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Yodelling wins converts among city slickers

Students at the Zurich Conservatory practise their yodelling

The ancient Swiss song form, yodelling, has been given a new lease of life thanks to the efforts of a young, prize-winning musician.

The 25-year-old Nadja Räss has dusted down the old songs and composed her own lyrics in an attempt to bring yodelling into the 21st century.

She composes principally in minor, while yodelling is traditionally performed in the major key. Her lyrics are often sad, and are based on personal experiences.

Räss told swissinfo she wanted to get away from the old style of depicting Switzerland as a perfect world.

Word has spread about the new groove and Räss’s singing courses at the Zurich Conservatory are booked out.

Most of the students are trendy working women aged between 30 and 40 – not at all the stereotypical frumpy conservatives one might expect to find doing a Heidi number.

They are more likely to be dressed in jeans than in a Tracht, the traditional embroidered full-skirted costumes for women.

Graphic artist Klaudia Meisterhans, one of the 14 students in the class, took up yodelling after meeting Tuaregs in Libya five years ago.

“Everyone sat around a camp fire and sang folk songs, but we Swiss had no idea what to sing. That was when I realised I wanted to get back to my musical roots.”

“We don’t have to go far to find our own form of world music – we have an ethnic singing tradition and we should nurture it.”

Top teacher

Meisterhans told swissinfo why she liked Räss’s classes so much.

“Nadja is not only a great singer and teacher – she is also a pioneer. She is always learning new things about yodelling and passing them on to us.”

Räss comes from a musical family, and started singing and playing the Swiss hand organ at the age of seven.

She has made frequent television appearances since winning her first national yodelling competition at the age of 13 and has performed recently in Japan, Germany and Austria.

The singer has so far produced two solo CDs and has performed in duets or with groups on eight other discs.

Unable to find a music college where she could major in yodelling, Räss opted for a classical musical education, graduating in a record four and a half years from the Zurich Conservatory with a degree in music and teaching.

In March 2005, she became the first folk music singer to win the coveted Nico-Kaufmann prize for young musicians, worth SFr20,000 ($17,000).

Apart from her classes at the Zurich Conservatory, Räss teaches in local schools, gives lessons at home in Einsiedeln and is teaching on two residential courses this year on the Gitschenen Alp in central Switzerland.

Her private students travel long distances for an hour-long lesson. Ruth Durrer has an 80-minute journey each way.

“Nadja has taught me how to project my voice more forcefully, and to inject charisma into my performances. She sings with her heart and soul and is a great role model,” she said.

Sonja Dettling, an insurance saleswoman, has been taking lessons with Räss for two years and believes she has improved her technique considerably.

“Nadja helped me to alternate between head and chest tones by imagining I was training a small dog to walk on a leash.”

Yodelling origins

Yodelling began as a means of communication between neighbours who lived peaks apart.

Originally the art form was known as Juchzin, short yells with different meanings such as “time for tea” or “we’re on our way”.

In Switzerland, a distinction is made between a shrill yodel, starting in the upper reaches of the voice and descending in the same breath, and Naturjodel, in which one or more voices sing a melody without lyrics.

These natural yodels are passed down through families but they are in danger of dying out along with the older generation.

Räss plans to use her prize money for a tour of Switzerland, in search of Naturjodel.

She may have a job getting Alpine grandfathers to part with their musical treasures.

But once she has rearranged the melodies, she promises to give them back to their owners in the form of concerts in their regions of origin.

swissinfo, Julie Hunt in Einsiedeln

Yodelling is a warbling song form, characterised by a constant alternating between chest and head voices.
In addition to older types of yodelling, there is yodel song, a folk song composed of yodel refrains.
This was based on the Tyrol yodels, performed in Switzerland by wandering singers from Austria.

Yodelling, the music most closely associated with Switzerland, is getting a makeover.

Folk singer Nadja Räss has rebooted the ancient song form and is opening it up to students keen to get back to their musical roots.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR