Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Chinese Hat

Chapeau Chinois ("Chinese Hat")
of the French Foreign Legion Bastille Day 2008
As I mentioned the other day, I have more than one story involving la musique militaire, this is one of them. It also involves a somewhat exotic musical instrument known as a "Turkish Crescent."
A Turkish Crescent is an elaborate percussion instrument traditionally used by military bands. 
The instrument, usually six to eight feet long, consists of an upright wooden pole topped with a conical brass ornament and having crescent shaped crosspieces, also of brass. Numerous bells are attached to the crosspieces and elsewhere on the instrument. Often two horsetail plumes of different colors are suspended from one of the crescents; occasionally they are red-tipped, symbolic of the battlefield. There is no standard configuration for the instrument, and of the many preserved in museums, hardly two are alike.

The instrument is held vertically and when played is either shaken up and down or twisted. Sometimes there is a geared crank mechanism for rotating it.

Today the instrument is prominent in the marching bands of the German Bundeswehr and the French Foreign Legion. - Wikipedia
Other names I've heard for this instrument are Schellenbaum (German, literally "ringing tree"), Chapeau Chinois (French, literally "Chinese hat") and Jingling Johnny. I believe that latter term is from the Napoleonic Wars, which is what the British troops called them. Though I don't believe that British bands actually used them. Not sure how the Great Duke* felt about them.

Chapeau Chinois and French Bandsmen
Top half of a Bundeswehr Schellenbaum

I have seen one of these beasties live and in person. Most impressive it was. Before I get into that, let me set the scene for you.

It was in Germany in the mid-90s and the NATO AWACS E-3A Component, of which I was a part was undergoing a change of command. While I forget the exact year, it had to have been between 1993 and 1997 when General John Shalikashvili was the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. The Germans, a wittier bunch than they're given credit for, referred to the General as Shashlik Willi (Shashlik Bill in English). A play on the General's last name, this is only humorous if you know what shashlik kabob is. Which I did.

General John Shalikashvili
1936 - 2011

Shashlik Kabob (Yummy!)

So Shashlik Bill, er I mean General Shalikashvili, was to be the guest speaker and presiding officer for this ceremony.

So we were preparing to change commanders (I think we were going from an American general to a German general that year, they alternated back and forth) and were in a hangar for the ceremony as inclement weather was not uncommon in that part of Germany. While our Canadian Chief Warrant Officer (CWO) attempted to put us through our paces, we discovered that Canadian drill is very similar to British drill (without the high-pitched caterwauling common to British noncoms) but nearly completely dissimilar from American and German drill. Hilarity and confusion ensued.

Out of a formation of roughly 60 troops, most were German, than the second most were we Yanks then a smattering of Dutch, Belgians, a Norwegian or two and about six Canadians. (And yes, while typing that I pronounced it "aboot" in my head.)

So it took a while to sort that out. I think Chiefy wanted to go home, have a good cry, then get roaring drunk. He was that frustrated. Who could blame him? (Oddly enough, in a predominantly Air Force unit, the Chief was actually Royal Canadian Navy. Yup, I said predominantly because while we had a majority of Air Force types, we also had a large contingent of civilians and one sailor. Our CWO.)

Rank insignia of a Canadian CWO

Eventually our Norwegian commander (a colonel and all around decent chap he was) got us all standing at attention, more or less the same way (there are differences between the nationalities) and we were ready to settle in and watch the "festivities."

The dignitaries filed in and took their places, then the VIPs and their wives, assorted local politicos and a partridge in a pear tree. Once they were seated, I heard footsteps, marching footsteps, to our rear. I really wanted to see what was going on. Turns out it was a band, a German military band, as they entered the open hangar doors they burst into this -

For those who don't know, military bands tend to be loud, German military bands tend to be very loud, a German military band playing in an open aircraft hangar...

Let's just say that our entire formation jumped about six feet in the air when the music started. Weren't expecting it, no, not at all.

Once Chiefy had herded us back into some semblance of a military formation (remember we're talking Air Force guys, a group not really known for their marching in formation nor their ability to look reverently upon such things as sudden loud noises and such!) the ceremony commenced.

I kept glancing over at the band, marveling at the presence of an actual Jingling Johnny, a mythical instrument of which I had read but had never seen before. (Well, I thought it was cool. The Germans were appreciative that I showed an appreciation for German marching tunes. Yes, I love a good German march!)

The speeches began. Much patting of the back to all concerned, medals were awarded and kudos given out. We're all great, we're all special, NATO is the bulwark of freedom. Et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum.

Pretty much your run of the mill speechifying.

Then we were given an "about face" (that's a 180-degree turn for you civilian-types) and were now facing the runway. Wondering what was going to happen next.

Deafness happened next.

Flying very low, from left to right, not 500 yards away, was one of these...

NATO E-3A Airborne Warning and Control (AWACS) Aircraft

...in full grunt and moving rather quickly for such a big aircraft. It was converting JP-5 to noise and smoke very efficiently.

Just when we had recovered our senses (and partial hearing), one of these did the same...

Royal Air Force (RAF) E-3D AWACS Aircraft

With the panache and daring expected from the RAF, these chaps were rather closer to tying the low altitude record and quite a bit faster. Not as loud though, for the E-3Ds had had their engines upgraded, hence they were quite a bit quieter. (Amazing seeing an aircraft that big, that close to the ground with the landing gear up!)

Oh yeah, while we were facing the runway - mind you, that band is now behind us - that's right, the band struck up again. We all jumped like a bunch of frightened school girls and our Canadian Chief went ballistic one more time. He did get us reined in, turned around and back at attention in time for our Norwegian colonel to dismiss us.

Did I mention that there was free beer after the ceremony? No?

Well, there was.

So that's my other military band story and another "Tale of NATO."

*That would be Sir Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington.


  1. I am still trying to get my head around why anyone, anywhere, would have a Navy ...any navy ...CWO in charge of any marching unit.
    It seems to me that, other than Admirals [and most pilots] ...Navy Warrant Officers are about the furthest removed from any kind of marching.

    1. Heh. I get that. And have seen the result!

    2. Agreed!

      (That's from SN2's change of command ceremony.)

    3. I remember that photo!

      While 75% accuracy is not bad in many things, marching ain't one of those things.

  2. ROTFLMAO! Y'all are the only ones that march worse than the Navy... :-) I've been on the line with that NATO bird turning in the next spot and it HURT even WITH muffs...

    1. I won't disagree with you Cajun!

      And yes, those old engines are LOUD!

  3. Free beer, lovely kabobs (although just for illustrative purposes), low-flying aircraft and weird musical instruments. What's not to love?

    1. It's nice to put one thing in a post that people like. I sort of figured you would like this one in it's entirety. If only somehow I could have worked softball into the mix!


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