The Hills are alive with the Sound of Music…in Switzerland?!?
Think of Switzerland, and what comes to mind? The first thing that sprang to the lips of every female friend when I announced my departure for the country was ‘chocolate’; my sporting friends ‘skiing’, or for the more unhinged, anything from ‘base-jumping’ to ‘canyoning’; older relatives waxed lyrical about the joys of ‘fondue by roaring log fires’…To be fair, none of them were wrong, either. All of these things are integral to life in the Swiss cantons at the geographical heart of Europe.
Not one person suggested, however, that I was venturing into a cultural melting pot no less wonderful, though admittedly less widely-known, than that famous cheese-based Swiss national dish. Over 30% of the people resident in Switzerland do not hold Swiss citizenship and come from outside of the country, a result of years of a well-run economy with a specialised jobs market that cannot be fulfilled by just the original citizens themselves. Bringing their labour, this vast population has brought something a bit more exotic with them too; a vast array of international culture packed into a very small space in the Alps.
Take a glance at a local ‘What’s on’ guide in any of the Swiss cantons and the result is clear for music lovers everywhere: any given week, you can hear everything from international acts like Rihanna and Sisters of Mercy, the latter soon to arrive on their 30th anniversary tour in Lausanne, to local jazz, Kashmiri traditional music, and, this week in my local venue, the Berber Orchestra, brought from all over the Maghreb. All of this alongside more traditional carnival brass bands, yodelling and alphorn playing, of course.
Coming from up-and-coming cultural centres like Cardiff, capital of Wales, and having worked on stage in major cultural centres like the Wales Millennium Centre, I have remained a little in shock; I had been warned at interview that I was likely to be living in ‘very rural locations’ where I might struggle to adapt (hint – there might not be very much going on around there…). Instead, I am juggling work commitments with a cultural diary that leaves the likes of my former hometown miles behind.
Of course there are key advantages that allow for all of this. Switzerland is small, actually only about the size of Wales, and is blessed with a public transport network that, despite some problem areas, is the envy of the developed world. The result: you can get pretty much anywhere for an event, day or evening, and take one of the night services home.
Taking advantage of this the other evening, I was able to go from French-speaking Delémont to German-speaking Olten in just over an hour to hear the wonderfully named British band The Victorian English Gentlemen’s Club play at a relatively new venue there, the brilliantly located Coq d’Or right outside the back of the station. Playing a chaotic rock music overlain with discordant harmonies from harmonica and viola together with more traditional guitars and drums, they stormed through an hour set in their penultimate gig on a two-and-a-half-week tour around northern Europe.
As a complete contrast in mood, they had been supported by Bern-based Patrick Bishop, whose haunting melodies and poetic lyrics (in English) were a surprise discovery in an evening that encapsulated exactly what I have discovered here. An all-Swiss 3-piece band with 2 guitars and piano supporting a rock band in the UK…? Never in a million years! Speaking to them after the gig, I was able to talk about how impressed I had been with the varied music scene here and try to get a bit more of a local perspective.
“Yeah, the music scene here in Switzerland has always been really diverse,” says Roman Bühlmann, lead guitarist and chief vocalist, in an almost entirely un-accented English that could inspire English-learners everywhere, “I think it comes from the fact we already had such linguistic diversity in the country already, which in itself promotes different outlooks; the Romande looks a bit more to France for it’s musical influences, German-speaking Switzerland looks to the Anglo-Saxon world generally for inspiration while the Ticino looks south for it’s beat. Add immigration into the mix, yes much of it from Europe, but many come from further afield too, and you get something pretty special.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself. So the next time someone tries to stereotype Switzerland, I would challenge you to agree to anyone saying it is that dull and traditional place at the centre of a hipper Europe…