Swiss and Basel Drumming.

05 Feb
 Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Mss.h.h.I.3 Parchment · 472 ff. · 38 x 27.5–28 cm · Bern 1478-1483, Diebold Schilling, Amtliche Berner Chronik, vol. 3. Swiss Halberdiers and Pikemen approaching the Battle of Morat (Murten),1476. photo courtesy Markus Estermann, STPV. Click on photo to enlarge.

Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Mss.h.h.I.3
Parchment · 472 ff. · 38 x 27.5–28 cm · Bern 1478-1483,
Diebold Schilling, Amtliche Berner Chronik, vol. 3. Swiss Halberdiers and Pikemen approaching the Battle of Morat (Murten),1476. photo courtesy Markus Estermann, STPV.
Click on photo to enlarge.


Until recently I was unaware of the existence of more than one side drumming tradition in Switzerland. I had believed Dr. Fritz Berger to be the preerminent Swiss drummer who during the 1930’s consolidated disparate Swiss styles into one. The presence of his solo Rudimenter Good Luck (Basel-America Mixpickles), in the National Association of Rudimental Drummers book, America’s N.A.R.D. Drum Solos, a.k.a. The Green Book,  precipitated this belief. Later, the fame of Basel , Switzerland’s Fastnacht Festival and its drummers became well known to me and many other North American drummers.

Alfons Grieder of Basel, Switzerland was reputed to be Dr. Berger’s best student and disciple.  His early visits to North America and stunning performance with the American Basel ensemble Americlique during the Percussive Arts Society International Convention in 2002, further enforced my belief that Alfons’ drumming was the drumming of Switzerland.  I may have subconsciously wanted its unsettling bar line hesitations to be a national trait, uniquely Swiss as Scots drumming to Scotland and our straight forward anglo style of military drumming to North America.

And then in July of 2014, an e-mail arrived from Mr. Markus Estermann of the Swiss Fife and Drum Association intended to convince me that Swiss and Basel drumming were different entities. Below I reprint a few pertinent correspondences between Mr. Estermann and myself, all edited for clarity and continuity. As well as providing a context for this article, they contain information that may well be of interest to the general public and drummers in particular.

Finally I enclose an e-mail sent to me by Mark Reilly after he read this article.

26 August, 2014

Hello Robin

I studied your homepage. Under the chapter “snare drum notation” you wrote about Swiss notation. It is the hieroglyphs are used only in a few Basel drum and fife groups. The Swiss notation has nothing to do with hieroglyphs. You got from me all known Swiss military music scores actually known.
Alphons (sic) Grieder is unknown in the Swiss drum and fife association. (Italics by R.E.)

I hope we stay in contact.

Kind regards
Markus Estermann

26 August, 2014
Dear Mr. Estermann,

Thank you for your e-mail and notation downloads. I believe you refer to my postings titled “Examples of Snare Drum Notation” from 1589 to 1869 arranged chronologically. The example is the early Swiss drum notation you mention in your mail.

1860 ca.- Swiss,with modern notation below.

1860 ca.- Swiss,with modern notation below.

This score appears in your downloads as well as the booklet I referenced for my article, a booklet accompanying the three CD collection titled Trommeln und Pfeifen in Basel.

This collection, as well as the LP recording 100 Joor VKB were presented to me by Alfons after his appearance in the 2002 Drummers Heritage Concert in Columbus, Ohio, USA.

I have not been able to find an article of mine that uses the word hieroglyphs in connection with Swiss drumming notation.

Kind regards,

Robin Engelman

Dear Mr. Engelman

Thank you very much for your e-mail.

Unfortunately Alfons Grieder is not known in Switzerland and he has no influence to the Swiss drumming.

He was talking in the USA about Basel drumming not Swiss drumming.
Basel drumming is an element of Swiss drumming. So he put a lot of mythos in his publication. Georg Duthaler was historian and he has a correct view of the matter.

Swiss drummers used more than 200 years music scores and not hieroglyphs. Dr. Fritz Berger adapted the Swiss drummers music scores to the Basel-/French style. All typical Basel rudiments came from France.

I hope to give you some input and we can stay in contact.

Kind regards
Markus Estermann

Comment: Alfons passed away in 2003 and I don’t know the publication to which Mr. Esstermann referred. Nevertheless, it was now clear that Swiss Drumming, in a nutshell, is an altogether different discipline from Basel Drumming and had been long before Dr. Berger’s work.

While preparing this article I contacted some of my North American drumming colleagues and found they too had assumed Basel drumming to be Switzerland’s only military style of Drumming.

27 August, 2014
Dear Mr. Estermann,

I am sorry to hear Alfons is unknown in Switzerland and among Swiss drummers. He was a gentleman of great dignity and an exceptionally gifted musician and performer.

