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The music still plays on for Mani Matter

Mani Matter's music still has a meaning for many Swiss 30 years after his death

(Keystone Archive)

Thirty years after his death in a road accident, the music of Bernese "chansonnier" Mani Matter continues to strike a chord with young and old alike in German-speaking Switzerland.

The anniversary is being marked by a series of concerts and other events, including the cinema release of a documentary about Matter's life.

Music shops are reporting a surge in sales of his recordings to people born after his death.

And in Bern, the city of his birth, one of the trams has been decorated with pictures of Matter, accompanied by lyrics from some of his songs.

While just about every speaker of the Swiss-German dialect has at least heard of Matter, he remains little-known in the country's French- and Italian-speaking regions and outside Switzerland.

Erich Facon, cultural editor of Swiss-German radio DRS, says this is partly because the songs are not easily translated.

"Even translating them from the Bernese dialect into the dialects of German spoken in Zurich and Basel can be difficult," he told swissinfo.

"The syntax isn't always the same, so it can be hard to find the rhymes."

Multi-talented

A lawyer, philosopher, political activist and singer, Matter was only 36 when he died in 1972.

He began composing and performing at the age of 17, and later became a founder member of a Bern group, the Troubadours.

But it is as a solo artiste that he is best remembered, charming audiences with his acoustic guitar and songs about all sorts of subjects, including even a visit to the hairdressers.

It is often asked why his appeal has endured for so long. "I think it's because the songs are understandable for people of all ages," says his widow, Joy, "and to all levels of intelligence.

"There's a simple story told in many of the songs. Very often it's amusing, but under the surface there's a basic truth or philosophical reflection."

"Hemmige"

Erich Facon picks out one particular song, "Hemmige", which means inhibitions: "He wrote about inhibitions and transformed it into a popular song that people could sing along with."

Hemmige begins with the line: "Not everyone will sing a song like I'm doing now, because most people are inhibited."

Facon recalls a touching scene at a recent concert by the Swiss singer Stephan Eicher at the Olympia in Paris.

"When he sang his updated version of Hemmige, the French audience joined in. The song, even in Swiss dialect, had become popular in France."

But acclaim abroad was a rare occurrence. Matter's style - and of course his language - was quintessentially Swiss-German, even though he has been compared with the French chansonnier Georges Brassens.

Perhaps the nearest American equivalent is the young Bob Dylan, while in England there are some similarities with Jake Thackeray.

However Matter, whose songs have not - Facon believes - been translated into English, should not really be compared with others.

Lasting influence

His style continues to influence contemporary Swiss musicians, including the rock band Züri West.

"There are several reasons for his lasting popularity," says Facon. "First, you get a terrific quality; for example, he had the ability to squeeze philosophical ideas and social comment out of everyday situations.

"Even though the contexts behind them were sometimes complex, the songs are easily understandable for a child of ten and for the grandparents.

"Then there is their timelessness. Songs written in the 1960s remain relevant in the 21st century."

Facon says he finds it quite hard to think of anyone else who has written better songs. The same goes for Joy Matter.

"As you can imagine, for me, there's a sad side to listening to Mani's recordings today," she says.

"But there's also a feeling that the songs were excellent, still are and always will be."

swissinfo, Richard Dawson

Key facts

Mani Matter was a lawyer, philosopher, political activist and family man whose songs in Swiss-German dialect continue to influence other musicians.
He began composing and performing songs in Swiss-German at the age of 17.
His debut performance as one of the "Berner Troubadours" came in 1967.
Matter recorded "Hemmige" in 1970 and began performing in fund-raising concerts for Amnesty International.
He died aged 36 in a car accident in November 1972.

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