“Part of the heart”: Meet our Winter Drummers

Martin McCarthy 201709242049013 Winter Drummers
Photo by Martin McCarthy © for Beltane Fire Society

Both the deities bringing
the dark of winter – the Cailleach and the Winter King –
beneath their dance and behind the desperate battle,
deep below, bearing threat and promise of
dark days,
bitter and blustery,
a terrible tempest that can
break and destroy but also deliver new beginnings.
Burning, torrid, demonic.
Brutal drums.

Martin McCarthy 201709132019002 Winter Drummers
Photo by Martin McCarthy © for Beltane Fire Society

The Winter Drummers are made up of seasoned veterans who’ve performed in many Beltane and Samhuinn drum crews over the years, folks who’ve just drummed at one or two festivals, and absolute drum-virgins like myself who aren’t even sure which end of the drumstick to blow into. The prospect of learning to drum in just a few short weeks before performing in front of thousands is a little daunting. Maybe terrifying is a better word. Especially after discovering how fiendishly complex some of the tunes are.

Martin McCarthy 201709171942005 Winter Drummers
Photo by Martin McCarthy © for Beltane Fire Society

But as rehearsals have gone on, the patterns have become more familiar and we’re concentrating on getting tighter and faster and louder. And louder. Louder!
Drums have always been at the heart of our festivals. Being part of that heart is really exciting. Part of what we do is (literally) in the hearts of the other performers and the witnesses as peoples’ heartbeats shift to synchronize with the bruising rhythms we play, hopefully helping to drive the excitement and tension up. There are also explicit roles we play in the ritual on the night – supporting the Winter King in (hopefully!) his triumph over Summer and accompanying the Cailleach as she turns the year and reveals the coming winter.

Martin McCarthy 201709272016015 Winter Drummers
Photo by Martin McCarthy © for Beltane Fire Society

But what is the character of a Winter Drummer? That’s something I’ve been thinking of over the last couple of weeks. Why do we make so much noise?

Is it to show that we’re not afraid of the things that lurk in the darkness? “We see you there, out of the corner of our eyes, just on the edge of the light.”

That doesn’t feel quite right.

Martin McCarthy 201709272016016 Winter Drummers
Photo by Martin McCarthy © for Beltane Fire Society

Maybe it’s a kindness. Letting them know that we’re here and they still can get away.

Or maybe it’s not so kind. “Hey, things in the darkness. We’re coming for you!”
That seems even less likely.

Martin McCarthy 201709171941004 Winter Drummers
Photo by Martin McCarthy © for Beltane Fire Society

Ah! We are the darkness. We are where those half-seen things lurk. We are on the edge of your vision hiding those things that you fear.

Winter means cosy nights by a warm fire, in good company, with comfort food and mulled wine.

But it also means a darkness beyond the firelight. And it doesn’t just mean frosty mornings and a pretty blanket of snow; it means biting cold and blinding blizards and brutal gales.

Storm’s coming; better hang on to your ears.

Martin McCarthy 201709172059008 Winter Drummers
Photo by Martin McCarthy © for Beltane Fire Society

Words by Martin McCarthy.

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