Friday, 30 August 2013

The Walled City Tattoo 2013: A Performer's Point Of View

In an interesting turn of events, Si's Sights And Sounds found themselves backstage for Derry-Londonderry's first ever Tattoo. Our writer recounts his experience as a performer of the Londonderry Musical Society on opening night

What is the first thing one thinks about when he or she hears the word "tattoo", apart from the body marks that seemingly have little to do with the spectacle that will lie before our eyes tonight?

Well, would you believe, the Tattoo as we know it is actually derived from "Doe den tap toe" or "tap toe", which is Dutch for "last orders" or, more literally, "close the beer tap". Adopted by the British Army during the War Of The Austrian Succession as a means of signalling the closure of taverns at night, Tap-toe, later Tattoo, eventually came to symbolise not just the last duty call of the day, but also a form of ceremonial entertainment performed by musicians in the military.

This brings us to the Tattoo we all know and love... The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, which emerged from "Something About A Soldier" at the Ross Bandstand in Princes Street Gardens in 1949 into a sell-out extravaganza attracting over 200,000 viewers worldwide. It's an integral part of both the Edinburgh Festival and the international cultural calendar - rows and rows of seated spectators seemingly reaching to the sky, lost in a delightful medley of worldwide culture amidst the epic background of Edinburgh Castle, The Royal Mile and the beautiful city itself. To many, something of that magnitude in Derry-Londonderry this year was more than a recommendation. It was a necessity.

And, largely through the efforts of one James Kee, it has become a reality.

I had always wanted to go to the Edinburgh Tattoo; now I'm set to experience the next best thing. Except I won't; at least not quite as I imagine. As a performer, a member of the Londonderry Musical Society (LMS) choir, I will find myself the equivalent of backstage almost all night as the citizens of our Maiden City and beyond soak themselves in the Celtic song and dance that surrounds them, a one-night cross cultural celebration to be repeated four times over.

Prior to arriving at Ebrington Square and the Venue, I deem a "private" warm up necessary, and so do up the final button up on my shirt before a thorough vocal workout with the best of - what else? - The Divine Comedy. It turns out that the pitch could be better on my rendition of "Tonight We Fly". No matter, perhaps tonight, we will be flying on stage in front of all those people.

Something's still not quite right as I stroll down St. Columbs' Road towards the now famous square. The buzz is brilliant, as it has been with all City Of Culture events, but the humidity's getting to me. Rehearsing in icy temperatures last night convinced me to put on an extra layer today. It's a decision I already feel I may come to regret.

I haven't worn a flower of any kind since my brother's wedding last year, and the flower we all must wear tonight - a red one - is as tough to put on as you'd expect. I'm almost as annoyed that I missed the BBC report on the Tattoo - still, knowing that you and your society are part of a significant event in the local news is always a major confidence boost.

If good ol' Auntie's interest wasn't enough of a reminder of what's at stake, the headline act for the night, the Top Secret Drum Corps from Basel, are battering away in the centre of the Venue as we change backstage in the giant tent. These no-longer-so-top-secret drummers - they're world famous, with a recent anniversary tour taking them to Tattoos in Quebec, Moscow's Red Square and Berlin - are tossing drumsticks in the air, testing rhythms, and above all, really enjoying themselves.

Ah, enjoying oneself. The very thing that our vice-chair Margaret McPhillips is advising every single one of us to do after our final practice rendition of the pieces we'll sing tonight. The words "cool" and "calm" seem invented for this remarkable young woman, considering the pressure that is surely on her shoulders, let alone ours.

We haven't much time to ponder our surroundings, as I'm called outside to practice the male harmonic parts of "Danny Boy" with the rest of the male choir members. Sacrilege though it may sound like, I've never fully grasped this Derry air... maybe it'll just come to me on stage? It'll have to... before we know it, it's time to march outside and get ready to enter the limelight.

The very moment I walk through the Venue's front doors and out into the open, it hits me - humidity and light has metamorphosed into cold and dark in what seems like a matter of minutes. My wisdom in wearing that extra layer has been vindicated. And... what's this I hear as I stroll down to the Square with my colleagues? It is the sound of everything I have heard, on both TV and YouTube, that has relayed the Edinburgh Tattoo to my ears. Although the vibrant movement of the dance troupe - co- choreographed by Georgina Kee, daughter of James - and the sight of all the bands are invisible to my eye, the "wow" factor remains.