Thank you for making the very important distinction between Basel and Swiss drumming, a distinction I was unaware of and misrepresented because of personal ignorance.

I appreciate you taking time to write me and I have begun searching my articles in order to correct any faults relating to this issue.

My sincere best wishes,

Robin Engelman

27 August, 2014
Dear Mr. Engelman

Thank you for your e-mail. I am sure that we have a lot to exchange.

Kind regards
Markus Estermann


Mark Reilly’s clear and informative response to this article is reprinted below with his permission and my sincere gratitude.

Hey Robin,

Thank you for the email. I hope you had a wonderful holiday and a fantastic New Year. It is an honor for me to read through this. Markus is a good friend. We met a few years ago and spent time together here in DC this summer. I will see him again next month in Basel for Fasnacht.
As for the article, I believe this to be a beautiful write up delineating the two divided but connected drumming worlds present in Switzerland. There was one spelling error (Nark instead of Mark). I am also not sure if you would like to include some of the realities of this event regarding the Swiss trip this summer. The STV, now called the STPV only brought 60 members over for their US tour. I am not sure what the entire reason was for the smaller numbers.

When it comes to the differences between the Basel style and the “Swiss” style there are many differences that may seem subtle to our “American” ears but to those immersed within these cultures the differences are not only found within the music but also their customs.

The Basel style certainly became extremely popular around the world when Dr. Berger connected with the NARD in the 1930s and even more so when Alfons came to the States. The Basel style as it stands today certainly contains several localized dialects that vary from clique to clique, similarly to that of the Ancient fife and drum corps in the Northeastern portion of the United States.

The Swiss style that Markus refers to is also new to me as well. The research that Markus has shared focuses on the other fife and drum traditions prevalent in cities like Zürich, and the Wallis (Swiss Alps region), and Geneva. The Wallis fife and drum tradition is a very old tradition and still uses 6 hole wooden fifes with rope tension drums unlike the piccolos used in Basel.

I am not sure how far you would like to dive into this topic. It is expansive due to the depth of the cultural divide between Basel and the “other” parts of Switzerland. To compare it to American sports… The Basel / Zürich rivalry is similar to New York / Boston. A great example of this is Ivan Kym who is a Swiss national champion that lives outside of Basel and has begun to really push the envelope when it comes to technical demand of Rudimental drumming in Switzerland. He blends Basel drumming techniques with a myriad of other influences to include snare drum ensemble pieces that include several layered parts, comparable to the feel of a percussion ensemble.

It is my opinion that the shear number of drummers in Basel and the size of the Basel Fasnacht is a large reason why most of us have only heard of Basel when it come(s) to Switzerland’s drumming history.

I hope that this helps… Please let me know if there is anything else I can help with.

Cheers and best regards

SFC J. Mark Reilly

Snare Drum Section Leader

3d U.S. Infantry Regiment “The Old Guard”
Fife & Drum Corps

Official Ceremonial Unit and
Escort to the President of the United States

Comment: Mr. Estermann kindly provided me with  a recent example of Swiss drumming: Click on link to view:



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8 responses to “Swiss and Basel Drumming.

  1. Peter Mason

    February 6, 2015 at 4:15 am

    hi. Alfons has had a great impact on our group Americlique for many years! He first came in the early 1990’s when our group was still young. We play some of the music that Alfons wrote. My book Connecticut to Basel will describe more detail about the different states of writing between Swiss drumming, Basel drumming, and American Rudimental drumming (and a little French drumming as well!) I have been researching for a long time on this and have been composing drum literature in all the styles! It is a great topic to have discussions about! Thank you for posting!

    • robinengelman

      February 9, 2015 at 9:01 am

      Dear Peter,

      Thank you for writing. I was impressed by Alfons as he was with Americlique after your first rehearsal with him in Columbus. I suppose David Faontaine is still with the group. I hope you can al go to Basel. Mr.Markus Estermann ask if I planned to attendm but alas, I annot.

      Best regards – Robin

      • John Davis

        February 9, 2015 at 12:54 pm

        Hello Robin,
        Thank you very much for your article and for posting your correspondence thereafter. I am with the Los Angeles Fifes & Drums and one of our founding members was befriended by Alphons, having met him in the 60’s while on tour with the USAF Pipe Band. Sometime later Alphons gifted him with a Basel drum and it is this drum that we based our design to build our own drums in size and sound. From all accounts I am told that Alphons was a man of great character and support.

        It was the 2002 Drummers Heritage DVD which was given to me by Dennis DeLucia that got me to switch from pipe band drumming to F&D style. At that time I was under the impression that Basel drumming was representative of ALL Swiss drumming. Thank you all for the clarity. I am now under the impression that the Basel style is a modern and regional style (albeit popular) yet not necessarily historically or regionally representative of the true ancient style of Switzerland. I look forward to learning more about the original style of ancient Swiss drumming as the information is exciting to me.

