Since I moved to Switzerland 16 years ago (becoming Swiss two years ago), I’ve tried hard to make the culture of this wonderful country my own. I’ve taken great pleasure in this never-ending immersion–visiting different cities, towns and countryside, taking in the myriad of cultural institutions and attractions, sampling wine, cheese and chocolate (and all their “by-products” and variations on those themes) ’till the cows came home…and have taken a keen interest in the arts and crafts…but…I never really gave a great deal of thought to yodeling. I guess I dismissed it as a touristy cliché, a kind of kitsch art form (certainly not as harsh as Sir Walter Scott’s description)1 but just not something that piqued my cultural curiosity.
1Sir Walter Scott wrote in his June 4, 1830 journal: “Anne wants me to go hear the Tyrolese Minstrels … I cannot but think their yodeling … is a variation upon the tones of a jackass.”
Then I discovered quite by accident, the Switzerland-Get Natural social media ad for the Swiss National Yodeling festival (information here), held once every three years in different cities–this year in Brig-Glis. The ad shows a tractor pulling a group of yodelers on a mountain road. An impatient driver in the car behind, windows open, pop music blaring, passes the tractor on a sharp curve. The yodelers, on hearing the music, suddenly start yodeling in tune, turning the pop song into a clever yodeled version…lush images and clips of rural Switzerland accompanying…Brilliant!
All of a sudden, I wanted to know more, so started “Googling” and “YouTubing” yodeling music, soon followed by “Yelping” and “Trip Advisoring” accommodations in Brig. The town was booked solid…
The festival is so popular, it attracts up to 10,000 participants and 200,000 fans literally booking up not just the town itself but all accommodations within a 30 km radius. Not deterred, my husband and I have decided to buy train tickets and go for the day (it is four-day festival). I then started to delve into finding out all I could about yodeling itself. I discovered that it is unique form of communication with an interesting history and some additional quirky musical facts.
So here it is… Originally, the true yodel was not considered music, but a form of communication between herdsmen, or herdsmen calling to their cows in isolated mountainous regions. The earliest records of yodeling date back to the 1500s in the region of Appenzell, however the fact that this practice exists in other central, east and northern European regions, as well as in Persian, central Asian, African, and Mexican cultures has had researchers suggesting that yodeling as a form of communication may have been practiced for thousands of years.
The yodel is a series of wordless sounds made up of rapid vocal pitch changes between the deep chest register to the high head register or falsetto. It also boasts the famous “alphorn fa”, a tone between the F and F sharp as well as a few other tones not found in the chromatic scale. Yodeling became part of the musical culture of Switzerland in the 19th century and the present festival began in 1924.
We attended the festival on Saturday (June 24). It was a real eye (and ear) opener for me. Far from the many “popularized” yodeling songs to which I’d been previously exposed, the singing here was soulful and melodic. Most of the music consists of folk songs with word verses followed by choruses of yodeling. Performances varied from solo artists to large groups, single gender to mixed voices, a capella to accordion-accompanied. Alpenhorn music and flag throwing were featured as well. CHF 30 will buy you a lovely pin which is your pass to all the indoor concerts as well as bus transportation to other venues. Each concert at each venue typically last 2 hours featuring about 8 to 10 performances (one song per performer/group). In some venues the performers are judged. You are free to come and go between each performance.
While the town was bustling with both singer and audience, I heard almost no languages spoken other than Swiss-German, so, it seems that this festival doesn’t attract many foreign tourists…But it should. It is an event not to be missed if you want to experience a much beloved part of Swiss culture. You will have to wait another three years for it though.
We are a group of international women living in Geneva, Switzerland. If you would like to join the AIWC, please visit our website at http://www.aiwcgeneva.org/