After hearing this unique music form Liz Gill becomes an enthusiastic convert
Yodelling – that’s a bit naff isn’t it? All those kitsch costumes and Lonely Goatherd connotations. That’s certainly how I’d always thought of it and stepping off the train at Brig station alongside hundreds of performers in elaborate liveries pouring into town for Switzerland’s 30th Jodelfest only confirmed my suspicions.
A couple of hours later we’re sitting outside a cafe 6000 ft up in nearby Riederalp, drinking in the view and the air and the local wine. At the next table are a casually dressed group of ten men and three women similarly having a good time. Suddenly without any preamble they start to yodel and the sound is so astonishingly and melancholically beautiful that I find myself fighting to hold back not sniggers but tears. Afterwards they return to their beer and their laughter while I revise everything I’d thought about this musical form.
This combination of singing and celebrating is something we’re to see a lot of the next day, the third of the festival, when, with the serious concerts and competitions over and the results announced, it’s time to party.
So everywhere you go people are eating and drinking and then launching into impromptu recitals in the bars and cafes and even on the street corners if the mood takes them. And far from being twee some of it is quite laddish. In one bar, for instance, a young yodeller who has over indulged lies asleep with his head on the table while around him his mates belt out complex and intense harmonies.
Some groups are male only because yodelling – which involves repeated and rapid changes between the chest or ‘normal’ voice and the head voice or falsetto – always has four parts for men and even in mixed groups there are usually only two or three women to sing soprano.
The difficulty of the technique, which began as a way of communicating across valleys, is part of the appeal, a contestant tells me. The other part is the camaraderie: not only within groups but between them – a good yodeller, he says, could turn up at another club and be welcome to join in. There are even international connections: the festival has choirs from Canada, South Africa and Taiwan.
Brig-Glis normally has a population of 18,000; for the festival it has another 150,000 including 12,000 singers, alpenhorn players and flag throwers. The occasion is the third biggest in the country: only two wrestling festivals draw bigger crowds.
It ends with a splendid two hour parade through the packed streets featuring not only yodellers who, of course, sing as they walk and alpenhorn players, who stop and play and then move on, but flag throwers, brass bands and participants, animal as well as human, from all walks of Swiss life. There is, inevitably, a man dressed as William Tell alongside a boy with an apple.
In this context the costumes – the men mostly in red or black with Breaking Bad style pork pie hats covered with badges, the women in full skirts and fabulous headdresses – are both fittingly traditional and rather flattering.
Afterwards we head back to Riederalp and a change of mood with a visit to the largest glacier in the Alps and a demonstration of cheese and butter making. This takes place in an old ‘living museum’ house where Roberta who has had these old skills passed down to her through her family sets a large cauldron of milk over a wood fire and brings it gradually to the right temperature to add rennet. The ability of this digestive enzyme to set milk was discovered, she explains, over 4000 years ago when nomads used cows’ stomachs to carry milk and found that its consistency changed.
The process is hard work, a lot of stirring in a figure of eight formation, then cutting, then pressing out the water and the end product is I find rather bland: more flavour comes with salt baths and storage. The butter making is even harder – 15 minutes of pounding cream in a churn, the pounding requiring more effort as the cream thickens – but the result, pressed into and then tipped out of a carved wooden butter press, is delicious and pretty.
We are glad though to step outside as the house has no chimney and is gloomy and smoky. Roberta tells us that J.R.R. Tolkien was a big fan of Switzerland: not only was the grandeur of the mountains the inspiration for his imaginary landscape but the small dark dwelling places were also the source of his hobbit homes.
We eat the butter spread on rye bread and drink herbal tea – the mountainside is covered with wild flowers and herbs – and listen to the bells tinkling on the necks of the Valais canton’s famous ‘fighting cows’ who clash at the start of the summer season to establish who is the queen of the herd but who are calm now having sorted precedent.
Later we go up to the great Aletsch glacier, at 14 miles the longest in the Alps. There are three viewing points. From the highest you can see the Jungfrau and the Konkordiaplatz where three glaciers meet and the depth of the ice is nearly 3000 ft. We choose the middle one, still 8700 feet above sea level with staggering views – the Matterhorn is on the horizon – but also with an exhibition centre where rather creepy manikins with hologram faces tell you the story of the pioneers who measured and mapped the vast expanse. It is possible to walk on the glacier but only with a guide; otherwise deep crevices and other dangers are easily missed.
We content ourselves with a stroll – the air is noticeably thinner and all effort just that little bit harder – to the viewing platform and the ‘harmony spot’ selected by people who claim to know about these things as being the most conducive to contemplation. All it lacks is someone yodelling across to us from the opposite alpine meadow.
The Jodelfest, the programme for which is as thick as a novel, only happens every three years. The last one was in Davos, the next will be in Basel but there are lots of smaller festivals in between and so numerous and widespread are the clubs that it’s always easy to find a performance. Some might even offer yodelling taster classes.
The efficiency and comfort of the Swiss railway means it is easy to visit several areas. We had spent a few days before in the French speaking area of the Valais canton around Champery where British tourists first arrived in 1857: there are fascinating old photos of intrepid women visitors in long skirts manoeuvring along mountainsides.
Its proximity to the border – an hour and a half on foot – meant it was once a centre for smuggling and, more nobly during World War II, for sheltering refugees and resistance fighters. One old man we chat to in the village remembers his grandmother feeding members of the Maquis.
The sense of history is almost palpable. We had a fascinating visit to a bell foundry, one of the last in the country to cast by traditional methods. The bells, used to locate goats and cattle in bad weather, are also used as gifts and trophies, costing from around £40 to £3340. I particularly liked the Miss Champery one for the best cow.
We also walked up a hillside to a ‘living museum’ chalet where the great great granddaughter of the original owner described the lives of her ancestors and a few miles along the valley in the aptly named Troistorrents, volunteers who have lovingly and painstakingly restored the old water mill were similarly able to evoke the old days.