AKR in Oman #5: The Sultan’s Tattoo
“His Majesty the Sultan to Preside over Military Music Festival Today.”
Muscat Daily 1, December 2010
I was not familiar with the term Tattoo until my high school aged son announced that he needed 25 dollars for a school field trip with the band to “go and see the Tattoo.” I thought he was talking about a colorful design applied to the skin. The next year, curious about what a Tattoo was my kids and I attended the annual Virginia International Tattoo in Norfolk, Virginia. The Wikipedia entry on Tattoo tells us that this is the largest Tattoo in the United States involving some 850 participants and indeed, we were impressed with at the dual display of military music and (inter)nationalism.
In Oman, the term Tattoo is part of the lingua franca. As part of the ongoing celebrations of the 40th anniversary of National Day the “Oman Military Music Festival: Oman Tattoo 2010” involved 3,898 participants, that’s 4 times the number of participants in the largest Tattoo in the U.S, the one I attended in Norfolk, Virginia. My hosts at the Royal Court (Diwan) had arranged an invitation for me and I found my way to Medan al-Fath (the same stadium I described in my previous blog entry) two hours in advance of the 8 p.m. starting time, as instructed, and sat in the women’s section along side a lovely young professional and daughter of an Omani Military General who helped me to understand and interpret the awesome progression of events that unfolded during the next five hours. An extensive program in Arabic and a briefer one in English were already distributed on each seat of the stadium thus making my task of figuring out what was going on much easier.
The morning paper, the December 1, 2010 Times of Oman, had give me an inkling of what I was in for later that evening.
His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, will preside over the Oman Military Music Festival (Tattoo) titled “March of Loyalty and Gratitude” organized by the Royal Oman Police at Al Fath Square in Wattayah today. During the festival, nine tableaux embodying the epic of loyalty and faithfulness of the ROP [Royal Oman Police] and Royal Guard of Oman (RGO) personnel and the participants for his Majesty the Sultan who established the fundamentals of the State and led the Sultanate to a comprehensive development in all spheres will be presented.
As we waited for the event to begin, documentary films depicting the activities of the military, and particularly the military bands, played on a giant monitor showing enlisted musicians in the act of practicing in rehearsals, in the field, and even in the process of making and repairing bass instruments something about which I hope to be able to learn more.
At last a fanfare on heralding trumpets announced the arrival of His Majesty. We then waited 20 minutes in near complete silence with several hundred motionless troupes positions on the field, then, tum tat-a taaaaam, the fanfare again, and again we waited another 10 minutes, but at last the show was underway.
Following the Royal Anthem played by the bands from 5 detachments (the Royal Guard, Royal Army, Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and Royal Police,) which we rose and sang (I on “la la la” which I can do because I have heard the anthem many times already), about 40-50 dare-devil motorcycles zoomed and zigzagged in tight formation on both sides of the huge arena area. After they roared past in well-rehearsed formations, nearly grazing each other as they crisscrossed the field, the band resumed – but the motorcycles didn’t stop! For the next ten minutes or so we had fifty motorcycles and the drummers’ band of the RGO, whose sound was almost complete obliterated by roar of the team of Evil Knievel riders, performing side by side.
The following tableau, “The Blessed Renaissance March,” was presented by the women bands of the RGO, RAF, ROP, and the Royal Court Affairs, a group totaling 340 participants. The obvious message of this tableau is the progress by and for women that has been made in 40 years. As my neighbor said to me “look, 40 years ago girls could not even attend school beyond first grade.” People everywhere are very proud of the position and accomplishments of women. Indeed Oman is recognized in the Gulf and Arab World for its aggressive and progressive stance toward the education and employment of women “up to the ministries.” It is not uncommon to see in writing and to hear that women out-perform men in college and my colleagues at SQU insist that male and female faculty earn the same salaries.
