Portugal has its heartbroken fado, Mexico its melancholy ranchera and Ireland its wistful folk ballads. But in some ways, the lupine calls of Eastern Switzerland’s Zäuerli and Ruggusseli yodels are the saddest songs in the world.
I have travelled to Switzerland’s Appenzell – a hilly region located 95km east of Zürich, near the border of Austria and Liechtenstein – some dozen times. The journey alone is a highlight. The shiny red Appenzeller Bahn leaves the industrialised Glatt Valley behind at the terminal station of Gossau, whistling its way into rolling pasturelands where bell-shaped barns and shirtless farmers are within salt-passing distance of your train seat.
Once there, other passengers open the train windows, letting in the smells of wildflowers, cut grass and, yes, a whiff of fresh gülle (manure). Here, the landscape trades glacial Alps and ski slopes for cowbells and a yodelling heritage first documented in 1609. But some claim that yodelling actually dates back some 2,500 years, when tribes of Iron Age Alemanni and Helvetii Celts roamed these hills. If you listen closely as your train arrives, you might hear the same ancient calls still being sung by today’s musicians.
- Säntis, the highest mountain in Appenzell. (Roman Sandoz/Getty)
Founded in 1513, the Appenzell region is today made up of two sub-cantons – Catholic Appenzell Innerrhoden and Protestant Appenzell Ausserrhoden – where the predominant dairy farming industry gives the cantons a wholesome, Vermont-like vibe. I quickly learned, however, that there is a dark side to this bucolic Swiss bliss. The Swiss themselves would say that Appenzell is more like the Ozarks than Vermont: beautiful but at times backward – and haunted by a palpable loneliness and melancholia that lingers over the landscape and trickles into the music.
Appenzell is home to Switzerland’s highest suicide rate, which says a lot for a country whose suicide statistics already run high, partly due to legalised euthanasia. Some also argue that Appenzell clings to tradition too much. Women, for example, weren’t given full voting rights until 1990, making it the last canton to give full suffrage. Today, Appenzell is surrounded by the canton of St Gallen, making the region a sort of double-Swiss exclave. Or in less polite terms – the middle of nowhere. But it’s this nowhereness that’s key to the music.
- The Gonten trail, where hikers trek barefoot through Appenzell's rolling hills and farmland. (Martin Moos/Getty)
Appezöllerstöckli (Appenzeller folk music) features a variety of instruments: violins, dulcimer, cello and contrabass predominate, while accordion and piano are less frequent. But it’s the yodelling – wordless calls originally sung by farmers and shepherds to communicate messages across deep valleys – that really distinguishes local music from other folk genres.
Forms of yodelling have been traced to Georgia, Persia, Central Asia and Central Africa. Here in Appenzell, they come in two forms: the Ruggusseli, a style sung in Innerrhoden, and the Zäuerli, a style sung in Ausserrhoden. You can hear Zäuerli at the beginning of Wes Anderson’s latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Most agree that Zäuerli is slower and more from the chest, while Ruggusseli comes from the head. Both are composed of multi-voice, wordless sonorous vowels marked by falsetto chest-to-head glottal leaps. In non-musical terms, yodels are howls to remind the living of life. They are sheer cries of elation. “Both are melancholic, though Ruggusseli is sadder due to its abundance of minor keys,” said Ausserrhoden-based music teacher Antonia Brown, who runs the agency Appenzell Tailor-Made Tours. An American opera singer who spent most of her life performing in Florence, Brown is one of a handful of international musicians now based in Appenzell.
- Locals gather for Silvesterchlausen, a New Year’s festival that centres on yodelling. (Sebastian Derungs/AFP/Getty)