Forty-odd years ago Alan Warke was sitting at his granny’s dining table waiting for his breakfast when out of nowhere he picked up a box of Swan Vesta and rattled out an impromptu drum solo with the matchsticks and the crockery. He was seven at the time.
“My God, he can even drum with a set of matchsticks,” said the granny.
It must have been in the blood - he’s related to the Gene Krupa of the Fountain, Jackie Molloy, after all - so maybe that’s where he gets it from.
“I was sitting in my granny’s house waiting for our breakfast to come in and there used to be a box of matches, the Swan matches, and the next thing was, my granny was saying, ‘My God, I don’t believe it, he’s sitting there drumming with a pair of matchsticks.’”
It was perhaps inevitable the ancient art of drumming would form such a major part of Alan’s life.
He’s now amassed a huge collection of largely traditional drums ranging from the lambeg and bodhrán, to the West African djembe; he’s even assembled an entire Brazilian samba bateria.
He recently formed the Different Skins drumming project and tours the city and further afield imparting his knowledge and enthusiasm for traditional drumming to all comers, using it to break down barriers and as a way of improving the self-esteem of disadvantaged young people and those with learning disabilities and other conditions.
But it all began back in the granny’s kitchen with the box of Swans and it soon took off from there.
“Away back in the safari park in Portrush many years ago, there used to be an African drum and I bought one of these ornaments, these African drums, it so happened that the day I bought it I began to play it and play it and play it. I think I was only eight or nine.
“Later, I joined bands and stuff like that. I just got on to the old tradition, the old bodhráns and the likes of the lambegs and the djembes.
“I eventually joined bands, the Hamilton band and so forth.
“A man called Jim Parkhill taught me a brave bit of drumming, music drumming and all that.”
Alan soon began to take a deeper interest in the traditional drumming of Ulster.
Although there is no great lambeg tradition in the Londonderry area his interest in the drum was piqued by a scene painted by a man from the Fountain, which showed a crowd behind a couple of lambeg drummers in the old Fountain Street years ago.
“I’d always an interest in the lambeg. I always wanted a lambeg because I like to share culture with other people, to let people see why music should be played,” he explains.
“The word respect comes into play, to respect other cultures. When you take the bodhrán and lambeg, when I go into a secondary school, I let them see exactly what the old traditional drums were like.
“What they done was they celebrated and used these drums with fifes. There are only two instruments you can play with the lambeg - the pipes and the fife flute.
“There’s no other instrument would be strong enough to hear along with the sound of that drum there. The sound of that drum there would be very loud.
“That’s where you get the old tradition. The drums have gotten smaller. They’ve used the old tradition, made them smaller, to make them easier to carry.”
The drum he’s referring to is one of five lambegs he now owns, three of which he keeps in Londonderry with two others up the country to save on the logistical problem of transportation when he has gigs or engagements in the east of the province.
The ‘Crown Conqueror’ from Newtownards - like Alan’s other lambegs, came from the famous W&J Hamilton family workshop in Carrickfergus.
“He can go out the front door but that’s the only way he can go!” says Alan. “That’s one of the biggest drums in this city. There wouldn’t be a bigger drum. The Mem [Apprentice Boys of Derry Memorial Hall] might have had a drum leant to them for the museum but there’s no lambegs that size in the city at all.
“That there is 100 years old.
“You know by the names on the drum, you know by a stamp on the skin. People think you could just change the skin but it’s not as easy as that. If you look inside there are two holes and inside this shell that stamp will be inside the timber as well.”
Alan’s aware its a tradition steeped in history.
“In County Monaghan back at the time of the Battle of the Boyne young soldiers sat in the hedges, these drums were used to fight the armies of James.
“They used to come out and bang these drums and spook the horses.
“The soldiers fell off the horses onto the ground. The soldiers came out and they were then able to kill the soldiers.”
But while the lambeg has come to be associated with the Orange tradition, Alan is quick to point out it’s not exclusively so.
“The two traditions use these drums. It’s not to say it’s just the Orange Order uses these drums. It’s not. The Ancient Order of Hibernians have these drums down in Newry and they compete in competitions around the North.
