all,” Geoffrey said.

Sialkot is an anomaly in Pakistan’s economy. In a country where taxes aren’t regularly collected, power companies can’t produce sufficient electricity, and the currency continues to lose value, Sialkot’s business community decided to go its own way.

Ten years ago, business leaders pooled their resources to construct the nation’s first privately funded airport. It now boasts the country’s longest runway and more than 30 domestic and international flights a week. Last year alone, more than 6,000 tons of locally produced exports were flown out.

Those products run the gamut from bagpipes and costumes to medical instruments and sporting goods.

Companies around the world have long tapped into Sialkot’s manufacturing prowess for access to cost-effective, high-quality goods. Nike, Adidas and Puma all have contracts here. A walk down one main market street reveals over a dozen medical instrument and surgical supply storefronts, all selling local goods.

Sheikh Abdul Majid, the chairman of the local chamber of commerce, said Sialkot’s exports brought in more than $1.4 billion last year, and the local economy had grown by 10-15 percent every year for the last five years.

The IMF estimates the national economy, by comparison, may grow by just 3.5 percent this fiscal year. Across the country, fewer than a million Pakistanis pay income taxes.

Majid said all local exports were taxed, with the money re-invested into the city.

Farooq Naeem / AFP - Getty Images file

A Pakistani laborer prepares components to make bagpipes at a bagpipe factory in Sialkot, on April 14, 2011.

“We’ve fixed roads, built schools, even put in sewage systems with the money we’ve been able to bring in,” he said. “And we plan to continue doing that, every year.”

For a new national government, elected largely on its promise to right an upended economy, the secrets to Sialkot’s success could prove useful.

Much voter frustration centered on 20-hour power cuts in parts of the country, a failure of the previous government to tackle corruption, and a lack of any clearly articulated plan to address either.

After just one month on the job, the new leaders’ plans for emergency cash infusions to the power sector and increasing tax revenues are beginning to take shape. However, economists say an economic revival on a national level could take years.

Back in Sialkot, Geoffrey said business had never been better. Bagpipe sales now make up half of their revenue, and with the addition of online sales, his costume orders have grown exponentially.

“My sons are now learning the business, helping me to run it,” Geoffrey said. “One day, this whole business will be given to the next generation – the fourth generation to run it.”

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