Ueli von Allmen is banging two spoons on his head and grunting. But rather than heading anxiously for the door, the swissinfo journalists grip their own spoons like chopsticks and join in.
This is what the 51-year-old guitarist and primary school music teacher describes as “body percussion”, which turns out to be more than just an easy way of whipping children – or adults – into a frenzy.
“Rhythm is very important to me,” he says. “Actually it’s the most important way of giving people a base to learn about music. To me, it’s even more important than singing because it connects a group – any group – of people.”
After the studio interview (listen to the attached audio clip), von Allmen is putting on an interactive show in a neighbouring office: the journalists have indeed connected, albeit in a weird form of clattering syncopation.
Von Allmen might look like the shorter brother of Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant, but the “old folkie”, as he describes himself, is in fact one of the main figures on the children’s music scene in Switzerland.
There are many strings to von Allmen’s guitar – he co-founded the Folk Music School of Bern in 1983 and gives concerts around the world with his folk band Tächa (dialect for the alpine chough). But sharing his passion with children remains a central part of his life.
“Children are my creative teachers,” the irrepressibly dynamic father of four says. “Children are the creative masters – being creative is their way of exploring and learning. For an artist or musician, being creative is the main ingredient.”
Von Allmen’s own childhood was spent in the mountains in Wengen, a village and ski resort in canton Bern with about 1,300 year-round residents, and nearly ten times that number in winter.
“When I was nine, I was given a little radio with a tape recorder and that was my dearest companion at the time. That was my gate to the musical world. Apart from that, I always reacted to what I heard around me, all natural sounds: thunderstorms, birds or traditional music which caused lots of deep emotions in me.”
The young mountain dweller turned out to be a musical sponge, soaking up classical music, jazz and rock. Yet he says his strongest influence was probably Bernese singer-songwriter Mani Matter, who died in a car crash in 1972 aged 36.
“Up there [in Wengen] we didn’t have a lot of distractions. At home I would explore the world by reading and listening, so language, speech, poems and stories are just as important to me as sounds.”
Indeed, he cites the “silence of the mountains” as his most important source of inspiration. “As a child, I learnt how to listen in the mountains. That had a big effect on me and probably also my music.”
Von Allmen is surprised when asked whether he feels Swiss. “Of course!”
He says he is firmly rooted in the mountain wilderness and has a strong feeling of belonging to a certain valley and village. But at the same time he admits to being outward-looking and very open – “and maybe that’s not typically Swiss”.
“It takes time for Swiss people to open up. That’s perhaps got something to do with the fact that Switzerland is a small, federal country, divided into communes and valleys and so on, where everyone protects each other but they perhaps don’t think big. And then when something big happens, they quickly get defensive,” he says.
“I try not to be like that. I try to be open, because we can always learn from other people. My passions are people and music.”
He has also noticed differences between Swiss and foreign audiences. “That’s the most wonderful thing: the different temperaments around the world. In China, people react very strongly – when they like something they show it. Whereas in Switzerland people are more private – they look around and think about whether they should really show this reaction now or not. They’re less spontaneous.”
A more obvious audience differentiator is age. “Children are basically much more spontaneous. They can be caught in a very deep way once they release themselves into this magical spell of a musical experience, live music. This could be a classical concert, the funny stories or faces I do or whatever. But once the children are with you, they won’t leave you,” he says.
“Adults on the other hand might play with their mobile phones during a concert or be thinking of something else. They’re just more easily distracted than children.”
Once his audience tunes in, however, von Allmen talks of a potential spiritual healing effect.
“A lot of good energy comes out of just playing and singing. And here we enter this kind of spiritual area with things we can’t really explain or this feeling of being connected among people or God or whatever. I believe music is really a very helpful way of experiencing this.”
Back in swissinfo’s office, the spirituality is getting out of control: a rogue spoon flips across the room, almost hitting a colleague who dropped by to see what was going on.
Von Allmen grins even wider and ups the tempo like a drummer on a slave ship – but a ship where none of the rowers wants to stop.
Ueli von Allmen, selected discography
1997 Tächa fünf Lieder (five songs) CD
1999 Leierchischte Di Roti CD
2000 Tächa flyg (flight) CD
2002 Tächa DVD for the UN Year of the Mountains
2003 Tächa Wasser (water) CD
2004 Leierchischte Di Blaui CD
2007 Tächa live with Eunan Mclntyre CD
2011 Leierchischte Muh (moo) CD
Tächa: Ueli von Allmen, Thomas Kupper, Bruno Raemy
Leierchischte: Ueli von Allmen, Roland Schwab