Dragon Heart Beats

Dragon Heart Beats

Dragon Heart Beats is a percussion and street performance show. It was born of making dance music using a Trinidadian-style rhythm section or ‘engine room’. Featuring steel percussion, drumkit, hand drums and steel pans, rhythm sections are found at the heart of most large steelbands in T&T.

When 100 players are beating maybe 300 pans between them, it’s nigh impossible to keep the beat. So the rhythm section is the metronome for the steelband. Usually located in the centre of the band its distinguishing feature in Trinidad is the front line of iron players – most often men, hitting pieces of steel with steel sticks. The sound of the ‘iron men’ is supported by bass from two-note ‘dudup’ bass steel pans, drumkit and a selection of skinned drums; bass, congas and hi-end ‘cutters’ (e.g. bongos).

It’s the iron that really cuts through the sound of 300-odd steelpans and gives the pannists a beat to follow. The simple, repetitive, metronomic beats of the rhythm section keep the whole steelband in time. In Trinidad, engine rooms are an artform in their own right, fanatically followed by supporters at carnival, when as standalone musical units they hit the road on trucks and hand-drawn chassis’ and also perform at carnival fetes.

In 2003, realising the similarities between the pared-back, hypnotic beats of the Trini rhythm section and techno, house and drum & bass – I had played iron at school football matches in San Fernando as a teenager & set up Engine Room UK to make dance music by hand. . We started out with 4 or 5 members and rehearsed until we could emulate the computer-generated regularity of dance music. Touring the club and festival circuit for a few years, we had a great time & converted quite a few fans to our new form of dance music.

Steelpans & iron

At Trinidad Carnival in 2004, I approached the country’s premier engine room – The Laventille Rhythm Section, who very kindly let me play iron with them for the carnival season. In and out of Laventille at all hours with the LRS crew and playing iron on their truck at J’ouvert, dawn on Carnival Monday, I soon realised it’s difficult to play iron percussion consistently well.

Playing with these  seasoned professionals showed me the raw power of this music, with roots in Africa and slave rebellion. It sends people into trance – just like modern dance music. That year I produced a show with LRS in The Hole, Laventille featuring the Laventille Capoeira AllStars. A police cameraman filmed it for us. Damon Albarn also came to carnival to record the music of LRS for his Honest Johns’ label, resulting in a 12″ vinyl ep and CD tracks on various compilations.

After 3 or 4 years of stage gigs at clubs, Glastonbury and other festivals, I came up with the idea of Dragon Heart Beats to allow us to take our heavy steel & percussion instruments off the stage onto the street and around the event circuit. Maybe we could eventually start earning a bit of money from our music. Arts Council England funded the construction of our dragon by amazing Brighton sculptor Ptolemy Elrington with engineering by Alex Saunders.

We began touring Dragon Heart Beats in 2007 and luckily we still get gigs today. We’ve moved on from just music and performance and are gradually adding more and more fire and pyrotechnics to the show, aiming to get as daring as we can with heat as the years go on. We started using samples on Roland SPDS drumpads a few years ago and now mix the modern with our traditional rhythm section instruments. We are now three of the original lineup – Oli Clark, Scott Arnold and myself. We all like the amount of sub bass we can get with samples.

If you’re interested, we are on Facebook and there’s some more video on Youtube