There are two main ‘traditional’ drums in Ireland, the Bodhran, which is found throughout Ireland and in contemporary terms is associated generally, but not exclusively, with Irish traditional music (although it is onlya recent addition to that) and the Nationalist traditions. The second is the Lambeg which has its strongest associations with the North of Ireland and particularly with Unionist traditions.
There is a lot of interest in the Bodhran in frame drumming circles around the world, however the Lambeg drum is much less talked about. As an 'ethnic' or 'world' instrument, I think it is an awesome drum. As a drum and a style it is endangered.
As a N Irish musician, I am all too well aware of the sensitivities surrounding both these instruments. Until recently I refused to play either, I now play both.
The substance of this piece originates from a BBC television programme from a couple of years ago and from recent internet research, it is soon to be influenced by Gary Hastings excellent new book. Thank you to the BBC for covering this subject and thereby for supplying me with most of my research material (and a couple of photographs).
The name Lambeg is a generic name such as 'Hoover' for vacuum cleaners or 'Tipp-Ex' for correction fluid, they are also known as Slashers, Batteries, Tibbies and other names varying from region to region. Lambeg is an area near Lisburn, a few miles south west of Belfast. The name is said to have stuck because the first time the drum was played with canes was at Lambeg.
The loudest drum in the world?
The Lambeg could stake a claim to the title of the loudest drum in the world, it is frequently played at above 120db, louder than a small aircraft taking off and about the same as a pneumatic drill.
The drum is a large instrument measuring around 3’ across the head and 2’ deep, it weighs 35-40lbs. The shells are usually made from oak. Traditionally this would have been a single 24" wide piece steamed and bent, however trees like that don't exist any more and they are now made from two 12" sheets of oak supported by a hoop on the inside. Oak drums were also made using a barrel-like stave construction and occasionally a drum would be made from brass. The brass shelled drums are made from sheets of the metal
The Lambeg can be used in a stationary position (sometimes on a stand) but this is only for performance or practise, it is usually carried by the drummer. Generally a simple neck harness is used which hooks onto the drum and goes around the back of the neck! it lies against the drummer's belly which can work for or against the player, it depends... :)
When moving, a second person may be employed to support the front of the drum as they progress, it is not uncommon for several players to share the drum's journey. It is played using whip-like canes with one on each side of the drum. The drums are either plain or elaborately decorated with regimental, memorial, religious or political insignia.
The Lambeg can be played when simply standing, this is said to produce the best tone as the shell is at its most free to resonate. Occasionally the drum may be played on the rim but this is bad for the canes and therefore for the skins so it is rare.
The canes are made from Malacca cane, the same cane that was used by schoolmasters, ouch!!. It is selected because of the absence of nodes or joints. Like all cane, once it breaks it splinters lengthways, fortunately these splinters are generally thin and hair-like on a Lambeg cane. A cane will eventually start to disintegrate with playing and will eventually be retired to become practise canes.
Drum Skin Read more...
The Lambeg is made using goatskin on both sides, there is a thicker and a thinner side depending on if a player is right or left handed, the thicker side going to the dominant hand. The skin is oriented on the drum so that the spine of the animal is central. This spine line should run at right angles to the cane so that when played, the belly of the cane strikes the spine and the end whips on to the thinner flank skin.
It is recommended that the skins are taken from female or 'she'-goats because they grow quickly, the skin is thin and strong and they will have fewer battle scars. The skins all receive a general treatment which will remove the excess flesh and any hair and 'cure' the drum for playing, it will also receive 'special' treatment that is a secret to each maker. A Lambeg skin is scraped very thinly and should be of even thickness and consistency all over as far as possible. For mounting, the skin is stretched over a wooden 'flesh hoop' (above) and tacked into place, this hoop fits under a top hoop which is then tensioned by one rope zig zagging around the drum and a series of pigskin buffs..
It is said that the “24” of timber is purely there to keep the two goats from fighting” :). When prepared for playing, the skins are tensioned to the point of breaking, pretty similar to the African djembe. It is important that the two heads are tuned exactly to the same pitch (both are batter AND resonant heads) as this generates the internal wash or tone.
The tensioning mechanism is straightforward with a rope being laced in a zig zag manner between holes in the two hoops. On the ‘V’ of the zig zag there is a leather sleeve called a buff that is moved towards the wider part of the ‘V’ to apply tension, or toward the thinner part to loosen. If your 'V' starts to look too much like a 'Y' and the drum is not yet tight enough then you need to loosen off the buffs and re-tighten the verticals. The tensioning process is done over a period of days before playing, tighten and settle, tighten and settle. It is said that it takes more man hours to get a drum to playing condition than it takes to do a weeks work.
