Basel drummers pound out expert carnival beat

Emily Mawson
Emily Mawson - [email protected] • 5 Mar, 2014 Updated Wed 5 Mar 2014 19:24 CEST
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Drummers play a key role in Basel’s three-day annual carnival or Fasnacht. But drumming is more than just a pastime in this German-speaking city on the Rhine River, as The Local’s Emily Mawson discovers.

When Basel author Maria Aebersold entitled her 1970 collection of short stories ‘Basel natives are born drumming’, she couldn’t have put it better. 

From the explosion of sound that fills the air as its 2,500 drummers make their way around the centre on the annual carnival parade at Basel Fasnacht to the pounding of Kessel (drums) that accompanies its drummers when they marry or die, the percussive beat is at one with the city.

Basel is home to a third of all registered drummers in Switzerland and specially designed drums are made here. It is easy to see how the bug spreads from the wide-eyed children who watch the parade, known as the Cortège, to the young adults perfecting their technique in a carnival club drumming school.

With at least three years’ practice required to reach a level necessary to participate in the carnival as a “Ruesser”, it takes dedication – and passion.


Stefan Freiermuth caught the bug from his uncle, who was a talented drummer. At the age of eight, he joined a club to learn how to drum. Now 24, the former Swiss youth drumming champion is a four-time winner of the Basel carnival’s competition for drummers.

“The most enjoyable aspect of drumming for me is that you can own an instrument that has a long tradition and history, and you can perfect the art of drumming to really make an impression on people,” says Freiermuth.

In addition to playing, he builds drums professionally. Drum making is not a vocation taught by colleges. But through a chance encounter during his apprenticeship as a carpenter, Freiermuth became successor to the “drum-smith” at Switzerland’s largest drum workshop, Schlebach AG.

And where better to learn the art than in Basel, which has its own method of drum making dating from 1571.

Basel’s own drum

“The Basel drum is a rope tension drum, and it is square – so its height and diameter correspond,” says Freiermuth, of the drum that circulates in prestigious quarters.

At the Vatican, Pope Francis has a corps that beats crested Basel drums, and the Spanish royal family ordered ten Basel drums when visiting the Music Fair in Frankfurt two years ago.

Apart from its role in the carnival, drumming is embedded in the city’s heritage and is used for traditional activities such as the guilds’ rituals. It is even listed in the Federal Office of Culture’s ‘List of Living Traditions in Switzerland’.

“It is remarkable to think that Basel’s drummers have mastered such a special technique with one of the oldest musical instruments in human history,” says Martin Kirnbauer, curator of musical instruments at Basel Museum for Music where Basel’s oldest drum (1571) is on display.

Although the carnival is now the most important connection between the drum and the city, it is important to remember how the love affair started.

Origins in the military

“Today, there are hundreds of drum groups strolling the city centre during carnival from the so-called Morgenstreich (the early-morning opening procession) onwards,” he says. “But this tradition of Fasnacht was invented in the 19th century, combining older traditions, such as the then-prominent sound of military drummers, who made a very powerful acoustic signal in the soundscape of the city.”

Of course nowadays, you can best appreciate the drum when played by men and women – the role is no longer restricted to men – as they parade through Basel’s city centre in fantastic costumes.

“Basel drums are among the most traditional instruments at Basel Fasnacht,” says Annicken Gravino of the Fasnachts-Comité, the non-profit group that organizes the Cortège at the city’s carnival. “The drummers are thus very much as important as the other musicians involved, helping to create the atmosphere.”

Basel Fasnacht takes place from March 10th to 12th.

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Emily Mawson 2014/03/05 19:24

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