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Miceli, Sergio
(ed. and transl. by Marco Alunno)

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4.0. Military Tattoos. ‘Unauthorized’ shows

This is a typically European kind of show, although it spread also in other parts of the world. The main centers of production are: Basel (Switzerland), Edinburgh (Scotland), Moscow (Russia), Oslo (Norway) and Quebec (Canada). The Edinburgh tattoo is the oldest.

Let us start with the etymology of the word, at least according to the most accredited theory. Tattoos were born in the XVII century in the Netherlands as a simple musical warning to prevent the innkeepers from selling beer to soldiers who should have been getting back to the barracks. According to this theory Tattoo is the Anglicization of a Dutch expression meaning ‘turn off the tap’: (Doe den) tap toe (pron. ‘tap-tou’). After having being forgotten for more than three centuries, the tattoo reemerged as a show in Edinburgh after WWII.

In a tattoo, rhythmic precision is crucial and an end unto itself. The main difference between a tattoo and a military parade, which are usually quite boring, is that in a military parade weapons always represent what they actually are. They serve as a warning, in addition to arousing the pride of those who wear them and those who attend their procession. Instead, in a tattoo, rifles, sticks and bayonets are joyfully exhibited in the same way a funambulist shows his/her pocket hankies or the typical top hat and rabbit. In fact, the war ‘instruments’ (better, let’s call them for what they are: death tools) are kneaded with the skill of an illusionist and the large audience applaud every number many times. In every show there is always a gallery reserved for the authorities and some high officials saluting as if the whole thing were a serious ceremony.

Scottish and Irish tattoos are the most successful because they do not display only fur hats and banners, but also many ‘pipes and drums’. The one who understood how this kind of show may have a catalyst effect on spectators is André Rieu. In fact, in some shows, he plans the slow and solemn entrance of a big Scottish band. One of the tattoos I examined — the 2013 edition in Basel — contains all the main features of this kind of performance and some traversal connections with other genres. I chose the Basel show as an example also for other reasons: it is a very recent performance, it was entirely filmed and the Basel Military Tattoo has had already eight years of experience. Moreover, the 750.000 spectators who attended the Basel tattoo shows so far represent a success that is even more remarkable when considering that the SRF1’s television broadcasting, according to the TV channel website, is watched every year by more than half million people.

Among the most hilarious numbers there is certainly that by the Royal Corps of Musicians Tonga who enters the arena mimicking the action of rowing with real paddles. In the meanwhile, the band follows the Tonga group and plays a medley of film tunes: first Indiana Jones and, a few measures later, Star Wars, both badly performed. The Swiss-German commentator Heinz Margot says in English “It’s just for fun,” but Latin spectators would have remarked: “excusatio non petita...”.56 The whole thing ends with pounding clapping. Then, the horse guards of Queen Elizabeth II enter the scene along with a brass band. They play a piece from Verdi’s Aida and then other ‘riding’ melodies while the audience rhythmically claps its hands. After this medley, a girl wearing a uniform sings the title song of Agent 007 Skyfall that, as if this were not enough, four dancers interpret wearing a white fluttering dress. On top of that, a Carabinieri band on horses bursts in and walks around the arena playing the Italian anthem. Then, they switch to a medley of Neapolitan songs that includes also Domenico Modugno’s Nel blu dipinto di blu (a song that has nothing to do with Naples) and ends with the choir Va, pensiero from Verdi’s Nabucco. Eventually, this jumble is seasoned with a female choir about which I do not have any information. An English band follows with another Neapolitan song that it has to play to see off the Carabinieri band. No musical logic is pursued when the song is suddenly stopped to pass to an English piece that adequately accompanies the exit of the Band of the Life Guards.

56 In Latin in the original text. The entire expression of medieval origin states: “Excusatio non petita, accusatio manifesta,” that is, an apology that has not been asked for is a clear accusation [EN].

Before moving on, I have an observation to make with regard to clichés. Italy is not represented through songs by such authentic song-writers as Bruno Lauzi, Luigi Tenco, Fabrizio De André, Gino Paoli, Lucio Dalla, Paolo Conte, Angelo Branduardi, etc., but always through the same enduring melodies Italy is known for abroad. Here is an everlasting commonplace officially nurtured by military chiefs whose courage to change is null. Unfortunately, this is true also for other countries. But there are some differences. UK, for example, inserts a title song from the James Bond series that has nothing to do with military parades, but that represents that country anyway through one of its most exported, successful and contemporary products (Skyfall was released in 2012). Therefore, there are different ways to feed a cliché.

Video from the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, 2013.

Some ugly and chubby women wearing Scottish miniskirts.