The tuning of the drum is carried out by pulling slack out of the rope around the drum, similar to placing tension on the verticals of a djembe. Because of the scale of the drum and because you are tensioning the huge skins to their maximum, this is a job for at least two men preferably three; two to hold and one to pull. Finer tuning is carried out by the adjustment of the leather sleeves on the ‘V’ and the finest tuning is done by mallet, tapping gently on the rim. The act of ensuring that the drum is evenly tuned on both sides is known as levelling and is carried out, unsurprisingly, by a 'leveller' who spends his time darting around the drum listening for nuances in the overtone relationships and striving to bring out a strong, clear fundamental. This fine tuning is done during playing during 'Stick-Ins' (competitions). How anyone can hope to come away with any hearing after having your ear a foot from a 120db noise all day is beyond me.
When played, the cane gives a loud 'whippy staccato'. A fundamental 'wash' tone, builds up within the drum when playing. Some say it is like having a swarm of bees inside the drum. Others describe it as a fizzing sound. As I said, the decibel level is similar to a pneumatic drill and has a high pitched sound. On a Stick-In day, they can easily be heard a mile or more away. Sitting here this evening (August 2002) I can hear one in the distance coming from the direction of Conlig, maybe 3/4 mile away as the crow flies, I can clearly make out the rhythmic pattern. Different Drums report members of the public having commented on hearing the drums at a distance of over 5 miles.
Origin(s) of the drum
There are conflicting stories regarding the history of this drum, but the most consistent and likely are that it was brought over to Ireland from Scotland or N England in the early/mid 17th century by settlers with a military background or, more popularly, from Holland by William’s Dutch blues as a smaller drum of similar construction, sometime at the end of the 17th or early 18th centuries. At this time it was smaller, maybe 16”-18” and in both cases was partnered with the fife, a transverse flute type instrument. This was consistent with the European military music tradition of that time. Around a century and a half later, about 1840-1850, the drum had grown in size because of competitiveness between players, kind of "My drum's bigger than your drum...". The Lambeg is defined and recognised by its size, and its volume because of the canes. The drum quickly got to such a scale that the fifers became drowned out and largely the association between the two instruments is all but lost. Today the fife and Lambeg together are the exception rather than the norm.
In contemporary usage, the drum is mostly associated with the Unionist and/or ‘Orange Order’ traditions. What is not so well known is that the drum also has tradition within the Nationalist community, particularly with the ‘Ancient Order of Hibernians’. The tradition cannot claim to be as strong but it would not have been uncommon a few decades ago for one of the communities to lend the other a drummer and/or a drum for their own particular parade or march. The Orange order marches in July and the Hibernians march in August. It was not unusual to find drums stolen from one tradition and draped with a sash to hide the paintings, it was also not uncommon for them to be stolen back again by the other tradition in time for their own parade.
The rhythms (also known as the ‘time’) seem to be localised for the most part and are based around traditional reels, jigs and hornpipes, mostly from Scotland and England along with military style patterns of the time. Because now the fifes rarely accompany the Lambeg drums, the drummers usually re-play the tune in their heads and the playing group stays together.
50 years ago, the only music really that was played outside of cities in villages of both cultural backgrounds was 'irish traditional’ music. We normally associate that today in drumming terms with the Bodhran, which actually only started to form part of the 'trad' instrumentation at around that time following the work of Sean O'Riada. 50 years before that, the Lambeg and bodhran were seen in all parts and played by all traditions.
As the Lambeg was used by both the Orange and Green traditions, the Hibernian and Orange groups had largely the same repertoire. Naturally there was politically and historically oriented music on either side, 'party tunes', but there was a large pool of common ground.
It is sad to witness now that really there is shrinking cultural common ground for these instruments as everything of value is politicised and polarised, this applies to both communities. Unfortunately this polarisation is projected back erroneously as reflecting historical division. Future generations and much of the young generation of today will lose or will have already lost that detail and sense of perspective.
I have no scored examples of the rhythms played, but I will endeavour to gather some.
When are they played?
It is traditional for the drums to be played during the 'Marching Season' in Northern Ireland, July mostly, but there are local events outside that particularly during the summer months. It is apparently rare for the Hibernians to play the Lambeg nowdays.
The largest gatherings are stick-ins’ and are usually competitive. The largest of these takes place in Markethill in County Armagh on the last Saturday of July. Here you can see up to 70 or 80 drums and hundreds of drummers vying for various titles. Competitions do however occur all year round and the men standing facing each other, hoop to hoop playing until they drop to see which is the best drum and who is the best drummer. It is not uncommon to see blood on the skins from the rubbing of the wrists on the hoops or the knuckles on the skin over the playing period, which can be several hours.
Belfast step – the beggar man
O I am a little beggar man
and begging I have been
for three score years and ten
in this little isle of green
I begged for my supper
I had nothing else to do
But to slip around the corner
With my old ring-a-doo
My own experience
I used to play neither of these drums. That decision was taken many years ago solely because it is nearly impossible to play either without the 'baggage' with which N Ireland society embues its cultural artefacts. This saddens me but is a small reflection of the state of the place I call home. As you will have read in the body of this piece, the either/or view of Irish drums was not always this way.
I now play both drums.