Since the very first Cape Town Military Tattoo, held in 2003, each performance has begun with two centuries-old rituals: Drummers would beat out the ‘Tattoo’ and the Castle Ceremonial Guard would close and lock the heavy spike-studded Van der Stel Gate to the Castle of Good Hope.
Beating the Tap Toe
The word “tattoo” is actually derived from an old military ritual that originated in the Low Countries of Europe during the 80 Years’ War in the 16th and 17th centuries. Patrols would be sent out near nightfall to alert off-duty soldiers in the taverns that it was time to return to their barracks.
As the patrols passed each tavern, the tavern-keeper would be instructed: “Doe den tap toe!“, which meant “Close the taps on your beer-barrels“. Over the centuries, this nightly ritual turned into the elaborate and exciting display of military show business that we now know as the Tattoo.
As Cape Town in its early days was rather small, no patrols were sent out into the city – instead, drummers would take post on the Leerdam Bastion, which was nearest to the town, and beat out the “Tap Toe” or “tattoo” with their drums, summoning soldiers back to the old fort.
This year, as the last straggling spectators took their seats, and as our new announcer, Andy Dippenaar, welcomed everyone to the Cape Town Military Tattoo, the sound of drumming could be heard in the darkness. I could see people looking around to locate the source of the mysterious and compelling drumming. It was a group of drummers from various pipe bands, standing on the balcony overlooking the arena. They remained in the shadows, but the drumming, relentless, rhythmic, almost hypnotic, continued.
It was the perfect start to a magical event!
During the Matinee on Saturday afternoon, the Drummers were more clearly visible on the Balcony.
The Key Ceremony
This night-time ritual is the responsibility of the Castle Ceremonial Guard, which was formed in 1986 to provide the Castle with its own ceremonial element.
The Guardsmen wear unique traditionally based uniforms and carry replica 18th century halberds or old-style guns with bayonets mounted at the top. The Guard is manned by various Reserve Force units, which take turns – this year it is the Cape Town Highlanders. The so-called Key Ceremony (which is re-enacted by the Castle Ceremonial Guard every day at 10am and noon, much to the delight of visitors and tourists) as well as the Closing of the Castle Ceremony (which is re-enacted in the Tattoo) are both derived from the actual early 18th century drills, when the Castle was unlocked each morning and locked again each evening.
At the start of the show, with an eerie creaking sound and then a loud thunk, the Van der Stel Gate is closed and locked. The Guardsmen then deliver the keys to the Castle Adjudant who waits on the Kat Balcony.
The Big Bang!
Each night, the Cannon Association of South Africa (CAOSA) made sure that the show started with a BANG!
All the members of CAOSA are passionate about muzzle-loading cannons in South Africa, and have logged, categorized and restored more than 1000 such cannons across the country. I had no idea we had that many! Some are unfortunately too damaged or corroded to be repaired, or restored to working order, but many can be – and then, usually on important occasions, they are fired! The Chavonnes Cannon Battery Museum at the V&A Waterfront is often used as a venue by CAOSA, to fire the cannons there. It is a really interesting and unusual museum, and one that I definitely want to visit.
As in previous years, this time too, they fired a quarter pounder muzzle-loading cannon dating back over 200 years – do not be fooled by its miniscule size, this thing packs quite a punch!