THIS Friday and Saturday night, 10,000 music lovers will descend on Ulster’s capital to enjoy a true extravaganza of Ulster Scots music, as the first ever Belfast Tattoo comes to the Odyssey Arena.
A host of bands, musicians, dancers and singers will take to the stage, emerging from the portcullis of a castle backdrop, 100 feet by 50 feet high, and entertain a packed arena for two hours each night.
It will be nothing short of a spectacle, promises the show’s producer and director, Colin Wasson, and, he adds, that is exactly what it must be, as he plans to entice audiences back next year - and the next, and the next.
“We are already booked in to the venue until 2020,” confesses the director of RCW Live Events and Management.
“Next year we’re going the three nights and the fourth year we’re going to four nights, and then we’re building it up to a week.”
And if the reception to the show by Northern Ireland people this year is anything to go on, Colin’s future plans are sure to be a success.
Perhaps that is because there is a strong feeling that an event of this scale is long overdue. As Colin says, Ulster has, per head of population, more marching bands than anywhere else in the world.
As well as some of the Province’s top pipe bands, such as Ravara, Seven Towers and Aughintober, the show will include accordion, flute and silver bands, dancers from the likes of the Belfast Tattoo Highland Dance Troupe, and former World Champion Drum Majors.
It’s been carefully crafted, co-ordinated and put together by musical director Robert Watt, who is the current World Champion Solo Piper, and musical arranger, Nigel Edgar, who is also well known on the local band scene for his prowess on the flute, cornet and piccolo. Presenter Helen Mark, of Countryfile and Greenfingers fame, will be the event’s MC, and Olympic medal winner Dame Mary Peters will be taking the salute.
The vision for such a musical extravaganza took roots around three years ago, admits Colin.
“I had had a few discussions with a few people, and I had a bit of time on my hands, and thought there was a niche in the market for an Ulster Scots-based extravaganza of music and dancing and culture.”
And there are a lot of people in bands who are very dedicated to their music, so I decided if we had a platform to show that off across the board, then that would be a good thing, and we could develop it year on year to become a major attraction.”
But a lot of hard work has gone on behind the scenes to ensure that Colin’s dream came to fruition, and involved him literally starting from scratch, tracking down phone numbers of bands whom he wanted to see get involved, and driving miles across the Ulster landscape to find such people.
“In truth it took me probably six to nine months driving up and down the roads of Ulster full stop,” he says, adding that his journey took him right up into the corners of Donegal, where “there is a very strong Ulster Scots contingent.”
“David Scott from the Northern Ireland branch of the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association got me the first mobile phone number for the Seven Towers Pipe Band in Ballymena. I contacted them and one telephone number led to another. Literally, I used the internet to research and send Facebook messages to bands I had never heard of, in communities I had never heard of, to make contact with them and see if they wanted to be part of it.”
And as Colin goes on, other important local ‘stories’ were unearthed as well.
“If you take, for example, Ballinran Flute Band at the foot of the Mournes – I had never heard of (this community), and it transpired that they played a particular type of flute a wooden flute, and these flutes were made by a company in London which was going out of business.
“So these guys went over to London, bought the business and the tools, and they are now making these wooden flutes not only for themselves, but for other bands. The company is called Millar Wicks and they are providing employment in that area. Now that to me is a story that needs to be told.”
A variety of people have been on hand to help Colin bring the Belfast Tattoo to life. As well as Robert Watt and Nigel Edgar, whom he says have between them “managed to provide” the running order of the show which he had formulated in his head, World Champion Drum Major Brian Wilson MBE is marching coordinator for the pipe bands, and it is “his job to get 250 pipes and drums on and off the floor seamlessly”.
Colin himself is already looking forward to next year’s event, and reveals that half the bands needed are booked, including a pipe band from Madrid called Lume De Biquera; their instruments play a “totally different sound” to the bagpipes we are used to hearing here, he says.
And certainly this seems like a suitable way to kick off his plan to “internationalise” the Belfast Tattoo, and bring in people from even further afield in 2014.
One competitor who is excited about this weekend’s event is Kilkeel man Alan McBride, a five times World Senior Champion drum major who has been competing since he was just seven years old.
As well as leading some of the bands, he will be singing as well.
“One is called Here’s To The Heroes, which is performed with the brass band, and then I’m doing a duet with another girl called Sylvia Whiteside – The Prayer, which is an Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion song,” says the Co Down man, whose sister Violet was the first woman ever to win the World Champion Senior Drum Major title.
Indeed, unsurprisingly, Alan comes from a highly musical family; his father was pipe major in the family’s local pipe band, Cumberland Pipe in Kilkeel, and his brother Harry was also drum major.
“My father wasn’t a drum major, but he knew what was expected and he taught all three of us,” says Alan.
“The band competed at pipe band championships, so we all took part. At the age of seven my first contest was in Moy, Co Tyrone, and I remember winning, and my father running up and carrying me over his shoulders.”
Alan’s passion for parading at the forefront of the band, mace in hand, was sealed, and he has gone on to win Ulster, All-Ireland, British, Scottish, European, and Australian Championship titles, and travelled the world for contests, exhibitions, workshops and judging.
“It normally looks easier sometimes than it is,” he says, when I ask him how tricky a Drum Major’s art is, and how much practice it requires.
“But it is difficult because anything that you do, any flourishes such as the spinning of the mace in the air, you have to make sure that you don’t lose your marching or your line, or take a longer stride or a shorter stride or stretch, otherwise you will be penalised.
“So it’s trying to get a routine that is perfect, and then you have to alter it according to the weather as well, as all contests are outside.”
Today, Alan is keenly involved in tutoring and judging, and says that the interest shown by younger children in Drum Majoring is “unbelievable”.
“When you go into a band you can lose your identity within the band, and you’re sort of known as the band, but this is an individual ‘sport’ where you get the satisfaction from what you do, and know that if you make a mistake you’ve only yourself to blame, you’re not letting other people down,” he says. I think a lot of people just like that it is that individual competitive thing, that they can put in as much or as little effort as they want.”
Alan believes that skill aside, the aspect of discipline and pride in one’s appearance is also hammered home to participants.
“In the contest you are judged on your uniform, and even if socks are not level, or there’s a bit of dust on your jacket, or the hat is worn the wrong way, you’ll lose points for that.
“And then there is discipline obviously in how they walk and carry themselves - what I say to the kids is to walk with good posture in everyday life and then that will transfer over, so it will come naturally to you and you won’t have to work at it.”