Inside the Okanagan Military Tattoo

The annual event is an exhilarating showcase of military bands, choirs and skills.

Okanagan Military TattooDon Weixl
The 2019 cast of the Okanagan Military Tattoo.

A Brief History of Tattoos

This year’s Okanagan Military Tattoo will be held in Vernon, B.C., at Kal Tire Place, with performances scheduled on July 29 and 30.

If you’ve ever been to the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo in Scotland, you’ve probably come away with a good understanding of what a tattoo is like. In Canada, if you live on the East Coast, you may have been fortunate enough to have attended the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo in Halifax. For those who have never experienced one, here is a brief history.

The history of the word tattoo can be traced back to the 17th century. It’s a Dutch phrase doe den tap toe, which means turn off the tap. A signal from a drummer or trumpeter marching through town would instruct innkeepers near military garrisons to stop serving beer, and remind soldiers it was time to return to their barracks. It became a ceremonial tradition.

The Edinburgh Tattoo has been held since 1945 and has also travelled to Australia and New Zealand. The Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo began in 1979. It can trace its roots to the 1967 Canadian Armed Forces Tattoo, which toured Canada as part of the centennial celebrations. The Okanagan Military Tattoo is young as far as tattoos go, with the first indoor event being held in 2014.

Okanagan Military Tattoo Korean DelegationWayne Emde Photography
The Republic of Korea Ministry of National Defence traditional band in 2016.

What Makes the Okanagan Military Tattoo Unique

The Okangan Military Tattoo (OMT) has developed a flavour all its own. It includes marching, singing, dancing and bands with a military history, including bagpipes and brass bands. Every year, Jim Wright, the lone piper, has played Amazing Grace at the conclusion of the two-hour show. The finale is a culmination that starts with a single piper followed by a massed pipe band, and usually finishes with a complete brass band. In 2016, it included Korean instrumentalists and drum corps. Every year, it has also featured a large contingent of highland dancers under the direction of highland dance instructor and choreographer, Shalni Prowse. The results have always been superbly performed numbers that have kept crowds returning.

Brentwood Youth BandDon Weixl
The commemorative presentation of the Union Jack to Calgary Roundup from the Brentwood Imperial Youth Band.

Each year, the tattoo is a little different. In 2019, the bands included the B.C. Regiment (Duke of Connaught’s Own), The Brentwood Imperial Youth Band (BIYB) and the Calgary Roundup Band. The Calgary Roundup returned to the tattoo after an initial performance in 2017.

Traditions continue to develop as the tattoo comes of age, and the OMT Pipe Band, under the direction of Pipe Major Scot Kortegaard of Kamloops, B.C., is no exception. Scot’s message to the band is clear. “At the OMT, we are one—one large band, all pulling in the same direction. It unifies us with the goal of giving the audience an amazing show.” Mission accomplished.

New in 2019 was the A.L. Fortune Secondary Drumline from Enderby, B.C., winners of the B.C. High School Drumline competition. In a friendly drumline competition with the Brentwood Imperial Youth Band, and a drumline from Calgary Roundup (winner of the World’s Junior Marching Band title for 2019), each drumline took their place on the floor and demonstrated their percussion and marching skills with flourish and swagger. It was essentially a challenge to the other drumlines; the winner of this spectacle was the audience, who gave an overwhelming endorsement to the skill of all of these young musicians.

Jiffy Jeep TeamWayne Emde Photography
The Jiffy Jeep team.

During a typical tattoo it’s difficult to pick “best or favourite.” Each member of the audience, however, has an appreciation for the music and culture on display, and over the years there has been a terrific variety. The tattoo has hosted performances by military brass bands, pipe bands, Ukrainian dancers, rhythmic gymnasts, as well as displays by military drill teams, fire hose reel races and jeep races, where teams dismantle and reassemble a jeep in a timed event.

Okanagan Military Tattoo Naden Military ForcesWayne Emde Photography
The Naden Band of Maritime Forces Pacific performing in 2017.

The Okanagan Military Tattoo is a paticularly good fit for this city, as Vernon was a training centre for the Canadian Army during World War II, and subsequently the DND grounds have hosted the army cadet camp for more than 70 years now. The cadets from all three branches of the services have been an integral part of the tattoo in terms of marching, drill performances and as musicians. In contrast to the youth of the cadets, the tattoo has continued each year to provide an opportunity to pay tribute to our veterans. The OMT was pleased to continue this practice with the 2019 tribute to veterans initiated in Ottawa, which began with a train journey of a pair of combat boots from Vancouver to Halifax; a symbolic tribute to more than 90,000 veterans who saw action on D-Day and in the Battle of Normandy.

Pipers And DrummersWayne Emde Photography
The 2019 opening ceremonies featuring pipers with First Nations drummers and singers.

With a cast of more than 500 performers, there are numerous logistical issues to deal with, including scheduling participants, housing, feeding performers and arranging accommodation and parking for spectators. The tattoo has been fortunate to benefit from the leadership of Norm Crerar and Derek Hall, and various committee members, who have been the backbone of this event. Each year a call is put out to community members to help with volunteering and each year the call is answered.

This year’s Okanagan Military Tattoo plans to continue to build on the success and hard work of the past nine years—please consider this your invitation to attend!

Next, discover 10 essential experiences on the west coast of Canada.

Originally Published in Our Canada