The Drums of Beltane

Beltane may be known as a fire festival, but it may as well be considered to be a drum festival too. Drums are the beating heart of Beltane that create the rhythm of the festival, drive the procession forward, and soundtrack the changing seasons. They have been an integral part of Beltane since our tradition was first re-imagined on Calton Hill in 1988. Founder, Angus Farquhar, was a member of pioneering industrial musical collective Test Dept, who, alongside the London School of Samba provided the drums in the very first year. (Read his memories from that year here) Some of the key pieces that you’ll hear at Beltane (such as Stage 5s) were developed by Test Dept and each year certain rhythms are passed down from one group to the next, while new ones are written as Beltane continues to evolve.

This year we are lucky to have three incredible drum groups performing at Beltane and they’ll all be playing at Drum Club, an event at Edinburgh’s Bongo Club on Sunday 23rd April from 10pm – 1am, the perfect warm up to get you in the mood for Beltane! If you have never been, it’s a night like no other, unique to Edinburgh and a testament to the strength and depth of Edinburgh’s drumming community. Join the Facebook event here.

And if you can’t make Drum Club, there are still tickets available for Beltane Fire Festival on Sunday 30 April where you can hear them in full effect..

Processional Drummers

“The fanatical drummers driving the procession around the hill, unrelenting, air-tearing rhythms. We devote all our energy and focus into drumming at the exclusion of all else.”

The Beasties Drummers

“The Beasties are a force of nature, drumming so strong you can’t help but break through the drone of mundanity and tune into deeper, sacral frequencies where all who hear can connect and revel in the magic. We draw our energy from the earth and seize the spectators’ minds until they are dancing, finally in the present moment, with us. We build fierce, cathartic rhythms, creating a communal consciousness; our breath and heartbeats aligning as one big, pulsating vibration. Our fiery groove will fuel the Red energy bursting through the night, flooding the veins and quickening the hearts of everyone on the Hill; drawing them into the contagious awakening of Summer and alighting their own personal fire inside.”

And, completely new for this year(!), Aether Drummers:

“In a time before time, in a galaxy before galaxies, there was and was not, the Aether. Our material universe is described by means of four physical elements – air, earth, water and fire. But Aether, the fifth element, describes that which exists beyond matter. It is the space, and the non-space, out of which all material objects spring forth.

“The fifth element is considered to be vibrational frequency or sound energy. Although the sound may not always be audible, the vibrations are still there at various frequencies. Everything is in constant motion. Aether is omnipresent – it has always been, and therefore never been. This Beltane night, it is time for these sounds to be heard.”

To tell us more about the drums of Beltane, we spoke to Tom Caine, who is in his 10th year leading a drum crew at Beltane (this year with the Processionals):

What are some of the key pieces that you will hear at Beltane?

For many people the key piece is the Acropolis Sevens and Eights. This is the first beat played on the night and, to all the performers, tech and stewards scattered about the hill it signifies the beginning of the adventure. In structure, it is a fairly simple seven-beat rhythm that is brooding, pensive and anticipatory, foreshadowing and maybe even foreboding. Once the May Queen has been revealed and met the Horned God the pattern changes, another beat is added to the seven pattern to bring everything back even, musically illustrating the end of the revelation phase and the beginning of the ritual proper. This beat sounds similar, but is now confident, purposeful and dynamic.

Another notable rhythm is the Stage 5s, a super simple five-beat trance pattern (for the drummers OXOOX) that just starts as slow as possible and ends as fast as possible. For those playing it is a pure exercise in listening and concentration – even with my 20 plus years of drumming experience, this task is no mean feat. It is synonymous with the stage section of the ritual, and represents the focus of the whole community regarding the singular act of death and rebirth. The Beasties also have a traditional piece called the Nose Break, a complicated passage which ends with a shout. Id like to tell you more about it but I’m afraid it’s a secret and I’m not allowed to let it all out!

All these pieces are handed down from crew to crew whilst the rest of the set can vary wildly between different leader/composers.

What is the process in terms of composition for Beltane?

I can’t say about traditionally, as explained above we continue playing pieces that have historical or personal significance, but the rest of the music can be a massive variation. Each writing team (there are normally two leaders per crew) has their own approach but tend to be informed by the same archetypes, for example Beasties are chaotic and carnal whilst Processionals are controlled and commanding.