        Yours Aye, John Davis

      • robinengelman

        February 12, 2015 at 9:14 am

        John – thank you for your comments. I’ve asked my Swiss correspondents for mp3 files of Zurich and Wallis styles to compare with Basel style. I’ve not yet had a reply, but will post information as I recieve it.

        Kind regards – Robin

      • Peter

        December 6, 2015 at 9:02 am

        Robin. I have since been to Switzerland on extended trips. I will be back this summer again for the Central Swiss Fife and Drum competition. I will be competing individually as a member of Markus’s group, TV Lenzburg. On my trips there in 2012 and 2015, I was able to
        collect music and research from Markus and other noted Swiss musicians. I will be publishing my book Connecticut to Basel this coming year! It will contain history and music of American drumming and Swiss/Basel drumming as well! David Fontaine is my teacher of Basel drumming! This year marks our 25 Joor for Americlique and he is still a big part of our group!

      • robinengelman

        December 6, 2015 at 10:34 am

        Dear Peter,

        Thank you for writing an I hope your bookk finds a large audience. Please give my fegards to everyone in Americlique.


  2. Walter Muller

    November 3, 2016 at 3:12 am

    I’d like to give my comment here. There are as far as I am concerned 3 different styles of drumming in Switzerland. Firstly, there is the Swiss military style (known in German speaking Switzerland as Ordonnanztrommeln; don’t know the french word for it) Secondly there is Basel drumming, which as the name implies originates from the city of Basel. Up to about the 1920ies this style of drumming was indeed only played in Basel among the various Basel Fasnachtscliques as the local carnival bands are known. Fritz Berger developed a new monolinear notations system which used conventional music notes with some notable exceptions. Basel drumming started to spread right across the rest of Switzerland, largely due to the more accessible notation system created by Berger. The Basel drum bands used and still are using to a large degree several systems of so-called hieroglyphics, whose origins go back a long time. One could call it a kind of acvanced visual onomatopeia.

    Basel drumming was technically, rhythmically and dynamically superior to the Swiss military style. So any drummer worth his or her salt naturally wanted to learn this new style. Nevertheless Swiss military drumming has not disappeared and is often learnt by beginners before they embark on Basel drumming. This does not apply to the youngsters in Basel who learn Basel drumming from their very first lesson.

    So what is Basel drumming? Basel drumming refers primarily to the hundreds of marches in Basel style as well as a number of traditional pieces such as several reveilles and retraites both of them harking back to old military signals which over time became quite elaborate virtuoso pieces. One iconic composition known in Basel dialect as ‘Ysebahn’ or ‘s’Ysebaehnli’ is also part of the Basel drumming repertoire. In English the words mean railway, railroad or the train. Its present notated form is also a creation of F. R. Berger although there were much earlier unwritten versions.

    In the early sixties a new kind of drumming style surfaced. This style now generally known as composition drumming (Kompositionstrommeln in German, don’t know the french expression for it).
    The first one (to my knowledge was called Baeretanz by Alex Haefeli). It showed new ways in Swiss drumming. New beat combinations, time signatures (this one in 3/8 time) and novel dynamics and tempi were employed. I have to mention and earlier composition written in 1957 by a certain Willy Blaser and entitled ‘Edinburgh’. Willy Blaser
    was a keen snare drummer as well as an accomplished
    percussionist in the world-renowned Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Edinburgh is an elegant, technically demanding drum solo that has become a veritable classic in Swiss drumming. Up to the mid-sixties it was only known to and performed by relatively few elite drummers. Beginning with Edinburgh and the later Baredance hundreds of new composition pieces have been created up to the present day and the trend is continuing. Basel drumming hasn’t stood still either and many new pieces are constantly published, still adhering to what is considered to be innate to that style. Swiss military drumming has also been enriched with many new pieces.

    Besides there also compositions for several ‘voices’ (multirhytmic so to speak) as well as many compositions for snare drum and various untuned percussion instruments. Last but not least there are what I would call show drumming groups the most well-known of which is of course Top Secret.

    This is just a very short summary of the different kinds of drumming that exist in Switzerland at the present time. Oops, I haven’t mentioned the drumming of the Upper valais region of Switzerland which is probably closer to Swiss military drumming than Basel drumming. Broadly speaking all these styles are of course Swiss drumming. I could go on into more detail but I will close now.
    I very much hope I have cleared up some misconceptions about what Swiss drumming is.

    Walter Muller
    Auckland NZ

    Nov 3, 2016

    • Walter Muller

      November 12, 2016 at 10:17 pm

      Any queries get back to me by email.


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