Here Come Glastonbury’s Dragon Drummers

I meet up with the Dragon Drummers to talk about Glastonbury, community and keeping to the beat.

It’s one of those wonderful warm Avalonian evenings in early May. I’ve got an interview with the Dragon Drummers at 7pm but I’m feeling quite stressed and in need of quiet and calm first, so I suggest to The Yorkshireman that we have a ride out on our bikes to the Ham Wall RSPB reserve on the Somerset Levels.

I try taking lots of deep breaths and concentrating on the birdsong, but the Yorkshireman has had two large coffees and a can of Red Bull and will not stop talking. Silence is achieved, eventually, but only when I resort to shouting ‘Shut up!’ and by then it’s time to head back to town.

The Drummers meet up at the Yeast Scrapstore on a light industrial estate just on the outskirts of Glastonbury. Even from some distance away I know I’ve got the right place, the beat is loud and insistent, as I ride up into the estate my ears are assailed from the other side by thumping pop music coming from the gym. I surrender to the sound, as emotional meltdown will not look professional.

Glastonbury's Dragon Drummers

Outside the Scrapstore there are sixteen drummers in a circle. I’ve never really paid attention before, but now I’ve got time to sit and watch. I observe how the drums are all different and how each performs its own role in the whole sound. I look round the circle trying to work out if someone is in charge, and notice Janet, slight and red-haired, playing one of the smaller drums, communicating with sharp looks and subtle hand movements.

After a few tunes they drum their way into the Scrapstore. I’m desperate for a cup of tea. There has to be tea, I speculate on what biscuit choices drummers make. I find everyone chatting good-naturedly, there is no sign of tea. I sneak into the kitchen to make tea, I find milk in the fridge but when I pour it in to the hot water it forms sour lumps. I end up with black tea. There are no biscuits. Diana, Janet and Richard join me in the kitchen, they tell me they are playing for Morris Dancers in Shepton Mallet at the weekend, Richard, won’t be available to lead them, so they are practicing as if he’s not there.

I learn that the idea for the group came about when artist Yuri Leitch, who’d built the first small dragon heads in 2010, was painting a mural in Janet’s house and had a vision of a marching drumming group to drum for the Beltane and Samhain Dragon processions that started in Glastonbury in 2016. The Dragon Drummers began informally, as a loose group drumming mainly with one stick Shamanic drums in March 2018. Diana tells me “We started just marching the dragons up the street, but we’ve ended up with a bank account. public liability insurance, and proper drums with two drumsticks!”

Glastonbury's Dragon Drummers

The emblem of the Dragon Drummers features the red and white dragons, symbolising the interplay of earth energies at the turning of the seasons. The White Dragon triumphant at the beginning of Winter, giving way to the Red Dragon as we turn to Summer. Perhaps it’s inevitable then that the drumming group experienced their own battle for supremacy. Richard tells me “I’ve always been the leader”, but Janet acknowledges there was a time she wanted to take charge, she tells me she soon realised how hard it is to lead and what a good job Richard does.

Janet adds “It’s helped us all grow in confidence, we’ve learned teamwork and realised it’s necessary to be able to hold a beat! We’re all looking for a challenge and it’s nice to be a part of the community.

We join the rest of the group, the banter is good-natured and kind, they describe themselves as a “bunch of Glastonbury misfits who all love drumming, we’ve become family”. They do sound rather like a bunch of, mostly middle-aged, siblings, ribbing each other over their quirks of character.

Teagan, with her pink frock, lipstick and swishy hair is clearly happy to be the centre of attention. Faced with a wall of cameras at the beginning of one of the dragon processions she’d exclaimed “Ooh, they’ve all come to photograph me!”, the rest of the group weren’t about to let her forget this in a hurry. She tells me “I like dressing up and posing! But actually I really like the camaraderie”.

Turns out none of them are averse to dressing up, they’ve gone very creative with the uniform, around a black, red and white theme, with face paints and light-up drum sticks for Samhain. These photos are by band member Phil Witt.

I learn that there are two tomtom sections and a bass section; they have to grow the group evenly, with the big drums keeping the beat. They currently have 18 drummers, but they aren’t all available for every performance, so they would like a pool of drummers to choose from. They’d like to build the membership and have 3 member intakes a year, perhaps 3 new people per intake. They are keen to stress that those hoping to join need to be able to hold a beat, they aren’t running a beginner’s drum class. They meet weekly for two hours, members have to commit to practise regularly and come to rehearsals. They don’t regard themselves as professionals though, Diana says “This time last year I only knew how to do shamanic drumming, we’re finding our way, making it up as we go along.  

We go back outside where I take photos in the last of the evening’s light, then head home as they play their last tune. I’m feeling cheerful, after hanging out with a bunch of people who are enjoying each other’s company and the challenges of learning to play together. Turns out it was sound, not silence, I needed. When I get home, the Yorkshireman made me a big mug of tea, but we’d run out of biscuits.

Glastonbury's Dragon Drummers
Mar, in her element

The next day I received this message from Mar, a younger member of the group:

“I would like to share what the group makes me feel. I am from Spain, ever since I was little I loved everything related to the medieval time, witches, magic and the Celtic culture. Unfortunately there is not much of this where I come from. When I moved to England (Weston-super-Mare) 4 years ago, I discovered the Dragons in Glastonbury and since then I have never missed a chance to see them, I would dress up for every event to feel part of it.

Music is also a very important part in my life and I always wanted to join a drumming band, my heart beats to the beat of the drums. So when I saw the Dragon Drummers at their first performance with the Dragons a year ago I fell in love immediately. It was only at the beginning of this year when I got the courage to ask and finally join them.

Now, when it’s time for the dragons to fight, I am not a viewer anymore, I drum to their dance, I walk with them, I’m part of it!… I am in my element”.

The Dragon Drummers are keen to play at more events, so if you’d like them to come along to yours get in touch. You can find them on Facebook at Dragon Drummers, or watch them on this video.

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2 thoughts on “Here Come Glastonbury’s Dragon Drummers”

  1. No tea?? Positively dragonian! At least The Yorkshireman (your very own Jon Snow) understands its significance.

  2. It isn’t rock and roll as I know it.

    Too tame man!!! Far too tame.

    I used to live in Manchester and we had a kind of saying where, if the police didn’t turn up to the party then it probably wasn’t worth going to.

    This is more like what you are supposed to do – kids.

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