And why shouldn't it? The sound alone creates the images of bagpipes, dancers, even guitars in the brain; a visionary spectacle one can only look forward to seeing, a stunning fusion of Irish-Scots culture with a bit of popular music tossed in the mix... which includes the theme tune from, of all films, Police Academy. Opinion is divided on the puerile comedy in the film series, but few doubt that Robert Folk's composition is a classic.

Corniness nearly gets the better of me, as I am overcome by the temptation to salute the musicians around me backstage. Although, with military marching songs being played, and the Hymn To The Fallen from Saving Private Ryan in my head, can you really blame me? John Williams' tune is, after all, the song we're about to sing. Despite the enormity and importance of the occasion, everyone in the LMS is very composed. Some take a chance to sit down and catch their breath, others gossip amongst themselves... we know all we have to do is get up on that stage and perform, and then we can look forward to returning for the finale.

I feel that when performing the more classical pieces in a choir, the focus must be on getting them exactly right - concentration, thoroughness, pitch and level of sound must be paramount. I think it is safe to say that everything goes according to plan as Hymn To The Fallen, conducted and arranged by Noel Barr and also featuring the St. Joseph's Brass Band as well as the LMS, starts and ends quicker than expected. The weather is dry. St. Columb's Cathedral and the Peace Bridge are lit up in the distance. The Square, which represents more of an arena tonight, is bathed in red and violet light. The stands are packed. But I've barely time to take it all in as my concentration must be on Barr and Barr only. We do have our music to fall back on for the song, but light is strangely absent on stage, making it very, very tough to read it. It matters not, though... it looks like everyone is pleased with the performance, and now we've some time to kill before the finale!

Some immediately turn their attention to the crepes stand, some hop to check out the merchandise. Personally, I sort of regret that I'm not able to stay behind on stage and enjoy the firecracker that is Zara Montgomery... seconds after Hymn To The Fallen dies out, she launches into a version of Proud Mary that couldn't be more of a contrast to the song that preceded it. At least I can take in the sound of it all while enjoying the company of friends.

For the uninitiated, Montgomery is one of the multi-talented Sontas, a ten-piece group of singers, dancers and musicians that have earned a reputation around Ireland for turning Irish-Scots trad on its head. They have infused bagpipes, keyboards, guitars, dancing and vocals with contemporary spirit and remarkable energy levels. In many ways, their success is the epitome of this Tattoo - if the pipe bands, military drummers, choral singers and Irish dancers and so on provide the bedrock, Sontas provide the vitality. And despite the wonderful athleticism of the Afrikan Warriors, and the extreme professionalism of the Hardly Top Secret Drum Corps, it is Sontas' vocalists that are to linger longest with me at the end of the night.

Montgomery and fellow Sontas singer Karol Harvey do more than bring poignancy and energy to John Farnham's "You're The Voice" and Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More" respectively. They take the songs and make them their own; Montgomery has the poise, presence and precision of a human dynamo, and Harvey's take on Stephen Foster goes as far as bringing a tear to the eye.

Better still, the LMS has the privilege of participating in "You're The Voice" - even if we only get to sing the chorus. By this stage, it is more about "letting yourself go" in the atmosphere, losing yourself in what by that stage amounts to a certified level of hysteria. A steady rainfall is forgotten about as Culture Company CEO Shona McCarthy acknowledges me, delighted at how well the evening has gone so far. She's right to be optimistic - I suspect the evening has gone so well that there's some kind of "magic" in our voices. What other reason can you offer for the rain stopping the very moment Montgomery begins to sing?

Our full concentration is called for again sooner rather than later as the opening chords of "Danny Boy" are heard. No excuses now - we must sing it without the words. And sing it we do. What I find most remarkable about singing with accompaniment - singers, instruments or both - is that your colleagues play an invaluable part in removing all fear of forgetting the music or lyrics. Their voices and presence guide you along, allowing you to coast swiftly and smoothly throughout your performance without feeling a twinge of intimidation from the potentially spectacular sights around you.

As "Auld Lang Syne", fireworks, and a touching voiceover signal the end to the evening, we can rest well in the knowledge that we have played a major part in Derry-Londonderry history. Like the first ever UK City Of Culture, the first ever performance of the Walled City Tattoo has set a high benchmark for future Tattoos, and future Cultured Cities, too. The "great sea change" that Seamus Heaney hoped for no longer seems a pipedream.

The Walled City Tattoo continues until Saturday August 31. Tickets are still available for Saturday's performance. For more information, visit