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Attending Fasnacht for the drums
A music professor and student study Basel-style drumming
Fasnacht may mean a carnival celebration to some, but to one Radford University music professor and his student, it was a way to learn a new drumming style and present it in the United States.
Robert Sanderl, professor of percussion, and Jeremy Marks, a music major, recently traveled to Basel, Switzerland to study a unique form of drumming.
Thanks to two Radford University grant programs, Sanderl and Marks were afforded this educational opportunity. Sanderl received a research grant from the College of Visual and Performing Arts. The Scholar Citizen Initiative (SCI), a program supporting student development, research, and other projects, funded Marks’ trip.
The two spent Feb. 20 to March 1 learning a style of rudimental drumming specific to the city of Basel, played during an annual festival called Fasnacht. The festival begins at 4 a.m. the Monday after Ash Wednesday and ends 72 hours later.
Fasnacht is an opportunity for the Basel locals, along with drummers and fifers from Switzerland, to satirize everything that happened during the past year in their city, their country, and around the world.
Ultimately it is a celebration, yet an important part is the music and the themes portrayed by the different music groups as they parade around the old portion of the city. Fasnacht themes are typically ironic and playful, lampooning politicians or national events. These themes are presented on large, locally painted lanterns, which light up at night. Their size ranges eight to 15 feet.
There are between 15,000-20,000 active participants parading through the streets day and night playing drums and piccolos. The musicians organize themselves into groups called cliques. These are similar to an American fife and drum corps.
Each clique picks a sujet (subject) every year to satire, using costumes and the lantern carried in front of the musicians.
Within each clique, there are piccolos, drums, and a Vordraab. The Vordraab marches in front of the ensemble, carrying the lantern and clearing the way for the group. There are around 100,000 people within the city center during the carnival, and the Vordraabs let people know to make way for the clique.
“There is truly no other festival on earth like Fasnacht,” Sanderl said.
He and Marks were able to attend rehearsals and gatherings before the start of Fasnacht, which included costume and lantern preparations.
During the festival, lead by their guide Mark Reilly, a snare drum section leader of the U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Crops, the two paraded with a number of cliques and served in a variety of roles.
“Mark has gone to Fasnacht a number of times and is held in high regard as an American drumming style expert by the Basel locals, and a lot of the groups invite him to march with them for a few hours during Fasnacht,” said Marks.
Toward the end of the carnival, they were given the opportunity to drum, which Sanderl described as a highlight for the two of them.
Named after the city of Basel, this unique style was what Sanderl and Marks sought to learn. While Switzerland as a country has a drumming tradition, the Basel style differs. City musicians are proud of this and are careful in how others interpret it. This occasionally creates friendly disagreement between performers of the different styles.
Sanderl describes the type of drumming as difficult to put into words.
“Basel style drumming has a great deal of intense dynamic shifts from soft to loud that is a true hallmark of their playing style,” he said in an attempt to explain the sound. “Also unique is the ‘feel’ of the music, meaning that while we are used to a very steady pulse here in the U.S., their music ‘pushes and pulls’ a little. This was very difficult for us to learn and get used to.”
“The drumming style that they play during Fasnacht is ancient and rarely studied in the U.S.,” Marks’ said. “Everything from their grip to the construction of their rope-tensioned snare drums is different.”
Sanderl purchased a Basel-style rope-tension snare drum to bring back to the U.S. for the two to practice techniques.
Sanderl and Marks made many contacts while in Basel and hope to work with these individuals in the future on collaborative projects. They are also planning to write an article for the Percussive Arts Society and present clinics at various universities in Virginia, North Carolina and New York.
"Our time in Basel was truly amazing,” Sanderl said. “The people were incredibly kind and welcoming, the music was amazing, and the sights were simply beautiful. It was truly an experience I will never forget.”
“The opportunity to study such an ancient style of drumming right where it was born was an experience that I’m still trying to process,” added Marks. “It was incredible, to say the least, and I’m looking forward to a long and prosperous relationship with the drummers of Basel, Switzerland.”
To learn more about the percussion program or the Department of Music at Radford University, visit www.radford.edu/music.