Friday, 2 July 2010

Solstice celebrations

I have recently returned from a week of celebrations surrounding the summer solstice. We camp in circles, with about thirty people in each, around a central fire used for cooking and warmth in the evenings. Needless to say the weather can make or break this kind of activity and this year we were blessed with warmth and sunshine.

I was one of three official camp musicians and one of our roles was to play for the ceremony and celebrations on the night of the solstice itself. The other two musicians were essentially drummers. One of them plays guitar but an acoustic guitar doesn't really cut it for over a hundred happy people and amplified music is banned by the owners of the site. (Hooray!) So the line up was djembes (one occasionally doubling on cabassa) and, the perfect outdoor instrument, soprano saxophone.

The midsummer ceremony was a DIY event with no overt religious affiliation, pagan or otherwise - a humanist 'make of it what you will' affair. My drummer friends and I began at our circle and visited the other three circles in turn, pied-piping their occupants towards a double spiral maze. This had been laid out with cut hay and nightlights in paper bags. On arrival we continued to play as each person in turn entered the maze.

Entering the maze involved passing between two people who whispered complimentary things about you in both ears at once - a strange, and strangely uplifting, experience as what the conscious mind hears is fragments of all that is said. This took some time. No one had been primed as to what would happen and many took a while to realise that the two 'priests/priestesses' weren't trying to have a little dance with them or kiss them on the cheek. It's impossible to laugh and play the saxophone but I came close.

This went on for some time and my bottom lip was nearly jelly by the time I, and the remaining drummer (the other having become a whisperer), brought up the rear. Then it was party time and much dancing around the fire so more on the soprano to a djembe beat. I love playing outdoors in situations like this. I improvise everything in response to the occasion and what emerges is a blend of styles that have informed my musical being - lyrical British Isles folk, bluesy rock or jazz and middle eastern flavours. At its best it is as if I am 'channeling' the music from somewhere else. Midsummer magic!

A note on the structures. The henge was built about ten years ago and is made of bog oak from the Fens. Apparently the posts were all carefully positioned in accordance with astronomical data. More than that I'm afraid I don't know.

The building is based on an iron age roundhouse and was designed by a man who advises the UN on mud buildings. Before the current war in Afghanistan, John visited the country after an earthquake. By the simple act of changing the shape of the pans in which the mud bricks were made, he succeeded in making the buildings more resistant to collapse in future quakes. My own use of the building was to practise my clarinet so I can still strut my jazz and klezmer for the ongoing wedding season. The mud walls, wooden floor and pitched roof make for a very warm acoustic.

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