Let us go back now to the Basel show to see what else a tattoo can offer to our analysis. Once the Queen’s guards leave the arena, 5 street sweepers, like one can see in any town, enter and clean the arena with powerful front and side brushes. Here, of course, they just flatten the sand after so many horses trotted on it. Yet, from the top of the driving cabin, white spurts are launched around. They are very similar to those we will see later on in a Russian pop music concert, precisely when rock music sweeps away the nostalgia for old times and tunes… Once again, certain stage tricks, whose symbolic function is very obvious, are employed in different kinds of shows. The ‘sprouts’ number introduces also the grandiose (and quite… pompier) entrance of a Paris firemen brigade.57 Pretty soon, only the brass section is playing while the other musicians start dancing in Michael Jackson’s moonwalk style. Then the band — the best heard at this stage of the show — eventually plays the complete melody. A very French cliché follows: a group of young men dance on the music of Jaques Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers. To see them vaguely imitating the typical legs’ movements of can-can ballerinas is a bit disturbing. After all, this is also tattoo. And let us not speak about that sometimes — but not in the case of the Basel concert — a tattoo looks like an amateur show, especially when is not performed by military bands.

57 In the translation, a play on words between ‘pompier’ (referred to the celebrative excesses of the art pompier) and pompier/pompiere (the French/Italian word for fireman) was lost [EN].

Much more quality is offered by the Norwegian King’s Guard Band & Drill Team. In fact, a central platoon deployed in one line in front of the audience shows considerable circus skills: e.g. each bayonetted rifle swings in the air from the first to the last soldier and back. This does not only recall other military performances of the kind, but it also illustrates a way of dancing typical of many Celtic-Irish traditional dance groups (about which I will talk later).58 Right after the above mentioned number there are other ‘virtuosic’ weapons choreographies until the feeble sounds of a bell lyre plays the In the Hall of the Mountain King’s melody from Edward Grieg’s Peer Gynt. I think that a very few spectators would be interested to know that this tune is from the Suite No. 1 Op. 23, the incidental music for Heinrik Ibsen’s drama. The Peer Gynt is just a well-known Norwegian topos — therefore, another cliché — that allows the King’s Guards’ military drums to show off. The reader can compare this with what has already been said earlier about percussive ensembles using military drums. Then he/she can imagine a much higher result yielded both by the musicians’ amazing precision59 and their robotic movements.

58 Synchronized dance has a long history. Cinematographic examples that might recall the abstract acrobatic movements of objects (rifles have shapes similar to arms and legs) are the swimming movies with Esther Williams that Louis B. Mayer produced to compete with the Fox’s skating films featuring Sonja Henie [EN].

59 The "best" ensembles are probably the Top Secret Drum Corps (Switzerland). See on YouTube: Top Secret Drum Corps Edinburgh Military Tattoo 2009 and Top Secret Drum Corps: The Next Level (Basel Tattoo 2012). Notice the absence of music in this shows (last accessed Dec. 2014).

The top of kitsch pertains to a Scottish band led by Finlay MacDonald (bagpipe), accompanied by a recorder and a full orchestra reinforcing the overall sonority. However, the main part of the show is entrusted to a group of about thirty girls wearing a sort of provocative Scottish costume. The result is an embarrassing hybrid made of a black, moderately low-necked and sleeveless costume and a definitively short miniskirt. The costume has Scottish stripes on the front and the back, and sides and hips are finished with flame red inserts. The dance looks like a traditional Scottish dance but the dancers seem quite uncomfortable on the unstable pavement. In any case, it is hard to understand what their presence has to do with platoon deployments and military parades.60

60 Ugly and hilarious garbs, hardly balanced between seductive purposes and national identification, are very common in tattoos. What I intend to underline is that the familiarity with a certain genre might, in the long run, imply a sort of ‘normalization’, that is, the acceptance of objectively risible and preposterous performances.

I did not describe all the numbers offered in the 2008 and 2013 Basel editions, for example: during the show of the Band of the South Australia Police the performance degenerates in a drunks’ fake fight accompanied by a pop-style, mixed-voice quartet, an electric guitar and the band that eventually leaves the scene while playing the well-known little march from the film The Bridge of the River Kwei, and much more… But I think this is enough.61

61 After having watched around 60 tattoos, I had initially resolved to write briefly, for example, about the competence of a group of Marines. It was meant to be a compensation to the very poor North-American quality shown in the example of Part I, 1.7 about military parades. I dropped my intention (and others similar to it) once I realized that in the Basel tattoos there was everything worth being mentioned.


Sources: Several YouTube videos (accessed in 2013-2014).
Basel live, 1988 (?).


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