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Saturday, July 3, 1999 Published at 11:08 GMT 12:08 UK

World: Europe

In defence of Yodelling

Faruenfeld is proud of its traditions

By BBC Geneva Correspondent Claire Doole

"It's either in the blood or it isn't", says 60 year old Swiss yodeller Ernst Zwahlen.

He learnt to yodel at his mother's knee and believes you have to have a natural feeling for it.

Yodelling - a song without words - used to be a form of communication between farmers in the Alps. Today it is an art form.

Mr Zwahlen and 9,000 other Swiss yodellers have gathered in the northern town of Frauenfeld for their national festival.

[ image: The town centre will belong to the yodellers]
The town centre will belong to the yodellers
It is the high point in a yodeller's calendar, taking place every three years.

Mr Zwahlen is president of a yodelling club in the central town of Thun - which held the festival in 1996.

Thun, nestling in the Bernese Alps is a mecca for yodellers, boasting 10 clubs.

All have been selected to play in Frauenfeld, having won through a series of regional heats.

Mr Zwahlen is proud of the town's yodelling tradition, but is worried that it will die out. His club's oldest member is 79, the youngest 54.

National campaign

The problem of recruiting young yodellers is most acute in the towns, but is serious enough for the national yodelling federation to have launched a national campaign to persuade youngsters to join the clubs.

At this weekend's festival, children's yodelling choirs will be taking part for the first time.

Festival organiser Beatrice Lombard shares the concern that, if young people do not take up the hobby of their parents and grandparents, it will die out.

She estimates that only about 10% of the federation's 20,000 members are under 30.

Although Ms Lombard does not yodel herself - and will privately admit she is not a fan of the music - she has pushed for children's yodelling camps to be run during the school holidays and firmly believes yodelling can be learnt.

Yodelling is a difficult skill to pick up. It can take years to train the throat to make the distinctive warbling sound.

But other traditional mountain pastimes are also suffering from a lack of young talent.

About 4,000 alphornists are also showing off their skills at Frauenfeld this weekend.

The music - produced by blowing down a wooden instrument that can be up to four metres long - is enjoying a renaissance.

The natural sound made by different movements of the lips appeals to the back-to-nature brigade, but there are far fewer fans willing to take up the instrument.

At 35, Anne Linder is the youngest member of Thun's alphorn group. She says youngsters enjoy listening, but are put off by the size of the horn and the fact the group plays in traditional dress.

Defending tradition

Organisers of this weekend's festival hope this showcase of national talent will inspire younger people to pick up the alphorn or even to learn how to yodel.

Both skills, they argue, are wonderful ways of communing with nature and discovering one's roots.

They dismiss arguments that such a traditional, even stereotypical image of Switzerland is not the right one for a country trying to open up to the world.

The festivals slogan is, after all: "With tradition, we go into the next century".

Keeping these mountain traditions alive will depend greatly on getting young people on board.

But as long as there are mountains, many believe Swiss mountain culture will continue to flourish.

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