Walking through Brig on New Year’s day, we passed one of the most exciting advertisements I’ve ever seen – an oversized alphorn carved with the words “2017 Swiss Jodelfestival – Brig, June 23-35”. Yodeling is an integral part of Swiss culture, having developed many centuries ago as a form of communication in mountainous and inaccessible regions. It was used for a variety of purposes, such as communication between herders from one alp to another, to let the herders’ wives and families down below know they were ok, to bring in the cows, and as a kind of lullaby to soothe the cows at night or during milking.
The word “yodeling” actually derives from the German jodeln, meaning “to utter the syllable jo“. While herders’ calls began as a simple, monosyllabic note, they eventually developed into a sophisticated, wordless melody – the naturjodel – using the two distinct human vocal registers: the “head voice” and the “chest voice”. Yodeling as we now know it essentially involves singing an extended note that rapidly switches registers within a few seconds at high volume, similar to the technique used by professional opera singers (but with a very different outcome). To create an even more fascinating sound, when a solo yodeler starts to sing a tune, other yodelers generally hum along and provide a spontaneous melody. And every three years, the jodelfest puts all of this on display for the enjoyment of tourists and locals alike. I couldn’t wait.
Nestled in the mountains, Brig, with its cobblestone streets and picturesque town square, looked as if it was built for the yodel festival. I arrived on the second day of the festival for a day of concerts and impromptu yodeling before the third and final day culminated in a much anticipated cultural parade. Entrance to the concerts cost $40 for all three days, but access to the rest of the festival was free, including an entire street (Yodel Alley) and square (Yodel Village) dedicated to yodeling.
As I exited the train station into the warm summer evening, I approached one of the many volunteers wandering around in bright yellow vests to inquire about where, exactly, I could quickly find some yodeling. As she listened to my question I watched her face light up with delight that I had come from afar for the event, and with a huge smile she directed me to “walk down the street”. Thirty seconds later, I came upon my first singing group. My image of yodeling as an old man on a mountain in suspenders was instantly shattered as the group of ten young Swiss men dressed in black traditional clothing harmonized in a way that can only be described as a yodeling a capella boy band.
I continued down the street for a block until I again heard music, this time at a corner tavern where a group of older men and women in red folk costumes were sitting around a table, beers in hand, heads thrown back in a naturjodel. And as they yodeled, voices from the crowd around me, all similarly dressed in extravagant traditional outfits, joined the chorus, creating a surround-sound effect. This pattern continued for the rest of the evening: walk a few feet, listen, walk a few more feet, listen, until hours had passed and I had only made it a few blocks. At every cafe and every square I encountered yodelers, accordions, or alphorns. In the town center a large crescent of alphorn players had set up their instruments and were beginning to play for an eager crowd. There was no schedule for when or where a yodel might occur – it could be at the bar drinking beer, in the street eating ice cream, around a table eating dinner, or entering through a doorway – but whenever the urge struck, a group would throw back their heads and spontaneously burst into song. Adding to the group chorus, loud undulating cries echoed all around – evidence that yodeling is still used as a means of communication, whether to get someone’s attention, as a vocal applaud for a group after a song, or just as a general means of expressing emotion. I could have happily stayed up all night listening to these other worldly sounds, but as darkness approached I climbed on a bus full of yodelers to find my hotel in Belalp.
I returned the next morning for the parade, advertised as the highlight of the festival. It was hands-down the best parade I have ever seen, distilling the essence of Switzerland into an expertly crafted, perfectly punctual two-hour extravaganza. The groups marching past alternated between creative floats depicting life and culture in Switzerland, herds of animals, and groups of yodelers or alphorn players. Some of the more spectacular floats included a man chiseling an ice sculpture; a small wooden house with an actual log fire going inside that 3 men were using to distill alcohol and send it pouring through a tube out the back of the float into a bottle where a small group was sitting on the bumper pouring shots; a group of grumpy old men in their bedclothes sitting in a 4-poster bed drinking beer; and a crew of men who were chopping then whittling wood into various figurines. Other highlights included a group of men parading with a chorus of cowbells almost half their size around their wastes, and a whipping performance.
Basel has already been chosen for the 2020 festival location, and our calendar is blocked. I suggest you do the same. And in case you’re in need of a quick yodel fix before then, please click here.