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The Kandersteg Yodel Club (Photo R. Bonner)

Can Angels Yodel?

I must admit that I am not wild about yodelling and even with the greatest stretch of the imagination I cannot picture angels doing it. Over the years, however, I’ve come to appreciate this ancient vocal art. It has a beauty all its own when performed in a natural setting, along with alphorns blaring and flag swinging. But even in the giddy heights of the Alps, I feel like Mark Twain when he climbed the Rigi. At first he thought it quaint on his trek up the mountain when a shepherd boy popped out of the bushes with a "Lul…l…l…lul-lul-lahee-o-o-o!" He and his partner politely listened, gave him a few pennies, and then continued. A few minutes later a second boy popped out and serenaded them, then a third, a fourth… Each time they gave the boys less and less money, until finally they hired the lot for a franc apiece not to yodel anymore!

The topic of yodelling came up again recently on one of my many visits to Kandersteg in the Bernese Oberland. Liesel, an old friend of mine who has lived there all of her life, told me that she used to yodel as a young girl out of sheer joy when walking home in the evening, and she would often get an answer from some mysterious young man down in the village. I guess this was an early form of SMS flirting. Anyway, the story didn’t continue because she never found out who her secret admirer was, but she did tell me that her brother, Alfred, is long-standing member of the Kandersteg Yodel Club. So I decided I would make another effort to understand this form of singing by talking to him.

We met on a rainy summer day at his weekend chalet nestled somewhere in the outlying woods. Alfred is a big man with a face chiselled from rock. He’s a retired farmer, restaurant and campground owner who likes to puff on a cigar. Friendly and affable, he strode over to me and crushed my hand in a hearty handshake. His wife cleared the table and so we got down to brass tacks, all in the drawling twang of the local vernacular!

"Alfred, how long have you been yodelling?"

"Oh, I guess it’s been about thirty-four years now."

"What does yodelling mean to you?"

"Gemütlich sy…being cosy together with friends! Practising every week and performing for people along with a Ländlerkappelle."

"Did you have to learn yodelling or were you born with this ability?"

"We had a great teacher in school who conducted our choir and he taught us to love yodelling, so it kind of came naturally to me. But that’s changing now. Young people in the village are less and less interested."

"Yes, I noticed that the members of your group are all older. But tell me a little bit more about yodelling. Where does it come from? Is it true that it was once used as a means of

"Well, I don’t really know where it comes from, but in earlier times cowherds up in the mountains used to call people to Sunday prayer by singing through a wooden funnel. That was a form of early yodelling. The Alphorn too was used for sending signals from valley to valley."

"What kind of yodelling do you do? I’ve heard that there are all kinds ranging from Naturjutz, a kind of primeval form, to the more sophisticated modern kind."

"That’s right. We’ve got about two to three traditional Naturjutz in our repertory that are not recorded anywhere, but handed down from generation to generation. The rest are songs composed by different people."

Alfred gave me a detailed account about Naturjutz and how it sometimes occurs spontaneously, surprising everyone because it’s one that has never been heard before. From his description this Naturjutz reminded me of the feline yodelling that sometimes goes on in back alleys during spring.

I asked Alfred if yodelling had a future. He nodded and told me all about other clubs and schools where young people were being trained to take part in the various Eidgenössische Jodelerfeste that were organised throughout the country each year. So there was no danger of this tradition ever dying out.

After about an hour of chewing the fat, I decided it was time to mention Kandersteg’s most famous ‘local boy who made it big’, Adolph Ogi, the former Federal Councillor and twice president of the Swiss Confederation. I knew that during his presidency ‘Dolph’ had brought all the luminaries of this world up to Kandersteg, including Kofi Anan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations; Francois Miterand, the late French president; and even Prince Charles, the successor to the English throne.

"Oh yes, we yodelled for them all," Alfred said. "Prince Charles even shook hands with me when he was here!" He put down his cigar and proudly held up his right hand as if he hadn’t washed it ever since.

"Speaking of hands," I said, "one hears many jokes about why you men keep them in your pockets while yodelling."

"Well, I guess that’s obvious." he said. "If you want to reach those higher tones, you sometimes need to help nature with a little pinch."

Alfred put the cigar back into his mouth, and, with an angelic twinkle in his eye, took a puff and leisurely emitted the smoke.

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