RCAF well represented at the Virginia International Tattoo

News Article / June 5, 2017

From 8 Wing Pipes and Drums, and 12 Wing Pipes and Drums

“My wife and I thought the Tattoo was the best show of our lives. We could have reset and started all over. You all did a superb job. I couldn’t have the guts to suggest improvements. Impressive, over the top. We will be back. You probably figured out we loved it; made me think the world can get along.” (From an audience survey following the Virginia Tattoo)

The Virginia International Tattoo celebrated its 21st season with eight spell-binding performances. More than 45,000 spectators watched more than 1,000 NATO and NATO-friendly sailors, soldiers, aviators, marines and civilians came together in music and might at Scope Arena in Norfolk, Virginia, from April 25 to 30, 2017. Flag officers from the five branches of the American Armed Forces, and the commander of NATO Allied Command Transformation (ACT) Headquarters, General Denis Mercier of l’Armée de l’air de France, received the honorary salute from the cast.

The term "tattoo" comes from the phrase "turning off the taps", a signal for soldiers to return to their barracks at the end of the evening when the bars closed.

This year, the Tattoo honoured the 100th anniversary of the United States' entry into the Great War. It featured historical images of the first war fought in in the air; tributes to the role of the United States; and spectacular performances by marching bands. But it’s not all about the United States at the Virginia International Tattoo. Far from it. There was remarkable representation from the international military community that made no small impact with those 45,000 spectators.

The 12 Wing Pipes and Drums, from Shearwater, Nova Scotia, and the 8 Wing Pipes and Drums, from Trenton, Ontario, were the only participants from Canada.

Tribute to Allied air power

It was not without some nostalgia that personnel from the Royal Canadian Air Force, the United States Air Force Heritage of America Band, and the Command Band of the French Air Force “Musique de L’Air” amalgamated their musicianship to support the incredible choreography of the Queen’s Colour Squadron of the Royal Air Force Regiment throughout the Tattoo.

“To have these allies working together as we did in Virginia—Canada, Britain, France and the United States—was definitely a highlight within my time on the squadron,” said Warrant Officer Class I Chris Mears from the Queen’s Colour Squadron. “The Virginia Tattoo enabled all of us to come together and perform excellence in front of thousands of people whilst remembering the cohesion the nations displayed 100 years ago during the war. It also proved there is still great unity today as there was then, and I know that we would very much like to conduct something like this again in the near future.”

Canada, Britain and France weren’t the only nations with military performers on the floor. The Singapore National Defence Band made their North American debut with more than 75 musicians, and received a rousing ovation for each of their eight performances. Also in the mix were the City of Christchurch pipe band from New Zealand; the Scotch College Pipe Band from Adelaide, Australia; and the Pipes and Drums of the 1st Battalion Scots Guards based in Aldershot, England. Performers from the United States included the premier ceremonial unit of the United States Army, the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps from Arlington, Virginia; the Bands of the United States Marine Corps and the U.S. Navy “Finest of the Fleet”; the U.S. Navy Silent Drill Team; the United States Marine Corps Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team; the United States Army Herald Trumpets from Fort Eustis; Old Dominion University Drum Line; and the NATO Headquarters Supreme Allied Command Transformation Multi-National Ceremonial Detail.

RCAF aims high

Two RCAF members were given the honour of leading the tattoo massed pipes and drums. Captain Fraser Clark, of the Director General Defence Security in Ottawa, and 8 Wing’s Warrant Officer Joe Kiah were the only Canadians selected to be on the American-led production team – Captain Clark as pipe major and Warrant Officer Kiah as lead drummer. 

“This show is the best in the world, and I’m proud as hell to represent Canada and the RCAF during this year’s show,” Captain Clark said. “All the planning, preparation and musical arrangements in the 11 months prior to the show are worth the effort, and it came out in all the performances.”

“It was a great honour to be here to lead the massed pipes and drums, especially during Canada’s 150th anniversary,” said Warrant Officer Kiah. “Performing ‘The Maple Leaf Forever’ during the finale with over 500 military musicians from around the world was one of proudest moments I’ve had as a member of the Canadian Armed Forces. Nothing will beat that feeling.”

In a special nod to the Canadians, the massed bands and choir performed a touching rendition of the international music legend Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. It came at the most plaintive moment of the show, with all 1,000 performers on the set and the floor. As the lights were dimmed blue, and the audience asked to rise from their seats, the drums and trumpets of the French Air Force performed their national trumpet call of remembrance, ‘Aux Morts’, which was followed by the United States’ ‘Taps’.  It was then that the massed bands of the cast kicked into the evening hymn ‘Hallelujah’, ending in the triumphal song of redemption, ‘Amazing Grace’.

“I never thought I’d play my pipes to a Leonard Cohen piece, but when you come to Virginia, you never know where your art-form will take you when you’re working with the best conductors and arrangers in the international military music community,” Captain Clark said. “Each time we performed ‘Hallelujah’, the arena audience spontaneously broke out singing and waving their mobile phone lights to the sway of Cohen’s masterpiece. If that reveals anything, it says that we can all come together playing different instruments, wearing different uniforms, speaking different languages – but we come together united through music. What other branch of the military achieves that level of international cooperation and cohesion – and, one that the public is permitted to enjoy?”

“Our week in Norfolk was jam-packed with rehearsals, a NATO parade, two Hullabaloo performances, and four regular admission shows,” said 12 Wing’s Pipe Major, Warrant Officer Katherine Buckland. “We also performed four electrifying student matinees which totalled 22,000 school-aged children from around the city of Norfolk.”

Battle of the Somme’ 

A performance by a quartet of Royal Canadian Air Force pipers playing “Battle of the Somme” was particularly moving. This retreat march was composed by William Laurie (1881-1916), who served as Pipe Major of the 8th Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. The music commemorates one of the greatest and most terrible battles of the First World War, the Battle of the Somme, which was fought from July 1 to November 18, 1916. William Laurie died on November 28, 1916, soon after the battle ended, from complications of illness that developed in the trenches.

“Our snare drummers were featured in a drum line during the show with the Old Guard Drumline,” said Warrant Officer Buckland. The Old Guard Fife and Drums Corps, the only unit of its kind in the U.S. armed forces, is part of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) and is stationed at Fort Myer, Virginia. In support of the president, the corps performs at all armed forces arrival ceremonies at the White House for visiting dignitaries and heads of state, and has participated in every Presidential Inaugural Parade since President John F. Kennedy’s in 1961.

“We were truly honoured to play in such a production,” Warrant Officer Buckland said. “The bonds and memories created, not only in our own band, but between bands from other countries, are immeasurable. We are now home for a quick rest before we switch gears to get ready for the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo this July.”

 Check out the YouTube footage for the Virginia Tattoo at “Virginia International Tattoo 2017” Part 1 through Part 16.   

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