June was just three days away, and it was snowing. Hard. By nightfall we had six inches and it looked like it would continue to snow for at least another day. The farmer’s faces betrayed concern as the snow covered the fresh grass in the pastures, and the livestock stood under the eaves of the barn, staring balefully out at the snow. Everyone seemed low, even the goats, who, as I brought them one by one through the milking parlor, were giving less milk than usual.
Suddenly, from the darkness of the pigpen, came the whooping voice of farmer and cheesemaker Oskar Pfyl. He was singing a joyful song without words, which warbled up and down and echoed in the cold interior of the barn like lone reveler’s shouts in a cathedral. The goats turned and looked, cocking their heads and the pigs squealed as he distributed their feed. Just then I realized what Oskar was doing lifting our spirits in the face of the hardship of this unexpected late-spring snowfall.
The singing continued and I turned back to milking. ‘My goodness,’ I whispered to the goats, ‘it’s a juuz!’
The Swiss-German word juuz (Pronounced ‘yootz’), derives from a verb meaning, ‘to erupt into spontaneous shouts of joy.’ It describes one of the world’s most unique and uplifting sounds, the rough yodels of the farmers of the Swiss Alps.
The natuur juuz, with its echoing yelps and cries and its yodeled folktunes, was at one time the work song of the Swiss farmer. Herdsmen beckoned their cows in from far off pastures with loud calls that bounced off steep mountain faces and ran down into the valleys. They burst into song while milking livestock in the barn or lumbering on the slopes. And in evenings, on top of quantities of local brew, farmers would Juuz in local beerhalls and then polka with their girlfriends and wives to their native accordion dance music.
This ‘natural juuz’ is the antecedent of the modern choral juuz, sung by tens of thousands across Switzerland today and performed at cultural gatherings for large, appreciative audiences. Outsiders know this style by the familiar term, ‘yodel,’ but the natuur juuz, retains its distinction because of the open, natural style of the singing and its intimate connection to traditional Swiss pastoral lifestyles.
Today, only a few farmers carry on the tradition of singing while working in the pastures, forests and barns. In May of 2006 I traveled to the small, remote valley of Muotathal in central Switzerland to meet some of the style’s few remaining practitioners. It was an epic journey that began in my college library with an old, dusty LP record and ended in small, rustic farmhouses in the heart of the Swiss Alps.
Years earlier, I discovered an old record tucked away in a dark corner of a school library. It had a photograph of a Swiss farmer on the cover, mouth open in song, hand cupping his ear, eyes closed in concentration. His name was Erasmus Betschtart and his songs were some of the most striking examples of work songs I had ever heard. Unlike rhythmic chants used in fields of cotton and cassava, these songs were more open, obeying a beat but not married to it. Gentle, like lullabies, but sharp enough to carry down slopes and across valleys, these songs sounded like wordless hymns shouted out from grassy mountain flanks into the alpine air. I was entranced, and decided I must go hear the natuur juuz in person.
This led me, this past May, to the barn where Oskar Pfyl was, almost inexplicably, singing amongst his pigs in the snow. At his mountaintop farm I explored the making of traditional goats milk cheese and helped prepare for the annual walking of the cows up to the mountain from the winter pastures in the valley. While working, Oskar would occasionally burst into traditional juuz and in the evenings he would juuz a prayer out over the mountains, the sound of which echoed from slope to slope, bringing the livestock in for the night.
Oskar was shy about singing, as were most farmers in Muotathal. For at least 40 years, non-farmers have looked on juuz practitioners as backwards, old-fashioned mountain hicks. The numbers of singing farmers has steadily dropped, replaced by folkloric yodelers singing in choruses during cultural festivals in Switzerland’s towns and cities.
The two styles are in fact quite different. Traditionally the natuur juuz has used a different scale than the choral juuz. The third note in this scale is sung a micro-tone flat as compared to the choral juuz, leading music teachers in Swiss schools to denounce this music as being out of tune, and hence un-learned and unsophisticated. This accounts for some of the stigmatism attached to the old natuur juuz.
Another difference, which also contributes to the stigma surrounding this music, is the environment in which it is sung. The world of farmers, though revered as being traditionally Swiss, is seen by some as being as old-fashioned and regressive as the songs themselves. But the environment of the mountaintop barnyard and pasture lends an important natural element to the sound of the juuz.
Natuur juuz takes the sonic environment of the pastoral alps as its strength, and the element of surprise generated by a timely bellow from a milk-cow or an unexpected echo off a cliff are part of the sweetness of this music that cannot be reproduced. Cowbells ring in dense polyrhythms as herds walk over the fields, creating a compelling accompaniment for a farmer’s spontaneous song. Without these elements, the choral juuz takes on a level of separation from the environment that, some would say, detracts from its beauty.
It was for this reason that I wanted to visit Erasmus Betschtart, the man who I first heard on the record at the library in America. He learned to juuz in the natural style, in the pastures of his youth. In a sagging, wooden farmhouse on the edge of town, I found him, smoking a traditional Muotathaler pipe and chatting with a neighbor. He has long since retired from farming, but with a little prodding my translating Swiss friend and I convinced him to sing us a juuz as if he were out in the fields.
Demure and gentle, Erasmus lifted his voice joyfully and shook the ancient floorboards of his farmhouse, and though we weren’t on a mountaintop, you could almost hear the juuz echo down the valley. He still had a copy of that record, the same one I found in the library, and, packing his pipe, he laughed at the photo of his younger self on the cover, singing out into the alpine air.
Few farmers still Juuz like this in the old style, but if you visit Oskar Pfyl on Alp Troligen you might just catch him calling his livestock or singing the evening prayer. I heartily recommend his fine cheeses and yoghurt available on the mountaintop or from his farm in the valley.
Taken from the latest number (25) of the Italian magazine Slowfood
Bennett Konesni is an American musicologist