DRUMMING UP THE PAST

Diarmuid Breatnach

I got a phone call today – my drum has been found.  I was astonished.

Three or four years ago, my drum went into hiding. No, I don’t mean “I went into hiding in my drum” – I’m not talking Cockney rhyming slang or Romany. I mean a real drum, a music-rhythm drum. It’s a dholak — looks like a smallish bongo in shape but both ends are played and it is South Asian in origin. It was bought for me many years ago from a London charity shop.

Why did my dholak go into hiding? I am not sure. Drums are sensitive; sensitive to vibrations. Yes of course, they are about vibration, that’s how they are made to produce sound. But more than that – they also pick up vibration. The skin or membrane, stretched tight, can pick up vibrations of machines, wind or even speech, which resonate inside the hollow instrument. Perhaps I was giving off bad vibrations. Or more likely not supplying enough vibrations at all.

Dholak
A dholak, very similar to mine. (Photo source: Internet)

It is true that I had stopped playing her and taking her to music session. I knew I wasn’t a great player but I thought I was OK – most of the time. Percussion gave me something to do at a session, to be part of it when I wasn’t singing. Then something happened that shattered the veneer of confidence. And there was a session I used to go to where I played it but I stopped going there; I can’t even remember why now.

The percussion illness began years ago in London. It was an infection that spread from my tapping feet to my tapping fingers and to rapping on wooden tables; there were nights I got carried away and came home with sore and skinned knuckles.

The infection spread and I took to playing the violin cases of tolerant musicians at London sessions. Or occasionally an accordion case. And then the dholak arrived. I played her indoors for months before I dared bring her to a session.

Musicians’ eyes widened when they saw me bring out a drum more than two feet high from a sports bag. They were apprehensive, for sure. Musicians playing Irish music (not all of them are Irish) have learned – or been taught – to be wary of percussionists. Percussion usually descends on an Irish session in the shape of a bodhrán (from the Irish, literally “a deafener”) and though the instrument can be played very well and sensitively, too often it is not. When played badly it is out of time with the music or a monotonous boom-boom-boom trying to kill the music … and nearly always too loudly.

There is a joke about the banjo which can be even more easily applied to the bodhrán: “You can tell from a fair distance when a man with banjo is approaching – but there is f.a. you can do about it.”

Even the bodhrán has a dubious history in traditional Irish music and it was really a classically-trained Irish musician, the great Seán Ó Riada, who gained the instrument popularity by working it into his suites — his compositions and arrangements. Norman observers in the 12th Century, describing Irish music, mentioned only a kind of drum, some kind of whistle (flute) and the harp (of which there were two, the small and the large). Not even the uileann pipes were mentioned! Over the years, the wooden whistle came in or was developed domestically (replaced for a while by the metal one, mass-produced in Manchester!), also the concert flute from Europe, the violin from Austria-Hungary perhaps, the accordion from Germany and Italy, the banjo from African slaves and their descendants in the USA, the mandolin from Italy, the bouzouki introduced from Greece in the 1960s, the guitar originally from Iberia but probably through English and US folk music, also in the 1960s.

The uileann pipes, despite the Norman observers, have been around for a while too but difficult to say when exactly it came in, some sources say not till the 1700s – certainly later than the marching war pipe depicted in Elizabethan-period drawings and woodcuts.

St Michans Irish Music Instruments carving
Instruments in Irish traditional music — a panel carving in St. Michan’s Church, Dublin. (Photo source: Internet)

In Irish music, it is normally the guitarist who plays rhythm and many musicians think that with a guitarist, you don’t need a percussionist. If indeed you ever do – Séamus Ennis, once asked what was the best way to play the bodhrán, famously (or infamously) replied: “With a penknife”.

Whatever else could be said about my playing of the dholak, good or bad, at least I never played it too loudly.

Traditional Irish music sessions in London, at least in those years, tended to be more tolerant and inclusive than I experienced in Ireland on visits home or since. So they let me get on with it and we got on ok – me, the dholak and the musicians. And the ‘audience’ seemed ok with us all too.

When I came home to Dublin, to work and to live, after decades in London, she came with me. There was a session in Rathmines I attended regularly and I took the drum there, played it some to accompany the trad music instruments and sang a few songs. At that particular session one heard a variety of types of song and could sometimes see dancing: set-dancing, freestyle sean-nós and there was an elderly couple who did what I took to be a schottische. There was a bodhrán player or two there most times and when they were, I mostly laid off the dholak until they took a break, went to the toilet or out for a smoke.

Usually, the session would start around 9.30pm and go on till 1.00am or even later. Many a time on my way home from that session, a song or a tune would be running through my head, non-stop. Sometimes I even composed a tune, or thought I did — but had forgotten it by next day.

Walking the 4.5 km.s after a session to catch the night bus from D’Olier Street (and a half-hour wait if I missed one) grew tiresome, which might have been the reason I stopped going. Maybe my bike wasn’t working at that time. The truth is, I don’t know why but I did stop going. There was a Sunday session I was going to for a while but I dropped out of that too, for other reasons. The result was that I stopped playing the dholak, even at home.

