Echoes of Napoleonic history: La Tamborrada drum festival 2024 in San Sebastian

This week in San Sebastian, the streets reverberated to the rhythm of "La Tamborrada". This year’s event saw drummers in traditional uniforms marching through the historic centre, symbolizing the city’s defiance and spirit during the Napoleonic Wars. Spectators from far and wide gathered in the city's plazas to witness a living tradition that has evolved from a form of protest to a vibrant celebration of local heritage.

Tambor mayor By Ebaki - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Each January 20th, San Sebastian vibrates to the rhythm of La Tamborrada, a festival deeply entrenched in the city’s cultural fabric. This celebration, a fusion of sound, tradition, and community, showcases a vibrant tapestry of local identity.

La Tamborrada’s origins are shrouded in mystery, with the first records dating back to the 1830s. It’s believed to have begun as a satirical response to the military presence in San Sebastian, with locals mimicking the soldiers’ parades. Over time, it evolved from a carnival-like event into the more structured, thematic procession we see today, featuring soldiers and cooks. The inclusion of these themes dates back to 1870 with the Unión Artesana society, aligning with the Napoleonic wars’ influence. By 1906, various societies, including Euskal Billera and Unión Artesana, collaborated, laying the foundation for the modern festival. The children’s tamborrada, initiated in 1927, now features over 50 groups and 5,000 participants, highlighting its growth and significance.

La Tamborrada San Sebastian
At the Tamborrada, January 20, the day of San Sebastián groups of locals form street parades, dress as soldiers and cooks, and march for 24 hours straight. Photo: MerZab – Own Work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.

Women in the Tamborrada
The role of women in La Tamborrada has evolved significantly. Traditionally excluded due to their absence from dining societies, which were central to the festival’s organization, women’s participation has gradually become more accepted and normalized. The breakthrough came in 1980 with Kresala Elkartea introducing the mixed-gender tamborrada and the iconic figure of the water girl (aguadora). This move marked a turning point, leading to increasing gender inclusivity in subsequent years, with women donning traditionally male costumes and participating in various roles. However, challenges persisted, evidenced by controversies such as the exclusion of a female Tambor de Oro recipient from the celebratory dinner. The Basque Parliament’s 2005 Equality Law further catalyzed this shift towards gender balance.

Record-breaking participation
La Tamborrada 2024 marked a milestone with record-breaking participation. The Plaza de la Constitución, steeped in history, hosted the flag-raising ceremony, igniting 24 hours of uninterrupted drumming. The event featured 160 groups, including the newly formed Gaztelubide Gazte and Mamelena, with a staggering 155 being mixed-gender, underscoring the festival’s commitment to inclusivity.

La Tamborrada transcends mere festivity; it’s a living emblem of the city’s resilience and unity. Rooted in a historical context of military occupation and civic satire, it has metamorphosed into a homage to San Sebastian’s patron saint. This year’s festival paid tribute to the 25-year tradition of female participation in the flag-raising ceremony, symbolizing strides in gender equality and societal progress.

This article was originally published in English. Texts in other languages are AI-translated. To change language: go to the main menu above.