Tamborrada of Donostia

by Ainhoa Barrio

tamborrada-of-donostiaIf you happen to be in San Sebastian on January 20th, you will probably come across dozens and dozens of drum players marching their way through the city.

This is the Tamborrada of Donostia, a popular annual festival that celebrates the day of their patron San Sebastián.

It usually starts at midnight on the 19th of January, after a hearty meal with all the band members.  During the next 24 hours, the streets will be paraded by different groups of tamborreros, some wearing 19th century military uniforms and playing the drums; others wearing cooks or water-sellers outfits and using their wooden barrels as if they were drums.

People from local associations on each neighborhood form the drum bands. After their group dinner and before setting off to parade the streets, they gather to hoist the city's flag in a special place of the neighborhood, a square, a school or the association itself. Then they will play for about three hours visiting the most memorable places in their area and playing the most important tunes for their hosts. Usually, the band will be rewarded with a drink or two afterwards.

As the drum players move along the streets, it is common to see people following them on their itinerary and enjoying every drumbeat.

Most of the themes played by the drummers were composed in the late 19th century and early 20th by Raimundo Sarriegui. He's the Basque musician who composed the city's anthem Marcha de San Sebastian, as well as many other tunes for carnival and other celebrations.

The Tamborrada of Donostia celebrations come to an end with the lowering of the flag. The busiest and most important location is the one in the Constitution Square, in the old part of San Sebastian. A few minutes before midnight on the 20th of January, the most popular band, Union Artesana, gathers in the square and plays the whole repertoire, ensuring that Marcha de San Sebastian is played right when the flag is meant to be lowered. To continue with the celebration for a bit longer, the band will keep playing a completely different repertoire after midnight.

Traditionally, men have always played the role of the tamborrero. But in the 1990's women started to appear as well, appropriately uniformed, playing along with the male members of the band.

There are also tamborradas whose members are exclusively children. These are organised by the different schools or other associations. And there is a time in the day, usually midday, when all the attention is devoted to the drums and rhythms of the little ones.

There are many theories as to where this noisy tradition comes from. One of them suggests the slow development of a sporadic drum jam session back in the 18th century near the church of San Vicente. Another theory is that, during the time when the city was an important military stronghold, the local donostiarras liked to make fun of the soldier’s daily parade to the main gate and imitate their gestures with casseroles and sticks.

The celebration of the day of San Sebastian dates back to the 16th century, when an epidemic plague had taken over the city. In order to pray for help, they decided to parade the figure of San Sebastian around the streets on the day of the patron saint. It is said that drums and fifes accompanied this procession.

Nowadays, the Tamborrada of Donostia strongly reflects the lively locals love for fun and enjoyment.

Ainhoa Barrio is a Spanish food, drink and culture writer who lives in Barcelona.

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