My own process is quite heavily involved and I don’t think we have space for it here, lets just say I am concerned with rhythm as a structure first and then use that to create pieces when I need too. In the lead up to this Beltane I wrote 5 pieces in about 3 days but it was mostly just putting bones on mathematical structures that had been sitting about in my beatbox hindbrain. We tend to use a program called Hydrogen to sketch out the layers that go on to make the full piece. This Beltane I have also asked for older less well known pieces from past Processionals from which I have stripped the underlying structure and recontextualised in the new lineup, so don’t be surprised if you hear some familiar basslines floating across the Edinburgh night.

What can we expect from the Processionals this year?

I have expanded the instrumentation massively. Before it was bass, tom and snare. It’s now bass, tom1, tom2, snare, high-tension snare and percussion – the idea is to create a richer and more musical sound. Likewise, our performance will be more dynamic; we believe that playing drums is a pleasure and we will enjoy our role bringing in the summer, we will remain fully focused and unstoppable but will allow the beat to moves us as it sees fit.

Can you tell us about ‘Beltane’ drum groups that exist beyond the realms of the festival?

Beltane has spawned a multitude of drum crews over years: The Counterpoint Drummers, Anansi, The Harbingers, Aether Drummers and of course BeastieX. I’m currently setting up The Edinburgh Noise Committee where I hope to bring together some of the best tunes and drummers from the varied groups and go about tackling Edinburgh’s ongoing noise problem 😉

And we also chatted to Cam from the Beasties:

What do you see as the Beasties’ role in Beltane?

The Beasties are the heartbeat of the Reds. We are Summer’s vibration, flooding the veins and quickening the hearts of everyone on the Hill; drawing them into the contagious awakening of Summer and alighting their own personal fire inside.

What is the sound of the Beasties? 

The sound of the Beasties has evolved over time. To counter the Processional Drummers, the Beasties originally wanted a raw, natural Summer sound from only drums made with natural skins, such as hand drums like the djembe. The sound gradually became more and more influenced by West African rhythms because of this emphasis on the djembe. As time went on, however, different instruments were added and the sound started to become more bass-heavy. The current set-up has pretty much stayed like this for a while, except for one year when there was a ‘junk crew’ who played drums made entirely out of bins and pans and whatever else they defined as ‘junk’!

The current set-up has gone back to the emphasis on bass, but the natural sound can still be found: there are six djembe players, three bottom bass players, two mid bass players, three bottom snare (kit snare) players, two top snare (military snare) players, and two shaker players. Compared to the other more technical-sounding drum crews in Beltane, the Beasties are really about making people dance and let loose. It’s rare that you’ll find a Beastie drummer drumming without dancing! The Nose Break is probably the most traditional piece of music we’ll be playing this year. We begin and end every practice and every gig with it – it involves everyone playing in unison and there are a couple of points where we shout and jump in the air. It was originally written by Matt Clements (of Orkestra Del Sol) around the mid-1990s when he led the Beasties. The way it is currently played, however, came about when Rob May lead his junk crew some time later, with a rumble gradually slowing down to crotchets, before the Nose Break is counted in. This way of bringing the Nose Break in, ironically, actually comes from a Processional drum exercise!

What can we expect from the Beasties this year?

Funk! We want to make people move. We’ve drawn heavily from the style of the last few years when the Beasties were led by Tom Caine and Ray Considine, particularly with the instrument set-up, but we’ve added a fresh spin on things. The Beasties have been playing the same tunes for a while now, mainly because they are really great tunes and we love playing them! But we felt it was time to bring in some new stuff, so we have an entirely new set with nearly entirely new Beasties. Only one member of our crew has been a Beastie before, so it feels very new and exciting. Other than that, we may be slipping in the Nose Break in places one does not normally find the Nose Break…and we’ve written a couple of tunes in some pretty fun time signatures. We’re really enjoying playing with two snare lines, which is a relatively new thing in the Beasties. Our focus this year is really about having the different instruments play off each other a lot, and about bringing it back to the breath and the body. We want people to breathe the rhythms and have them engulf your whole body – feeling the music instead of simply listening.

Featured image by Neil Hodgins for Beltane Fire Society. All rights reserved.

Source: The Drums of Beltane

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