The heart of Basel’s cultural identity is not its architecture, or its location on the Rhine, or its home offices of pharmaceutical giants. It’s Fasnacht. Fasnacht is often simply explained as Basel’s Carnival, a la Venice, Rio or New Orleans. But in truth, there’s much more to it than that. Billed as the “three most beautiful days of the year”, it’s a complex set of traditions deeply ingrained in the people who grow up with it and so much more than three days of colorful parades and partying.
You can always tell when Fasnacht is approaching. Music is a key part of Fasnacht, and not long after New Year’s clique members pull out their drums and picolos and start to practice their Guggenmusik. I am not musical in the least, so while I know it is supposed to be off beat or out of key or something, to me it’s very light-hearted—and very catchy. I do know the drumming in particular is very complicated and I have had several people tell me that if you don’t begin learning how to play Guggenmusik by the time you’re about 12, you will never master it. Hence, it really is something people grow up with.
As it gets closer, the Kinderfasnachts begin. Young children in costume parade in the neighborhood around their school, accompanied by just one or two drummers and piccolo players. The teachers are fonts of creativity, coming up with clever themes, and costumes to match, year after year. Then, on weekends, you begin to catch glimpses of groups marching in school gymnasiums. At the school near me, through the tall windows, I can just see the tops of tubas and sousaphones turning in unison as they march, and march, and practice and practice.
Come Fasnacht itself, the music is inescapable in the city center, as the cliques follow parade routes on certain days, and roam randomly at other times. As the cortege goes by, characters toss confetti, candy, flowers, and oranges into the crowd. They’ll target certain bystanders with a special present: it could be a large bouquet, or it could be a bag of confetti dumped on your head!
The music continues long after the confetti is cleaned up. On the three Sundays following Fasnacht, cliques large and small parade randomly through the city playing. It’s a delight to catch the strains floating through the city, making me feel part of this tradition too.