By Jonathan Fowler, AFP
DAVOS, Switzerland–Dressed in round black hats and bright red waistcoats, the huddled circle of men burst into song, their falsetto voices echoing across the mountain valley: “Yodelayheehoo.” High in the Alps, the resort of Davos is playing host to the Swiss Federal Yodeling Festival, a three-yearly magnet for lovers of mountain folk music and the region’s centuries’ old traditions. “It’s all in the technique,” said 35-year-old Roger Bider, as bystanders applauded his eight-man group’s spontaneous performance on a station platform. “You flip between singing from your head and your diaphragm,” said the soft-spoken Bider, one of two yodelers whose fellow singers provided a bass-voice backing. Known internationally for the annual World Economic Forum gathering of business and political leaders, this is the first time Davos is hosting the four-day yodeling festival. The national event, which wraps up Sunday and is broadcast live on Swiss television and radio, first began in 1924 and draws 10,000 traditionally clad participants and 100,000 fans.
While the events have juries, it’s hardly a battle of the bands: there are no prizes, beyond respect. But for many attendees, yodeling is about more than just music. “You get hooked,” explained Paul Mettler, 62, of the Swiss Yodeling Association, which supervises the event.
“There’s also the camaraderie. At events, you meet people you know, and make new friends too,” said Mettler, who took up yodeling in 1993. More than Music Most participants are from Switzerland’s majority German-language cantons — the equivalent of U.S. states — whose guttural dialects bemuse outsiders. Traditional Swiss yodel songs include lyrics in dialect but, like folk music worldwide, tell stories of love and hardship. “When I listen to vintage blues, I hear similar rhythms, harmonies and themes,” said Mettler. Peter Sutter, a yodeler for 30 years, said it was his passion for a host of reasons. “Culture and tradition are important,” said the 59-year-old from the small, central canton of Schwyz, which gave Switzerland its name. “The key is to be able to sing, to get the idea of sound, rhythm and scales,” he added.
Sutter is unimpressed by the “Schlager” pop pumped out in local bars and popular in central Europe, which mixes traditional accordion and yodel sounds with simple electronic beats. But that’s not to say he doesn’t appreciate more modern music: “I also like AC/DC, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Deep Purple!” Other musicians are mixing traditional Alpine music with new sounds. Sonalp, a group from the cheese-making Etivaz region in western Switzerland, are influenced by rap and world music, using local alphorns, cowbells, accordions and fiddles, along with didjeridoos. “We meld Swiss folk with other styles. We use yodeling a lot. Our stuff’s quite well-received, albeit not by everyone,” fiddle-player Guillaume Wahli, 36, told AFP by telephone. Yodeling is not uniquely Swiss. It is a hallmark of Austria’s Tyrol region, and variants are found along central Europe’s mountain chains, from Poland to Romania. “It’s been around since we started working the Alps centuries ago. People spent 100 days up there. They couldn’t see each other, so they communicated by song,” said Mettler. The patriotic edge came later, said music historian Claude Bonard. From the early 19th century onwards, Switzerland used music, wrestling and sharp-shooting festivals to forge a united identity in a country of disparate regions. “It’s striking how mass events assembling communities around one ideal continue to this day, bringing together generations to keep age-old traditions alive,” Bonard said.