Mockery and Music Behind The Masks of Basel
By Skip Kaltenheuser
Damn everything but the circus!
damn everything that is grim, dull,
motionless, unrisking, inward turning,
damn everything that won't get into the
circle, that won't enjoy, that won't throw
its heart into the tension, surprise, fear
and delight of the circus, the round
world, the full existence
- E.E. Cummings
Wednesday has come and gone, quieting the mad carnival world that embraced
its generous clean slate.
Not in Basel.
It's 3am the Monday after. By decree, the Swiss city is as black as
if an air raid siren sounded. Outlines of people bundled up against
the chill tumble along the tram lines leading to the city center, like
snow melt in the Alps, trickles gradually forming torrents that raise
the Rhine. Small voices of children in stunned disbelief complain of
being kidnapped from their dreams. Schnapps-lubricated laughter bubbles
from adults, drawing ears here and there trying to get a sense of surroundings
that still elude the eyes. Reaching Marktplatz, the giant town square,
I locate a balcony off a building tolerant to party crashers.
A crisis of confidence as I sip restorative infusions
of wine and Mehlsuppe, a flour soup, and munch on Zwiebelwahe and Kasewahe
onion and cheese tarts. The cuisine warms me but the lack of spice
fills me with skepticism about Fasnacht carnival in this
buttoned-down Swiss town bordering both France and Germany. Hell, the
samba could be my partner in a warmer clime.
Faith in self is restored. By 4am, musical notes start
cutting through the dark as distant pipers herald the Morgestraich procession.
Eight thousand-strong, playing fifes piccolo cousins nothing
more hopeful than a relative infinity of fifes. And drummers, thousands
more, building backbone. The tune hails from the American revolution.
I'm reminded of Plato's warning that the flute is an instrument threatening
to rulers. A long serpent of fire crawls closer, evolving into segments,
then huge lanterns, floating and bobbing into the square. They reveal
hundreds of thousands who risk the hour of the wolf to cheer the colorful
gas-lit images and reset their winter rhythms. Ah, me of little faith,
not to trust a town refining this act since the 1300's.
The pipers and drummers take two victory laps around
the square and start breaking off, scattering through narrow, winding
cobblestone streets. Following a group, Im quickly lost in the
still dark streets. I linger in a small bakery's warm light. A plump,
smiling woman loads Fasnachtsküchli, sugar rice thin round cakes,
and Fastenwähe, caraway seed pretzels, in the display window beneath
a grinning, grotesque mask.
A cacophony ensues as troupes of flautists confront
each other at a three-way corner. One group, half-a-dozen women, sports
harlequin uniforms with Napoleon hats. Another brings a dozen masked
male and female "nudists" in flesh colored foam padding exaggerating
sexuality of the opposite sex, the ultimate cross-dressing. The third
gang of masked woodwinds are a reminder of carnivals past, like a clown
convention. These disparate groups meet without a rumble. Like flicking
a stereo switch, one harmonious tune whistles forth until musicians
take their different paths. Hints of dawn accent the sleep-deprived,
giddy feel of these surreal moments, popping up and disappearing like
the final dreams of night.
Since assigning myself the onerous task of exploring
carnival across different cultures sense of duty I always
wonder on arrival if I've placed a good bet. In the dead of winter,
Basel, Europe's pharmaceutical capital, a mishmash of Swiss, French
and German influences, seemed a long shot. But the carnival comes out
of the gate beautifully, winning with the unique eye candy one hopes
for. Carnival here is not cobbled together to please tourists. It presents
a town unconcerned with outside onlookers, ruffling its soul, reawakening
Fasnacht retains themes of renewal, with traditions
back to the Middle Ages, and threads to pagan times, but it differs
from most Lent-based festivals. The region's protestant reformation
roots broke out on Mardi Gras, in 1529. Instead of ending with Ash Wednesday,
Basel's carnival begins after it, providing the chance to catch an extra
carnival. Once ignited, carnival fuses round around the clock for three
days. Until it folds at 4am, for many it is an ultra endurance event.
Afternoon parades with floats are punctuated with medieval
rituals, the dance of death (Totentanz) carnivals everywhere
mock mortality. On the first and third nights, groups gather to drink
and recite Schnitzelbängg, satirical verses in Basel's mongrel
dialect, mostly bedeviling local politicos. They can take a joke.