“The Hibernians have these drums as well and they have a painting of St Patrick’s Cathedral. The two traditions use them.
“The lambegers would lend drums to one another. It’s a tight knit community. they share the drums.”
It’s not only the Ulster and Irish drumming traditions from which Alan derives inspiration, however.
“I started getting into the djembes about eight years ago. I eventually met with professionals such as Chris Colleye [a Dutch percussionist based in the Amsterdam area] and they’ve shown me how to professionally play the djembes.”
Alan explains that the djembe is a West African drum, which is played without stick or beater and, and which is particularly popular amongst young people in the city who hear in them the modern rhythms of tribal house music, whenever he plays it at gigs or engagements.
“These are used for communications, if you wanted to communicate with people in Africa in the bush, for deaths, marriages, you would have different ways of celebrating.
“This is actually a trunk carved, they have carved their own symbols on it. and that’s actually made out of a goat’s skin there as well [like the lambeg and bodhrán].
“These are all traditional handcrafted in Africa. The timber, it’s a very hard wood. The sound comes out of the bottom.
“It’s a very strong sound and the bigger you go the bigger bass sound you get. It’s a good instrument for young people to learn.
“Anyone with learning difficulties, whatever they have locked in their head, at the end of a session, I’d have them going with the five rhythms and they are amazed at what they have achieved using their hands, and when they’re using their hands they’re using their brains, it’s very rewarding.”
Despite originating from different corners of the globe all of the drums in Alan’s collection, barring the samba rhythm section, actually have a lot in common, in terms of how they have been constructed.
For one, they’re all made using very similar materials: wood, goats’ skins and in some cases rope.
Alan lets us in on some of the secrets of their manufacture.
“Those drums there [the djembe], you can see a line going up the centre, that’s actually the spine of he goat. What it is, it’s actually the skin of a female goat, the line is the spine of the back of the goat.
“Why it is a female goat is, if it was a male goat they would fight and pierce their skins with the horns but the female is kidding [giving birth to young]] so when they kid they have easily stretched skin, that’s why it’s a female goat.”
The exact same logic applies here when it comes to the manufacture of our drums.
Alan tells a yarn to this effect.
“This fellah went to Ballymena and there was market in Ballymena, in the market square many years ago. There was an ould woman sitting there and she had two nanny goats for sale and this man went over and said, ‘God, they are beautiful animals there, are they for sale are they?’
“‘They are surely,’ she said. ‘There’s only one thing, they can’t be parted, they were brought up together by my mother and they can’t be parted.’
“‘Aye,’ he says. ‘How much would you have for them? Three and six-pence or four and six-pence?’
“The old boy was saying: ‘To this day, 80 years, they’ve never been parted. Thirty-six, thirty-seven inches is the furthest they’ve been apart, side by side, on a lambeg drum. I never broke my promise, they’re still together.’”
“They always say, if you can get goats that came from the same mother, it gets a good sound, you have to get a good match with the skins, you can get skins that sound different from others. It doesn’t sound right. You have to get the same blood. That’s what you look for in skins.”
Following in the wake of so much history and tradition isn’t always so easy when you live in the middle of Newbuildings.
The bodhrán is loud, the djembes are louder but the lambegs are actually earthshaking. How on earth does he practice?
“I have to practice up in Curryfree, a way up a hill, I practice away up in the mountain!
“I took it up once to the industrial estate in Newbuildings and three people came up in their cars and they were stopping and said, ‘My God, I live up in Silverbrook and thought there was somebody out my back. I had to go up and see what that noise was!’
“I just walk up one of the wee country roads with the drum. The only boys hear me up there are the sheep. So the sheep are dancing around the fields but I say when they are dancing, they are enjoying the music, that’s a good thing!” laughs Alan.
A good job there aren’t any goats.
“The sheep always say, ‘Thank God, I’m a sheep and not a goat!’” laughs Alan.
And the beat goes on for the ubiquitous Londonderry drummer. Fresh from drumming the participants in the Walled City marathon up Fahan Street on Sunday, expect to see Alan at a summer school or outdoor gig near you in the months ahead.