Sound the alphorn: the Swiss yodeling festival is back

For some, it’s the first time they’ve seen their friends in three years.

For others, it’s a chance to bring out their traditional embroidered dresses or velvet Berner jackets trimmed in firecracker red.

For all, the 28th Pacific Coast Singing and Yodeling Festival is a time to celebrate Swiss music and culture.

Several hundred people from 11 Swiss clubs along the West Coast gathered this week at Tacoma’s Hotel Murano for the four-day event, which ends Sunday.

For Greg Vesey, Bonney Lake resident and festival president, it was a reminder of his first taste of the triennial event, a 1987 sängerfest in Tacoma with his Swiss wife, Barbara.

“It was a total amazing experience for me to hear top notch performances,” he said. “It really inspired me as a singer to become part of the cultural expression.”

While Vesey is not of Swiss heritage, nor is he a yodeler, he is involved in the Männerchor Edelweiss men’s choir and joined the Swiss sportsman club in Bonney Lake to immerse himself in his wife’s culture.

He hit the ground running and began planning for the 2014 festival two years ago. A different club hosts the event every three years in a new location. In 2011, the clubs gathered in Vancouver, B.C.

Most of this year’s festivities are at Hotel Murano, but it’s also tradition for the host society to “bring guests into their home,” so performances also will take place Saturday at Swiss Park in Bonney Lake, Vesey said.

The choirs have been practicing the selected sheet music for two years and two yodelers from Switzerland flew in to partake in Friday’s grand concert.

“Realistically, the grand concert is the highlight,” Vesey said. “That is the celebration to me of what this festival is about.”

A choir of 225 people was on hand for the two-hour performance along with solo and small group performances. Annelise Caprez, a Swiss-born yodeler revered in the Tacoma’s Swiss club, was to sing and yodel a duet at the grand concert.

The yodels performed at the festival are much different from the fast-paced Western versions most people have heard.

The traditional Swiss yodel is called “natur,” and incorporates long, open vowel sounds, creating a soothing tune.

“It’s something you’re born with,” Caprez said. “You can either yodel or you can’t.”

Before there was email, telephone or carrier pigeons, the Swiss people yodeled from mountain tops down to valleys as a form of communication.

Festivals such as this week’s event carry on the beloved tradition of gathering a community to enjoy the music.

Caprez practiced every day leading up to the concert. Before the performance her demeanor was modesty mixed with some anxiety.

“I just try not to be nervous,” she said. “I just want to do the best I can and hope there’s no monkey wrench thrown in.”

Swiss-born Ernie Kneubuhler, 82, said he was nosing around the world when he was 21 and decided to stay in America.

He’s one of the few festival participants who can play the alphorn, an 11-foot-long horn decorated in hand-painted flowers.

The horns, probably most recognizable to many Americans from the Ricola cough drop commercials, were used to send messages to the townspeople from the Swiss Alpes.

Playing the alphorn is different than other instruments, he said, because the player can’t just pick it up and begin playing.

“It’s the human that has to get in tune with the horn,” he said. “The instrument never changes. It’s you that changes. If you don’t play for a couple days, you have to build that relationship again.”

For most people, the festival is a family event and a chance to pass along Swiss values and traditions to children and grandchildren, said Louise Hospenthal, member of the Männerchor Edelweiss Society in Tacoma.

She remembers as a little girl yodeling in the backseat of her dad’s car as they drove down the road.

“Singing in Swiss is really a big thing and is part of the Swiss tradition,” she said. “If there isn’t a party, the Swiss will start one.”

Most of the songs are a tribute to the beautiful mountains and richness of the land, she said.

The Swiss are very hard-working and happy people, Hospenthal said. Family values and responsibility are a big part of the culture and something she tries to instill in her family, she said.

On Sunday, at the end of the festival, Vesey will pass the Swiss flag to the next host society and another two years of rigorous planning will begin.

Vesey said it’s been a lot of work and he’s looking forward to the end. But it’s also an experience he cherishes.

“When I hear music, regardless of the genre, I’m smiling,” he said with a chuckle. “It lights up my spirit.”