The president’s drum group leader is a drummer at the Basler Fasnacht

Mark Reilly just escorted the President to the White House – soon he will march at the Basler Fasnacht.

Benjamin Rosch
An der Inauguration des neuen US-Präsidenten Donald Trump marschiert die Old Guard vor dem Kapitol durch.

An der Inauguration des neuen US-Präsidenten Donald Trump marschiert die Old Guard vor dem Kapitol durch.


A few days ago, about 31 million Americans witnessed his performance. Saw his perfect drum rolls, his perfect beats, his perfect tact. Mark Reilly might just be the world’s best drummer.

He practises every day. For hours. Drumming is his job. When asking Mark Reilly about his employment, you get a multiline title rather than a job description. He is “Drum Group Leader for the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps”. Or, shorter: He is the Old Guard’s Trommelchef. It is the Official Ceremonial Unit and Escort to the President. Since the days of John F. Kennedy, these top musicians accompany the most powerful men in the world. At the inauguration, Reilly convoyed Donald Trump from the Capitol to the White House. It was a highlight, even for Reilly. And the next one is coming up soon: the Basler Fasnacht.

Since 2005, the 38 year-old has been loyally connected to Basel. He came in contact with the drum group “Top Secret” via a friend. And in those times, they really were a kind of secret. Erik Juillard, today’s organiser of the Basel Tattoo, was an important link between the American-Basel drumming relations. He travelled to Australia with Reilly to one of the first appearances of Top Secret.

“Since then I have made several extremely close friends that I absolutely consider family”, Reilly says. It was only a small step from those virtuosic drummers to Fasnacht, or more precisely to Vortrab. When one of the best drummers joined the Morgestraich in 2009 , he did not have a Kübel (a Basel word for a drum) in front of him.

Schaggi, the constant drummer

Nonetheless, the frequently invoked Fasnacht-fever has befallen him. So much so that two years later he ganged together a group of fifers and drummers of the Old Guard, learned five marches and paraded through the alleys of Basel. In 2013, too. And in 2015. Every time, the repertoire of the Americans grew. “The music is technically not very difficult”, the professional percussionist says. When Mark Reilly hides his muscular upper body in a costume and his military crew cut under a Larve, he vanishes in the Fasnacht ragbag. At first, he struggled a little getting used to the Basel style of drumming.

It has a certain “Swing and Swagger”, Reilly says. The Basel way of drumming is different from all musical styles he has played so far. A praise from an authorative source: Reilly is nearly constantly drumming. Even when he does not have an instrument at hand, while driving for example, as friends say about him.

One of them is Mats Brenneis. He is Tambourmajor of the Clique “onYva” and one of those responsible for Reilly joining his forces. He helped him organise a costume and a Larve (a mask people wear at Fasnacht). Brenneis proudly explains how several other Clique reached out for the American to join them. The name of the three-day-expat has spread in the Fasnacht community; he is now a Fasnacht celebrity.

Whether Reilly is accepted as a full member of the clique will be decided after Fasnacht. “Like any other possible new member, Mark has to fulfil an electional year. We will have a vote on that matter.” Chances are good that Mark will become a member of “onYva”. Not because of his musical background but because the others like him so much. “Mark is very modest and enthusiastic. Standing beside him, one could play rubbishly, and he’d still have something nice to say”, Brenneis says. It is very clear: the foreign Fasnächtler is well integrated. They even gave him a Basel nickname: Schaggi. Mark's full name Jean-Marc, which is just close enough to Jaques to call him this (Schaggi is the Basel version of the French name). And they even forgive him for spending the Tuesday of Fasnacht with the “Chriesibuebe”. This is a drum group from the county of Basel-Land – and much despised by very traditional drummers in the city. Juillard for instance, comments: “This makes me want to vomit. And you can quote that.” Needless to say that he would still offer his bed to his friend any time. As he has done before.

A matter of honour

Reilly repeatedly emphasises how much Fasnacht means to him. What “an honour” it is to be part of this. This has become a sort of running gag in his clique. “Almost every time, no matter what bullshit it is about, we ask ourselves: might Mark consider it an honour?”, Brenneis explains. The stress and strain Reilly takes upon himself, however, prove that he really means it. He is travelling thousands of kilometres to get to Basel. His route to Morgestraich might be the most unconventional of all its participants: by plane, in an airplane of the U.S. army. In the hold, mostly. As a member of the U.S. Army, he is entitled to hop on certain cargo flights of the Air Force, paying a reduced fee. “This is a challenge because it is basically flying a type of “stand by” and individuals are not guaranteed a flight”, Reilly says.

What strikes Mark as strange are not the Larve or Ladäärne (big lamps, carried by the cliques) but the people, “coming together in peaceful celebration”: “it is a beautiful gesture to all humanity that the arts can bring everyone together amidst a world full of chaos.” It is one of the rare moments Reilly s criticises something . Perhaps he is too positive to comment on the political situation in his country, perhaps it does not suit a man in his position.

But what about Trump-Sujets at Fasnacht? “I am bracing myself for the Trump sujets at Fasnacht this year”, he laughs. It has happened before in 2009, after the election of Barack Obama. It seems to be typical for Mark Reilly to combine this with a praise to Basel: “one of the most beautiful things about Basel is the Basler sense of humor and being originally from New York I feel there are many similarities.” At the end of the interview, he thanks the reporter for it: it had been an honour.