NORFOLK, Virginia — It was an overcast afternoon on the deck of the USS Wisconsin battleship, April 20, as the Top Secret Drum Corps from Switzerland faced off against the Old Dominion University Monarch Drumline in a DrumLine Battle that has become a regular event as part of the Virginia International Tattoo.

The four-day showcase is hosted annually in Norfolk, Virginia and features dozens of performing ensembles from around the world. Among the goals of the Tattoo is to present a world-class event that honors military heritage, educates youth and strengthens international relations. 

“The Virginia International Tattoo is more than a concert, it is an experience that brings out the very best in people,” producer Scott Jackson wrote in a program book letter for the event. “When we Tattoo together, we share the exquisite beauty of music and dance and international culture.”

The term “tattoo” has roots back to the 17th century, but today refers to ceremonial performances where you will see everything from highland dance routines to performances by military bands. Repertoire for these shows covers the gamut from traditional bagpipe melodies to ceremonial haka dances, and even contemporary themes from popular shows like “Game of Thrones.”

Produced by Drum Corps International, the setting for 2024’s Norfolk DrumLine Battle was aboard the USS Wisconsin BB-64, the last Iowa Class battleship commissioned by the U.S. Navy, dubbed “Big Whiskey.” The ship now serves as a floating museum and is an integral part of Nauticus, a maritime discovery center located along the waterfront in Norfolk.

“It’s an honor for Drum Corps International and DrumLine Battle to regularly play a role in an event like the Virginia International Tattoo,” said John DeNovi, DCI senior director of global business development. “We continue to take pride in bringing international performers together to make music and thrill crowds through the marching arts.“ 

The Top Secret Drum Corps based out of Basel, Switzerland was last featured at the Tattoo in 2016 but routinely travels to other similar events throughout the year. They’ve been a world-class act at this type of showcase for more than 30 years.

The Old Dominion Monarch Drumline is part of a storied marching band program at the university based locally in Norfolk. The Diehn School of Music at Old Dominion features both undergraduate and graduate level degree programs. 

This year’s battle between the two groups kicked off with a coin toss that was won by Top Secret with a call of heads. The Swiss ensemble captain elected to allow the Old Dominion line to go first.

The local competitor’s style featured chants and body movements almost like freestyle dance moves intended to energize the crowd at one of the university’s home football games. They projected a jovial vibe with their performance that included flashy cymbal work and tenor drums that added some breadth to the pallet of sounds in their routine.

In contrast, the international group from Basel had a very different style. With crisp head snaps that were exaggerated by the long feathers in their hats and precisely coordinated arm and leg movements, their performance was the definition of synchronization. With 10 snare drums in their line, the staccato rudiments in their routine cut through the heavy seaside air like a knife.

After two rounds, the master of ceremonies called on the audience for a vote to see which ensemble would take away the victors’ trophy. The crowd gave the nod to Top Secret.