Tuesday, February 12, 2008

129. Music of the Great Tradition -- 29:Old Europe -- The Swiss Alps

In America, yodelling is popularly associated with the Alps and Switzerland. The prevailing theory is that it has something to do with individual herders calling out from one peak to another, as though its orgins lay in purely practical concerns. (The common tendency to interpret various traditional practices as pragmatic responses to environmental or social challenges is what could be called the "folklorist fallacy" -- a similar set of assumptions became the basis for the "functionalist" school of anthropology.)

In his recently published book, Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World, Bart Plantenga presents a very interesting and amusing "Summary of Origin Theories and Cultural Strategies" associated with yodelling (p. 24). Noting that neither the "echo theory," the "affect theory," the "Alphorn imitation theory," the "phonation theory," the "race theory," the "shout theory," the "magic theory," the "need to communicate over great distances," theory, nor the "basic human need to be musical" theory are completely convincing, he is most sympathetic to a theory offered by a man named Leuthold, who argues that yodelling is among the earliest musical activities of humankind, a practice related to the "development of early language awareness in small children." Perhaps. Though the yowling I've heard from small children sounds a lot more like -- well -- yowling, than anything resembling yodel.

I agree that yodeling probably does go back to our earliest musical efforts, but for reasons very different from those of Leuthold (see posts 21-24, from June, 2007). With Jordania, I see the yodelling of the Alpine herders as part of the same set of Old European traditions highlighted by Gimbutas -- i.e., as associated with the survival of an old, autochthonous, pre-IndoEuropean polyphonic tradition, ultimately originating in the yodelled P/B style polyphony of the earliest "Out of Africa" migrants.

Tragically, the truly magical polyphonic yodelling tradition of the alpine herders has been almost completely supplanted by a virtuosic solo tradition that has, very sadly, become popular in some of its most embarrassingly cornball manifestations. (There does seem to be an ancient solo yodelling tradition, by the way, that can be traced back to the reindeer "herders" of paleolithic Europe and remains alive among the Saami of Lapland and the Paleosiberians of northern Asia. Many variants of this tradition can be found in Europe and also the Americas -- e.g., the "cowboys" -- where it is almost always associated with herding. IMO this tradition can also be rooted in the "Out of Africa" migration tree, though via a different branch.)

Fortunately, some excellent examples of Swiss alpine polyphony have been recorded, initially by the pioneering Romanian ethnomusicologist, Constantine Brailoiu, and more recently by Hugo Zemp, released some years ago as part of the anthology Voices of the World: Appenzell-Yodel, Zauerli.


bart said...

"Tragically, the truly magical polyphonic yodelling tradition of the alpine herders" having witnessed firsthand locals in muotothal yodeling juuzli together in a bar consisting of a duo with background bass yodeling and interviewing the chief yodeler, the younger Bertschart, whose father was featured in Hugo Zemp films i must differ. it is not dead and listening to the locally produced CD 'Natur pur' reinforces my feelings.

DocG said...

Thanks for this very heartening information, Bart. I'm really pleased to learn this remarkable tradition is still alive. How can I find the CD you mention? Is it available via the Internet?

bart said...

the young juutzer is bernard betschart, beny.betschart@bluewin.ch. he's a really friendly guy. he will be profiled in my new book YODEL IN HIFI. i will be incorporating some of yr cantometric notions in the text. i'm wondering if we can 'talk' a bit via email...

DocG said...

"i'm wondering if we can 'talk' a bit via email..."

Yes, of course. My email is: victorag@verizon.net