Every year, for 72 hours, Basel turns into a place of loosely organised chaos during its annual carnival, the largest in Switzerland. But those for whom carnival is a prized tradition have found themselves working hard to recruit the next generation of revellers.
On a chilly day in mid-February, the sounds of pipes and drums echo across the plaza in front of Basel’s main exhibition hall. Inside, adults browse stands from area merchants at the Muba fair, an annual trade show all about Switzerland’s third-largest city. But outside, children are learning about one of the city’s oldest traditions, this year being exhibited to young fairgoers for the first time as a way to recruit new participants.
“In the past, you had a lot of local people doing carnival, they knew what it was all about, their parents participated in carnival,” says Cédric Rudin, who heads up the youngest group of members – the “young guard” – in the all-male Schnurebegge drum-and-fife group, known as a “clique”. “Nowadays you have a lot of immigrants living here so you have to show them what carnival is, what it’s all about.”
Today, children from elsewhere outnumber those originally from Basel in the Schnurebegge clique, and the parents of the children come from 15 different countries. Rudin says the children’s backgrounds don’t matter – he and his fellow group leaders just want to expose them to a piece of the city’s tradition and boost the clique’s dwindling numbers of young people among competition for their attention from sports, computers and video games.
Ten years ago, the all-male clique had 80 boys in its youngest section; today, it has just 24.
The clique which proudly formed Basel’s first-ever “young guard” in 1909 succumbed to the realities of the times 90 years later when it was forced to disband its youngest group because of lack of interest. The leader of that clique, the all-male “Wednesday Society”, recently told the Schweiz am Sonntag newspaper that in hindsight, his group should have worked harder at recruitment when interest in carnival was still significant.
Pia Inderbitzin, who heads up the carnival committee overseeing the annual event, says that cliques have now recognised they need to work hard to attract new members. So they’ve gotten extremely creative, setting up booths in front of grocery stores or offering a “last-minute” carnival where children can rent masks and costumes and march along with no commitment.
“Carnival doesn’t have the status that it had 30 years ago or so,” Inderbitzin admits. “At that time, there were fewer activities kids could do in their free time and carnival activities were really a place where you could send kids to learn a serious musical instrument, especially drumming and piping, and to learn how to make lanterns, costumes [and] think of a theme.”
Although carnival tradition has long been taught in Basel-area schools as part of the curriculum, Inderbitzin says it no longer suffices as the only way to teach children about what they can gain by participating, and why it’s worth picking up the piccolo or drum and making a commitment to learning it well.
“If you want to learn to pipe you need two years before you can march on the street with the piccolo, and if you want to drum it takes three years. Drumming especially is very difficult, you really have to build up the skills and practice seriously every day. And that can be a bit of a problem, because the parents always have to get behind the kids to practice, even if it’s only 15 minutes a day.“
Participating in carnival
There are numerous ways to participate in Basel’s carnival, both musical and artistic. Each year, a theme is chosen that is to be reflected in the masks, lanterns and jokes presented at carnival. Leaflets written in prose and verse in Basel dialect are distributed to the crowd to reflect that year’s theme.
Cliques are fife and drum groups that march through the streets wearing masks and costumes. Formerly run by men, most now welcome members of both genders although some are still male-only.
Guggenmuusige are groups of masked musicians who play noisy, slightly off-sounding music in the streets on the Tuesday evening of carnival.
Masks at Basel’s carnival were imported until the 1920s, although they were usually adapted to individual requirements. Later, two young carnival enthusiasts decided to try their hand at papier maché masks. Local artists decorated them. These are now the norm and production usually starts in around November.
Lanterns are carried by cliques and are made from wood and canvas, most of them over three metres high. The light from within illuminates the carved out silhouette of an event which has marked the past year.
Schnitzelbängg are theatrical groups that wander from restaurant to restaurant in the evening, singing and acting events from the past year through jokes and rhymes.
Schyssdräggziigli are individuals and small groups not belonging to a clique that wander the streets and play music with piccolos and drums.
As the young Schnurebegge members gather for their rehearsal, they’re a bit rowdy. But as soon as Rudin and older members tell them to stop and listen, they do. He says they’ve become important mentors for the younger boys, especially since many of them have few male role models.
“Families are often split up and teachers tend to be women. We’re a group of men only, and this way they have some male figures to follow,” he says. “I’ve gotten calls from mothers saying, can you help me, my child is freaking out, and I got the child on the phone and calmed him down.”
To the children’s parents and guardians, participating in carnival offers a sense of community that’s lacking from other activities. The grandmother of one of the most precocious young Schnurebegge members – he eagerly demonstrates a song on the piccolo for those gathered – says the choice of whether to participate was entirely up to her grandson, but she’s glad he decided to participate in something she’d also done as a child.
“He used to play football and we always had to drive a long way to the tournaments which were poorly organised with no feeling of community.”
“Then he said, I don’t want to play football anymore, I want to play the pipe, so here we are. I like it because there’s a real sense of community within the group – the parents all know each other.”
That sense of community is a cornerstone of carnival, especially since, according to Inderbitzin, very little is formally run by a central organisation. The famous 4am “Morgestraich,” where masked bands start marching the moment the city’s lights are switched off, is not pre-arranged at all – groups just assemble randomly and wait for the stroke of 4.
And although the carnival committee gives stipends to the 500 or so groups that register with them, Inderbitzin estimates that hundreds more self-organise, meeting informally in a pub or someone’s home.
The carnival committee has, however, begun to sponsor more and more events to help groups attract new participants to the event, such as a tent set up on the weekend after each year’s carnival to “grab kids while they’re hot,” as Inderbitzin puts it, and show them how they can sign up to participate the following year. They also put on an annual mask-making workshop for school classes, and an annual poetry course that helps young people with a talent for verse learn how to write rhyming jokes about that year’s carnival theme – in the required Basel dialect.
However, getting kids to take the leap from trying something for an afternoon to committing to carnival long-term remains the biggest hurdle. Back at the Basel trade fair, the mother of a girl trying out the piccolo for the first time says she would support her daughter if she wanted to join a clique – but she hasn’t expressed an interest so far, and she already plays the guitar.
Things are dying down at the carnival exhibit as Rudin and the young Schnurebegge members head out into the streets for an end-of-the-day practice march, but evidence of an earlier confetti war litters the ground and he says reception has generally been good so far. He hopes many of the children who came by will take part in a “trial” programme to experience carnival this year, eventually becoming long-term converts.
“We had a lot of people stop by and try it out. I don’t know how many will stay in the end. But whether they end up playing drums or piccolo with us or somewhere else, at least they got in touch with it and we could preserve a little bit of carnival.”