The event was serious, with only polite applause and cheering occurring at predictable moments; the TV broadcast recorded stalwart visage on the central stage where His Majesty’s delegation and dignitaries sat. But this next tableau prodded the audience to break into spontaneous laughter and thunderous applause as the Royal Oman Police put on a “who done it” cops-and-robbers vignette. The story (10 minutes, 140 participants) begins on the set of a village family home (with their live donkeys and camels) who report suspicious activities that they have observed on a small fishing boat anchored near the seashore. The police sweep in with about ten response vehicles, lights flashing, sirens blaring, backed up by mounted horsemen and camel riders of the Mounted Police. The show comes to a dramatic and triumphant climax as the forces unleash trained German Shepherd attack dogs who chase and eventually tackle the fleeing criminal thug as he sprints across the field (wearing thick protective garb) thus bringing the “noble practice” of complete cooperation between the citizenry and the military full circle.
Beware: Ethnomusicologists’ Diversion Coming Up . . .
The sets roll off, the horses, camels, donkeys, dogs and squads of SUVs exit and 440 bagpipers and drummers from the combined bands (including, this time, scouts and the Camel Riders Band) enter the stadium. The presence of the Bagpipes is remarkable but well known: they are a strong and now intensified remnant of the British Colonial presence in Oman. To me, their effect on aspects of repertoire and musicality is intriguing. Not only are they a part of the standard instrumentation of a marching band (even in the provinces), it seems to me that their presence has infiltrated performance practice in several ways:
- The combination of the just intonation of the bagpipes and intonation informed by the well-tempered system of “international” music produces an interesting mix. That well-tempered intonation is even the bar by which to measure anything in a place so far removed from Bach’s clavier is even questionable. There is probably no such thing as good intonation in a marching band of hundreds and in the stands the blend is pleasant, but the up-close recording by the television crew allows you to hear some incredibly wide discrepancies in intonation.
- Some traditional British and Scottish tunes form part of the Omani band repertoire. In addition to hearing this on the field during these shows, I have tuned my car radio into shows that just feature suites of bagpipe music with tunes such as “Amazing Grace” and “Highland Laddie.” In addition to this, though, it seems that tunes from the Arab repertoire may be more adaptable to bagpipe and that this instrument takes a leading melodic role when such songs are adapted for the big band. And the drone pipe and reedy timbre are closely related to indigenous single and double reed instruments so the transfer to bagpipes makes sense.
- The drones of the bagpipe and its inability to play all notes of the scale well present some interesting challenges and opportunities for the composition and/or execution of repertoire for the full band. I believe that this is what I am hearing at this stage and I hope to investigate further.
Ethnomusicologists are always interested in the ways that musical instruments, styles, and repertoire move around the world as well as in the ways that people change music or use it in new and different ways. The marching band phenomenon in Oman is a great example of this process and raises many interesting questions.
Now, let me describe the end of the Tattoo.
The Sultan’s Armed Forces Show involved 800 participants. The ships that rolled out were giant models, and the deafening fire-power that signaled Oman’s preparedness to defeat any potential enemy was fake, but everything else was real. About 20 tanks, jeeps, and other army vehicles along with the model ships mentioned rolled out on to the field in a show of mechanical and technological brawn. These were supported by marching troupes and mounted guards. A dramatized and hypothetical enemy (Oman does not have any enemies and prides itself on its neutrality) was expelled with an ear splitting display of fire power. Murmurs from the crowd cause me to look up in the sky. This is what I wrote in an email to my husband when I got home.
But truly the very most amazing was when 40 little flaming parachutes appeared in the sky. I thought they were toys or models like the ones the kids have, made with plastic-bag chutes, string, and little plastic men. . . but no as they came closer we could see that they were real men — who all steered and landed over a period of about 7 minutes in an area the size of a baseball diamond. Only one missed the mark and landed outside the stadium and the last one descended from the sky. . . playing the bagpipe. Yes rub your eyes and read it again. You know I could never make this up.
For the Grand Finale: the combined bands of 1,540 musicians played the entire 1812 overture for the finale and deafening fireworks went on simultaneously throughout the entire piece. The beginning of the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky is low and slow until the end when La Marseillaise is quoted. Thereafter, cannons are usually shot off during the fermatas of the grand theme, before the most identifiable tune of this Independence Day favorite closes the piece. Splendid fireworks throughout the performance gave this Omani rendition of the 1812 a new twist.
For a complete contrast: stay tuned for the way that Omani students salute the nation and its leader and my reviews of two different Mahrajan at-Tulab.
And, for a look at National Day celebrations of the past, have a look at this YouTube clip from 1980: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lp8XA2nx7l0