This drum is unique to Northern Ireland and the tradition is finding a small resurgence after having been dying out in recent years. The drum is descended from the european military snare drum. Used by marching armies for signalling troop movements and tactics over the noise of battle.
There are differing myths as to how this drum came to Northern Ireland, one is that it came with the Scottish planters in the early 1600’s and the other is that it came with the armies of William of Orange in the late 1600’s.
The drum is approximately 3 feet to 1 metre in diameter and about 2 feet (60cms) wide. It uses very fine goatskin on each side, and in order to get as identical a sound from each head, it is preferable to use twin goats so as to get the skins as identical as possible. Only female goatskins are used as it is thought only these skins are fine enough and unblemished enough to give the best sound.
The drum is carried like a bass drum in a marching band and looks to all intents and purposes like a bass drum. It seems it started off as a bass drum but in 1896 someone had the idea of using malucca canes to play the drum with and it is this which gives the drum its unique sound. It is thought these canes which were imported to NI were used by jockeys. When played with canes the drum can be tuned very high in pitch and when this is achieved the drum becomes extremely loud (around 120 db) our drums have been measured at 115db. Given this volume the drum is designed to be played outdoors and can be heard over vast distances. At one Different Drum outdoors performance the Lambeg was heard about 6 miles away (without amplification)
Due to the history and political situation in Northern Ireland the Lambeg drum has become closely associated with the protestant/unionist community whilst the Bodhran has become associated with he Catholic/nationalist community. This segregation is not complete however as nationalists have used the Lambeg and protestants do play and make bodhrans, so there is a degree of blurring but the drums are perceived as belonging to one community or the other.
The skins are attached to hoops, called flesh hoops and these fit over the shell or barrel of the drum. Two outer hoops are then fitted on top of the flesh hoops and are roped together across the drum to provide tension. As the ropes are tightened they forced the two skins closer together thus increasing the tension across the head. Due to the size and tension these drums require, it takes at least two men to tighten them and the process of heading a drum is known as the long walk as the process can take up to two weeks to get the drum ready for competition.
For more information on the Lambeg visit the Irish section of Paul’s drumdojo site