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Guest: Basel's Fasnacht Festival
Berlusconi Rides Again:
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

sh 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, I’m 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 identity.

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 international circus.

Basel’s satirical splendor continues in the final evening of carnival, but in the more subdued form of poetry and song in the city’s unique local dialect. Fortunately the pubs and cellars that host these happenings often hand out translations in English.

Fasnacht’s most coveted foreign target was once President George W. Bush. Despite his low profile of late, I don’t think he’ll 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. I’ve 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.

It’s vicarious mischief to speculate who else will prove target grade for masks and lanterns. I’ll 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 Korea’s 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. Don’t be late. ( There are other carnivals in Switzerland, including Lucerne, which celebrates February 7th-12th ( There is no better total immersion in a country’s culture than carnival. Explore possibilities at ( Come play the fool - food for the soul.

Related Articles:
Images of Basel; Switzerland's Graubunden Region; The Rosengart Collection, Lucerne; Monte Verità, Switzerland; Switzerland: Europe's Jewel Box; Switzerland Tourism's Intellectual History; Zurich

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