Can you hear the pipes and drums? Basel Fasnacht is just around the corner, learn more about this fantastic cultural tradition with this article by Alain Grimm, first published in Centrepoint's Horizon magazine.
There was great joy when the Basel Carnival (Basel Fasnacht) was added to UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity at the end of 2017. As a deeply rooted cultural event with over 20,000 participants and 200,000 visitors every year, it is not only a socially, but also an economically influential part of public and political life. The Basel Carnival was honoured for its musicality (drums, pipes and Guggenmusik), its oral and written forms of expression, its craftsmanship (lanterns, masks and costumes) and its integrative significance as it engages the entire population.
However, Basel had to earn the honour itself. It is not as if a UNESCO committee travelled around and handed out awards simply as it saw fit. The initiative originated in Basel and a dossier was drawn up in 2016 together with the canton and the federal governments and submitted to UNESCO. This means that Basel itself has deemed its carnival to be worthy of an award - and UNESCO has agreed.
Basel Fasnacht is probably unique in its entirety, its programme and its scope. I say that as a Basel resident and active member of the Carnival myself. But not everything we see at the Basel Carnival is unique nor has it always been that way. I say this as an historian and as head of the project to implement the agreement with UNESCO which calls for continually working to safeguard the intangible heritage. Now as follow up to Basel Carnival’s successful UNESCO application, this project will, among other things, focus on developing a documentation strategy, connecting the archives and making them accessible for research and on sensitising the public to the concept of intangible heritage.
Basel's Carnival features many forms, rituals and figures that can also be found elsewhere. For example, Basel has adopted the Harlequin and the Pierrot from the Commedia dell'arte. Other versions of the typical Basel Waggis can also be seen along the Rhine as far away as the Netherlands. The drumming and piping draw on elements from the military and are inspired by French and English melodies. The Schnitzelbank even goes back to a medieval form of Bänkelgesang (a type of ballad-singer).
A Living Tradition
Today's form of Carnival has little to do with medieval rituals, however. Only the date, which still follows the liturgical calendar, is a reminder. This is not intended to diminish the social significance and importance of the Basel Carnival in any way, rather it is intended to point out that a living tradition, as the intangible cultural heritage is also called, welcomes being enriched and further developed with new elements. Quodlibet (Latin for "as it pleases") was, significantly, the name of a carnival organisation in Basel in the 19th century and describes the essence of the matter quite well. Living traditions are successful when they contain popular elements and motivate people to join in. And as culture and values change, so do rituals and traditions.
When I, as a carnival person, try to describe the Basel Carnival to someone I quickly reach my limits and realise how diverse the Carnival is and that it is almost impossible to capture it in its entirety. There is also probably something of a consensus as to what the cultural characteristics of the Basel Carnival are. This should correspond roughly to what it has been recognised for by UNESCO. As observers, we would recognise the masks, lanterns, musical sounds and rhythms of the carnival as typically Basel and be able to distinguish them from other carnival events in Europe. This also applies to the dialect, which plays a particularly important role within the Basel Carnival.
Despite all these characteristics, the Carnival has many more facets and processes that cannot easily be lumped together. It is the small changes that have a subtle but continuous effect on these seemingly clear characteristics. Today, for example, not all masks are made of papier-mâché nor are all lanterns painted by hand. For some this feels a loss of value while for others it is just keeping in step with the times. After all, every active carnival participant (or even non-carnival participant) has their own views and ideas about what makes Basel Carnival and its magic.
And what is the magic of Carnival for me? My magical moments are not linked to material objects. They are the seconds before the Morgenstreich, when the lights go out at four o'clock in the morning and the city stands still for a brief moment before falling into a state of ecstasy and exhilaration for three days - and I with it.
Basler Geschichtstage (Basel History Days)
I am also one of the organizers of Basler Geschichtstage (Basel History Days), a new series of events in the Basel region that will take place for the first time from 11 to 16 March 2024 under the theme Feuer und Flamme (Fire and Flame). Over 40 institutions and associations from across the region will be offering a fantastic display of history with more than 70 events - for young and old to experience, listen to and take part in. Are you enthusiastic about Basel's history and have always wanted to get to know the diverse programme and the institutions behind it? Then you should definitely not miss the Basel History Days. With just one ticket, you have access to many institutions and events for a whole week, as well as to the big festival on Barfüsserplatz on Saturday.
Alain was born and grew up in Basel. He is deeply rooted in the city and its traditions. He has been an active carnival reveller in one of the oldest carnival cliques since childhood and is a member of one of Basel's historic guilds. Even tho≠ugh the centre of his life is very much focused on Basel, he loves cultural trips to other countries to broaden his horizons.