Maybe she missed the tapping of my fingers on her skin. Perhaps she missed the vibrations of Irish traditional music. And grew to resent the silence. Maybe she planned to leave me.

If so, the occasion came when a large group of Basque musicians were visiting Dublin and I had organised a musical pub-crawl for them (kantu-poteo), as well as a concert for them to perform. I brought the dholak in case there should be an informal session at the end of the evening but there wasn’t and, in amongst all the leave-taking and so on, I forgot about her.

A few days later I looked for the dholak at home and realised I must have left it behind. To the management of the hall I went rushing — but it could not be found. So, someone had stolen her. Or she had gone off with someone she thought would appreciate her more than I had.

I was upset – of course I was – but there was nothing to be done about it. Of course, if I ever should see someone with her, while on my travels ….!

The years went by and I reconciled myself to my loss. I had already mostly stopped going to traditional sessions and was concentrating on singing. For a while I was singing at a different gathering as often as twice a week. Then that too tailed off. Some sessions were a distance away around Dublin bay and finished after public transport did. One was on a Sunday and I was often tired. But the truth is, although I always enjoyed a singing session, I was losing some of the drive, the urge that had me attending regularly.

And then, this morning, from the manager of the hall where I had lost the dholak about four years ago, I got a phone call. She had been found!

Overjoyed as I am, I can’t help wondering what it means, that she turns up now. Of course, it could mean nothing. Just a lucky happenstance that it turned up, was found among stuff stored away, probably by someone searching for something else or having a clear-out.

The cops and private detectives with starring roles in the novels I sometimes read don’t believe in coincidence and happenstance. Much as I hate to take part of my world view from cops, nor do I.

It means something. But what?

end

Information on Irish musical instruments:

https://www.musicalpubcrawl.com/instruments/

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LÁ FHÉILE STIOFÁIN/ ST. STEPHENS’ DAY

Singing Wren 46 (Michael Finn)  ” We made it!  We made it!  Safe for another year!”

Wren on rock

“Shut up, you idiot!  The day’s not over yet!”

Meanwhile, not far away ….

Wren Boys SligoMummers Sligo maybe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE WREN-BOY TRADITION IN IRELAND

In England it is called “Boxing Day” but in Ireland the 26th of December is “St. Stephen’s Day”.  Despite the Christian designation it has long been the occasion in Ireland for customs much closer to paganism.

It was common for a group of boys (usually) to gather and hunt down a wren.  The wren can fly but tends to do so in short bursts from bush to bush and so can be hunted down by determined boys.  The bird might be killed or kept alive, tied to a staff or in a miniature bower constructed for the occasion.

The Wren Boys would then parade it from house to house while they themselves appeared dressed in costume and/or with painted faces.  In some areas they might only carry staff or wands decorated with colourful ribbons and metallic paper while they might in other areas dress in elaborate costumes, some of them made of straw (Straw Boys) and these were sometimes also known as Mummers although a distinction should be drawn between these two groups.  The Mummers in particular would have involved acting repertoires with traditional character roles and costumes, music and dance routines while the simpler Wren Boys might each just contribute a short dance, piece of music or song.  In all cases traditional phrases were used upon arrival, the Mummers having the largest repertoire for in fact they were producing a kind of mini-play.

The origins of the customs are the subject of debate but a number of Irish folk tales surround the wren.  The bird is said in one story to have betrayed the Gaels to the Vikings, leading to the defeat of the former.  There is a Traveller tradition that accuses the wren of betraying Jesus Christ to soldiers while another tradition has the bird supplying the nails (its claws) for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  Yet another tradition has the wren as King of the Birds, having used its cunning in a competition to determine who would be the avian King, hiding itself under the Eagle’s wind and flying out above the exhausted bird when it seemed to have won, having left all others behind and could fly no higher.

By the 1960s the Wren Boy custom was beginning to die out even in areas where it had held fast but it slowly began to be revived by some enthusiasts.  Nowadays fake wrens are used.  Christmas Day in Ireland was traditionally a day to go to religious service and to spend at home with family or to go visiting neighbours.  It was not a day of presents or of lights or Christmas Trees, customs brought in by the English colonizers in particular from Prince Albert, the British Queen Victoria’s royal consort, who was German.  St. Stephen’s Day may have celebrated the Winter Solstice (the wren being a bird that on occasion sings even in winter) but moved to a Christian feast day; in any case it produced colour and excitement at a time which did not have the religious and commercial Christmas season to which, in decades, we have become accustomed.

The lovely song The Boys of Barr na Sráide from a poem by Sigerson Clifford takes as its binding thread the boys in his childhood with whom Sigurson went “hunting the wren”.  It is sung here by Muhammed Al-Hussaini (currently resident in London and part of the singing circle of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí na hÉireann, meeting in the Camden Irish Centre).  There are recordings of others performing this song well but the unusual origin of this one as well as its quality persuaded me to choose this one.  In addition, I had the pleasure of participating in a singing circle with this lovely and modest singer in London in October this year (see The London Visit on the blog), who greeted me in Irish.  Muhammed also plays the violin on this, accompanied by Mark Patterson on mandolin and Paul Sims on guitar.

 

ends.