By Benjamin Coombs
We are standing in a circle of 100 people, deep in the countryside of Tipperary. A chorus of violins, accordions, guitars, drums and voices burst into life and we begin to dance, circling hand in hand, stepping and spinning, and laughing as we bump into one another. On the horizon the sun is setting in a red glow, and all around us children race and chase, clutching branches and each other. There are no mobile phones, no cars, no computers: only the curl of wood smoke and the sound of laughter and play. It is a timeless scene, and for a moment I feel as if I were in some magic place.
This is Earthsong. But how did I – an Englishman from south London – get here? How did I end up living in a field every summer, helping to organise Ireland’s foremost camp? And what makes Earthsong so special? Why do people come back here year after year? Why do more and more people want to come?
The story begins with a beat. One Saturday in Notting Hill in 1997 I heard an African djembe drum for the first time and I said, “I want to do that!” But it was two years before I got the chance: first my best friend had to entice me to move to Galway, and then my new flatmate had to drag me to a tribal spirit drum class on the banks of the Corrib. It was here that I met John Bowker. At the time I had no idea I’d stumbled into one of Britain’s most accomplished drum teachers, but I knew it was great fun. I learned drum rhythms and how to play with others, and I soon saw that the drum circle was about more than music. When held as a safe space with freedom to make mistakes, the drum circle creates a strong sense of community between people; a place of natural human compassion. I was beginning my journey with the healing power of the drum.
So I jumped in – I played at a fundraising gig in Dingle in 2001, and I started to help out at John’s weekend retreats at the Boghill Centre in Clare. And all the time it was growing. Rather than 20 people at the retreats, soon there were 50, and then in 2002 we started a longer event: a five-day healing drum workshop, which is now held every year. This event was powerful and tricky to hold, and when we finally got it right after some teething problems, I was relieved. I felt I could relax. But John had other ideas.
“We’re gonna do a camp Ben. That’s the next step,” he said. “A camp. What the hell is that?” I responded. “Like a mini Glastonbury, only there’s no electric music, we make the music, and there are no drugs or alcohol. It’s family friendly,” he said. “How many people?” I enquired. “Maybe 500?” he suggested. “What if it goes wrong?”
It was scary and exciting. Those of us who had been nourished by John’s group, Tribal Spirit Drumming, had to trust him and his partner Angie Pinson’s vision. It was a crazy time. A month before the first Earthsong in June 2007, John’s cottage was crammed with equipment for camp. His living space was a jumble of handpainted signs, poles, sacks of canvas, ropes and flyers. We’d never done a camp before and we were understaffed, so the days on the land in Mullingar with a small crew were feverish: putting up canvas, hammering in pegs, staking out fire points, with endless meetings to assess how we were doing. We lost track of time in the race to finish a million jobs, with many of us learning new skills as we went. We were stressed out and working far too hard, but somehow we didn’t care; we believed in what we were doing, and we were hoping to create something beautiful.
Suddenly it was time. People were arriving. Mums, dads and kids and young people, all wheelbarrowing their stuff onto the land, their faces excited but nervous, just like ours. What’s happening here? What’s this all about? The question hung heavy in the air. And what a magnificent week it turned out to be. Despite a pummelling from wind and rain, the camp was tremendous. We got our first taste of how exciting it could be: the rush of hundreds of drummers playing and dancing together; the wild dressing up and celebrations; the peace of being on the land together away from distractions; and the power of gathering to sing heart songs in the mornings.
But we had made it by the skin of our teeth. John was exhausted, and it was obvious that we needed to find a team to share the work and decision-making; a core group to support John as camp co-ordinator. Miraculously the team was already there waiting, and as I write this, the same core group, minus a couple of people, still oversee the camp. We have found that none of us has all the answers, but together we find the right way.
I am proud to be part of the team and excited that Earthsong keeps growing and getting stronger. Indeed 2012 is a big year for us. A unprecedented series of four events is being organised because 2012 is seen astrologically as a key time, a focus point for change on the planet. So as well as dance, drum and movement and harvest camp, we are also running two other camps. The first camp in May is a unique opportunity to be part of the creation of a magnificent stone circle in Clare, and in June, there is an intimate five-day healing drum camp with a sweat lodge, aimed at those who have already settled in with Earthsong or Tribal Spirit.
But what makes Earthsong events magical? It’s not an airy-fairy magic; it’s a magic that happens when ordinary people are gathered together on the land with the right boundaries in place and the space to be themselves. It’s a magic that happens because of hard work and expertise; making the toilets comfy; getting the showers hot; investing in beautiful venues; and searching out the best workshop leaders. When a camp is done right, it seems to fulfil deep human needs: our need to get close to the earth and be in tune with nature’s rhythms, our need to connect with our fellow human beings, our need to have fun, and laugh and cry.
I still feel as excited as ever about Earthsong, and now that we have secured a lease for the land in Tipperary for the next 15 years, Earthsong is established for many years to come. This summer I will be camping on the earth with friends; singing, drumming and sitting by the campfire, walking in the woods and telling stories with the kids. Maybe you will be there too.
Benjamin Coombs is a writer and teacher.
Want to go to Earthsong?
– Earthsong Stone Circle Camp, May 24th – June 4th
– Earthsong Healing Drum Camp, June 22nd – June 26th
– Earthsong Dance, Drum and Movement Camp, July 7th – July 15th
– Earthsong Harvest Camp, July 21st – July 29th