But the big guns come out on the second evening
the Guggemusige battle of the brass bands. Gugge bands, wonderfully
costumed with dented instruments, wear masks that accommodate mouth
pieces. Musicians practice all year in secret, playing off key, yet
the music's fervent energy is a weather-defying pleasure. Bands march
the streets, invading restaurants and pubs. Tubas and trombones squeeze
into nooks and crannies. Listener delight or anguish depends on mood
and proximity to a trombone, and perhaps imbibements.
Gugge leaders sport the grandest attire, with huge heads.
Costumes are secret until carnival. They range from jungle animals to
Uncle Sams to Terminators. Some bands are female cross-dressing
is a carnival mainstay across many cultures detectable only because
they strut with a little more grace than pomp and circumstance.
What this mannered, family-friendly carnival lacks in
the well-packed thongs in parts of the Latin south, it makes up for
in the cerebral. Basel's carnival is underpinned by unsparing social
satire, in masks and shining from painted lanterns. Targets are gathered
from Basel, Switzerland at large, neighboring countries and the full
Basels satirical splendor continues in the final
evening of carnival, but in the more subdued form of poetry and song
in the citys unique local dialect. Fortunately the pubs and cellars
that host these happenings often hand out translations in English.
Fasnachts most coveted foreign target was once
President George W. Bush. Despite his low profile of late, I dont
think hell ever fully disappear, given his accolades for the fine
financial mess from playing footsy with Wall Street. Bush once vied
for top honors with Silvio Berlusconi, the media mogul who until recently
was engaged in another raucous romp as Italy's prime minister. The Swiss
delight in portraying Silvio as a cross between the Godfather and Mussolini,
with a bit of media Big Brother thrown in. Ive no doubt Berlusconi,
the carnival gift that keeps on giving, will soon return to prominence,
perhaps this time riding an exotic dancer in a scene that would make
Fellini proud. Hi Ho, Silvio, racing away from the taxman and a jailor.
Its vicarious mischief to speculate who else will
prove target grade for masks and lanterns. Ill lay a bet now that
Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the IMF, will be on hand,
perhaps holding court before a parliament of hotel maids.
Perhaps North Koreas Kim Jong Un will wear the
banner of Sexiest Man Alive bequeathed him by The
Onion. Bibi Netanyahu might be hiding a Romney/Ryan yard sign
behind his back. Rupert Murdoch, I imagine him wearing East German bugging
equipment from The Lives of Others. The new president of
Egypt might do the King Tut Strut. Bankers, Swiss and other species,
will be well-represented.
Aspects of America often loom large in Basel. Our last
election offers a bonanza of irresistible potential, from Republican
primary oddities to Karl Rove and his SuperPAC backers. Envision casino
sultan Sheldon Adelson, the mogul of Macau, shooting craps with Newt
Gingrich, or Clint Eastwood in a shootout with a gang of empty chairs.
Wayward generals, certainly. US gun mania, sadly likely. Mad Hatter
lemmings staggering along the edge of fiscal cliffs. America, take pride
in your rich inspiration for carnivals everywhere. Washington ought
to be carnival capital.
Fasnacht is a bellwether of public opinion. Some images
conjure common concerns medical care, retirement pensions, medical
care, church sex scandals, Middle East fiascos, even preoccupation with
cosmetic surgery. Global warming, to be sure. Our anxieties bubble up
in front of fun-house mirrors.
In an alley, a garish troupe in comedic masks with cartoonish
features giant red noses, and huge teeth, between which eyes
peer out confronts me. Their noses are of Basel's unique style,
best described as phallic, some drive home the point with a small figure
of a chorus girl hanging on a nostril. As I gaze into their eyeteeth,
several hold my attention pouring me wine, posing for a photo. Their
confederates covertly fill my coat hood with a miraculous amount of
confetti. As the night gets cold and I don my hood, the confetti spills
past my ears into my shirt and my coat pockets. When I pull something
from an inside pocket, it still offers up confetti.
Pack up all my care and woe,
here I go, singing low, Bye Bye Blackbird.
1926, Ray Henderson & Mort Dixon
In 2013, Basel Fasnacht begins at 4am Monday Feb. 18th.
Dont be late. (www.basel.com)
There are other carnivals in Switzerland, including Lucerne,
which celebrates February 7th-12th (www.myswitzerland.com).
There is no better total immersion in a countrys culture than
carnival. Explore possibilities at (www.carnifest.com).
Come play the fool - food for the soul.
of Basel; Switzerland's
Graubunden Region; The
Rosengart Collection, Lucerne; Monte
Verità, Switzerland; Switzerland:
Europe's Jewel Box; Switzerland
Tourism's Intellectual History; Zurich