One of my earliest musical memories is of long summer evenings punctuated by the distance-muffled thud of Lambeg drums. At that stage – pre-political puberty – this was a normal part of my summer soundscape, a part which I quite liked, in fact, the insistent repetitive rhythms marking time towards approaching holidays. Later (though not that much later – people lose their political virginity early in Belfast), I came to realise that not everyone heard this sound in the same way, and that my summer background music stirred in other breasts fear and anger.
My later involvement with traditional music in the broad sense made me aware of the fact that there was a tradition which used the Lambeg drum in conjunction with a fife, and that the tunes played had much in common and were sometimes identical to those that I played on the flute at traditional sessions.
Throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, political and religious polarisation grew ever worse, and the sound of the Lambeg, now largely minus the fife, came to be for many the soundtrack of militant loyalism, the background music to Drumcree, a noisy declaration of a separatist loyalist culture.
To address this music without appearing at worst sectarian or at best partisan requires a deep knowledge of the subject, and a high level of sensitivity, and indeed courage. I’m happy to report, therefore, that Gary Hastings, an accomplished traditional flute-player, displays all these attributes in With Fife and Drum, a definitive survey of the fife and Lambeg drum tradition in the North of Ireland.
The book gives ample historical and social context to both instruments. Divested from its political overtones, the Lambeg drum is a fascinating instrument. Reckoned to be the loudest drum in the world at 120db, it is quite an experience to stand close to one being played and feel your insides rhythmically vibrate in sympathy to the drum heads.
The drum appears to have been developed in Ireland as an extension of the long drum, which was the contemporary name for what we would now call a bass drum. The connection of drum and fife is an obvious borrowing from military music, and, given that the development of the Lambeg appears to have been completely under the auspices of the early Orange Order, not surprising.
The physical development of the instrument took the form of making it larger, deeper, and more importantly wider, until it finally arrived at the size it is today, often in excess of three feet. Hastings points out that the development of the drum from a smaller, quieter instrument to a larger and much louder one is closely related to the increasing importance of competition drumming, and to the decline of fife-playing as a standard practice in conjunction with it. Although there is something of a revival of the fife-playing aspect, the drumming itself, overwhelmingly in the competitive as opposed to the political or demonstrative sphere, is by far the most dominant aspect of the pairing.
The fife, as played with the Lambeg drum, is an instrument of considerable organological and historical interest. The term fife properly refers to a cylindrical bore, a keyless instrument, but has been borrowed to imply any small flute, whatever the bore design and number of keys. In some areas of rural Ireland it was used to refer to any flute, including the standard concert flute.
Those familiar with the history of the flute in Western Europe will be aware of the development of the instrument from the cylindrical bore renaissance instrument, via the conical bore baroque and classical flutes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to the modern Boehm flute. The fife as played in the North of Ireland is the smaller member of the renaissance ensemble, essentially unchanged, even to the preferred material: boxwood. As such, it is an instrument of very simple construction, basically a boxwood tube, with a roughly cylindrical bore, six finger holes and an embouchure.
The instruments were made locally (on a non-commercial basis, unlike the drums, which says something about the level of interest in the two sides of the tradition), often without the use of machinery, the bore and embouchure being made with a hand-held drill, the finger holes burnt out with a hot iron, and the outside pared and sanded to shape.
Although most of the book deals with the drum as opposed to the fife, the treatment of the fife and its music is one of the book’s more significant features, for as Hastings explains, this aspect of the tradition has been in decline for quite a considerable period and yet is perhaps the strongest demonstrable tie between this tradition and the broader world of Irish traditional music. Thus the seventy tunes notated in the book are, as far as I know, the first time that many of these pieces have been collected and published under these names, and certainly in association with this tradition.
By far the most important part of this book lies in the last chapter; Hastings analysis of the relationship between what have often been perceived as two musics from different ends of the political and cultural spectrum is perhaps the most significant of any commentator to date.
Hastings’ argument, with which I firmly concur, is that the only way to come to a full understanding of ‘Orange’ music and ‘Irish traditional’ music is to see them both as part of the same tradition, one which, although moulded and heavily influenced by its physical location on the island of Ireland, is also part of the broader European dance-music tradition. Pointing out that the ‘party tune’ element of the fifing tradition is only in fact a minor part of it, Hastings says:
The fifing repertoire, and indeed the men who fifed it, provides a glimpse into how things were in a different age, when dance music was just dance music, when you marched to marching music and had political tunes and songs as well, and much of the repertoire was held in common.
Hastings’ thinking in this section of the book goes a long way beyond the level of the obvious political implications of song lyrics and easily identifiable sectarian tunes (the latter often held in common by both sides). He points out that what was once the common cultural baggage has now, by the all-embracing force of polarisation, become the badge of one side or the other.
…language, dress, music, customs, religion. All these show who and what we are, over and against some other group, tribe, or gang. Unionism is simply another form of nationalism, pointed in a different direction. The reason that the two sides in Northern Ireland are mirror images of each other is because they are both nationalists in an identical cultural context, scrabbling for the same kind of material to define themselves.
The huge revival that Irish traditional music has seen since the 1960s has largely left such traditions as the fife and Lambeg drum behind it. Although, as is repeatedly pointed out in this book, the two communities shared in every sense what is now commonly called Irish traditional music, dance, and song, the political developments of the past fifty years or so have led to the strong association of this music with the nationalist/Catholic/republican side. As Hastings points out, the music in a broad sense did have aspects which were overtly political in nature, but the historical context of the folk revival has meant that although the nationalist aspect became mainstream – think of the role of ‘rebel songs’ in the early folk revival – the political music of the other side disappeared, and at the same time their association with the non-political dance music tradition severely weakened.
Whether the increasing association of traditional music in the broad sense with nationalist politics was a result of the ‘claiming’ of the music as an exclusively nationalist property, or whether it was because it was ‘abandoned’ by the unionists as being overtly nationalist, is something which encourages comment or research elsewhere than this review. But is this likely to come about? As Hastings points out:
The politicisation of culture in Ireland and the fact that this music is seen to be in the political arena has rendered it academically and musically invisible.
This book is a very important contribution to Irish studies on many levels. As a work of musicology, it shames the lack of similar material from the institutions given to its study, and though Hastings academic background is not specifically musical, the coherency of this book could well serve as a model to those attempting similar studies.
The technique of presenting the information through the words of the protagonists themselves gives the work a strong basis of authenticity, which continues in the accompanying CD, where the reader can get to hear the instruments and the voices of those who play them.
As a work which strives to place politics, culture and music in context in a society where misinterpretation in any of these areas has many times led to violence, With Fife and Drum should make many rethink their basic attitudes about music and its role in Irish society.
With Fife and Drum by Gary Hastings is published by the Blackstaff Press.
Published on 1 March 2004
Dr Hammy Hamilton has been a professional flutemaker since 1979. He taught Irish music at UCC and WIT, and was a Fulbright scholar at UCLA. Currently he is an independent academic, living and working in the West Cork gaeltacht. He is the author of The Irish Fluteplayer's Handbook.