The Basel Tattoo

This year, from July 14-22, the Basel Tattoo—a music festival with mostly military marching bands and lots of bagpipes and drums—is celebrating its 16th anniversary. But how did such an event get started here in Basel and become the second-largest event of this type in the world?

How It All Started

© wikipedia / heiko dewees

It all started when a group of seven drumming enthusiasts, led by Erik Julliard, in 1991 formed a group called Top Secret. In 1996, they had their first public performances as part of Kleinbasel’s pre-Fasnacht event, the Glaibasel Charivari, in front of enthusiastic audiences. Fast-forward another 5 years, and the group entered the international scene, participating in the Nova Scotia International Tattoo in Halifax, Canada, in 2001. Only 2 years later, in 2003, they already reached what many would consider the pinnacle of drumming events when they were invited to the world’s greatest Tattoo—the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. By then, they had grown from seven members into the larger formation they are today, the Top Secret Drum Corps. They received great acclaim for their first Edinburgh performance, and over the years, they have become the world’s best show drum corps—a status underlined by the fact that they are the only civilian formation that to date has been invited six times to the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

What’s a Tattoo Anyway?

The word “Tattoo” is derived from a Dutch military command. In the 17th century, the commanders of Dutch troops indicated the end of the day and curfew for their soldiers with the signal “doe den tap toe” (close the tap). This signal usually was played by a drummer or piper. The English language converted the Dutch term into “Tattoo.” Over time, the term has become synonymous with music festivals of military music.

From Drum Corps to Tattoo

© basel tourismus

After the Top Secret Drum Corps’ first performance and success at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, Julliard began to wonder if a grand event like that could also be organized in Basel. He first started out small, with more limited events in the St. Jakobs-Arena in 2004 and 2005. But in 2006, he took the leap of organizing the first official Basel Tattoo in the courtyard at Kaserne. And his gamble was successful—the five shows of that first edition of the Basel Tattoo were all sold out and attracted a total of 38,000 spectators.

Since then, Julliard has become one of the leading figures in the international Tattoo scene. He travels around the world to maintain his networks, recruit new formations to participate in the Basel Tattoo, and impart his experiences and knowledge elsewhere. And this dedication pays off; he regularly can convince royal guards from all over the world, other world-class formations, as well as spectacular show acts, to come to Basel.

The Basel Tattoo Success Story

From its relatively small beginning, the Basel Tattoo over the years has developed into the second-largest Tattoo worldwide (behind the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo) and one of the most spectacular open-air Tattoos. It features not only military marching bands playing classical music, but also highlights from rock and pop history, Scottish Highland sounds with the Massed Pipes and Drums, and the glamour and elegance of various royal guards.

And this high-class mix has certainly been a recipe for success: Since 2006, more than 1.1 million people have enjoyed the shows live at Kaserne, about 70,000-80,000 per year, and an additional 4.8 million have watched them on TV.

More Than Just Shows

© pressebilder / patrick straub

Thanks to this success and the great demand for tickets, which have often exceeded the number of available seats, the organizers have added several side events in recent years. One of these is the Basel Tattoo Parade, which leads all participating formations and other groups on a procession through town—an event enjoyed by up to 120,000 spectators who line the route. This year, it will take place on Saturday, July 15, at 14:00.

Another addition is the Children’s Day, where children can meet Tattoo participants on the grounds of Kaserne, try out the instruments, and ask their questions. They will also receive an ice cream, a cold drink, and a small gift. This year, the Children’s Day takes place on Saturday, July 22, from 14:00-15:30.

© stephen oliver

Finally, visitors can enjoy the Basel Tattoo Street with its festival-like character, which is set up alongside the Kaserne arena. Numerous clubs and organizations pamper guests with their delicious culinary offers. This area is accessible even without a ticket to the shows. They are open each day from Friday, July 14, to Saturday, July 22, including before and after the shows.

Like all other major Tattoos, the Basel Tattoo also supports numerous charitable organizations through its Basel Tattoo Charity foundation. This foundation was formed as a sign of gratitude to the multitude of volunteer helpers who support the Tattoo as well as for the logistical support provided by the Swiss Army during the setup and breakdown of the Tattoo arena. It provides funds to organizations or projects supporting military music as well as cultural, charitable, social, and ecological activities and institutions involved in sponsoring youths and professional training.