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Yelp It From the Rooftops

MOVIE REVIEW
Echoes of Home (2007)

Christian_Zehnder
Polyfilm Verleih

Folk music has a difficult time of it in this modern world. There’s the need to preserve the old sounds and traditions, but also the need to make them relevant to people now. Without contemporary interest, the music is reduced to museum status and the performers to archivists, but when the music is moved forward into a modern style, it becomes something new and more uncategorizable.

“Echoes of Home” is about three Swiss musicians who are caught between these two conflicting needs. The traditional music of Switzerland is yodelling – the perfect way to ensure sounds and messages are carried across the enormous mountain ranges, and up and down the valley. But this specific need of theirs speaks to something wider within their culture. As demonstrated by the eager mature students featured in an evening class, yodelling seems to be an excellent way for the proper, polite Swiss to really let rip.

The three avant-garde yodellers featured in the film all came to their art for a variety of reasons. Erika Stucky is a third-culture kid, who spent her early childhood in ’60s California before her family returned to Switzerland when she was nine. She is clearly still working through her sense of culture shock and using her music as a way of embracing both of her cultures. I especially liked the sequence where, after recounting her father’s instructions to his children as he shot home footage – “This is a movie, MOVE!” – Ms. Stucky, her sparky little daughter and her proud, nervous mother can barely contain their giggles as they dance for the camera.

In comparison, Christian Zehnder came to music after a catastrophic medical incident. The peace performing gives him is apparent, even as he contorts his body alarmingly to give voice to some very strange sounds. He speaks the most directly about the sense of personal identity found in music and how important it is, when exploring the music of other cultures, to be firmly grounded in your own identity. Finally, Noldi Alder was brought up in a family of professional old-style yodellers, recording and touring professionally from early childhood. Since he became an adult, he has made his own experiments with yodelling and music, to the disdain of some of his family.

The documentary does a good job of balancing the personal and the professional. There are talking-head interviews and footage of the performers at work in various concert spaces so that we are comfortable with their styles, their story and what significance their music has for them. But we are also treated to stunning shots of the Swiss landscape, and even a road trip to Mongolia, where Mr. Zehnder goes to work with throat singers Huun Huur Tu. To some, this style of singing might sound like frogs at war, but even someone as unappreciative as me can’t help but admire the amazing sounds coming from four men with bad posture and motorcycle jackets slouching in a semicircle on a yurt’s dirt floor. Ms. Stucky entering a bar, taking a hanger from the coat rack by the door and using it to play her accordion as she goes from table to table yodelling is almost as impressive.

Some of the other Swiss footage is nearly as odd. The director accompanies a group of men who go on a door-to-door yodelling trip for a village festival, wearing costumes which are a cross of a pearly king’s outfit with that of a Rio carnival dancer’s. Jingle bells the size of your head are strapped to their bodies, and on their heads are similarly bedazzled headdresses containing mountain-scene dioramas which might also be found in a property developer’s showroom. On snowshoes they tramp quietly from house to house as a voiceover explains how it is necessary to be slightly extreme if you’re Swiss, in order to stand up to the overwhelming scenery.

This sense of the necessary permeates everything Ms. Stucky, Messers. Zehnder and Alder do, but their work – and by extension, the film – also seems permeated with a sense of sadness. If only they felt at home, they would not need to express themselves in their music, their work seems to say. Mr. Alder’s journey is the most poignant in this regard; his childhood training and the need to find his own sound shows a man carefully combining his respect for the old traditions with his joy at finding his very own fresh contemporary sound. Director Stefan Schwietert gives all the artists and their work space to breathe, to reflect, and to clearly depict its import to them and their culture as well.

Still, it's puzzling as to why the film is receiving distribution, even a limited release, outside of the German-speaking world. General knowledge of Swiss culture here is limited to the stereotypical Cuckoo-Clock-Heidi money markets, although I did thrill to seeing one of the horns as used in the old Ricola advertisements. These three artists are unusual ambassadors to bring Swiss culture to a wider audience, given that all three of them are so personally uneasy with aspects of it. The insights provided into music as a sense of personal identity speak directly to teenagers, people living between cultures or anyone with a crowded iPod, but you're just not sure this is enough for “Echoes of Home” to capture an audience beyond that of Swiss expats, folk musicians and ethnomusicologists. Perhaps I underestimate their numbers – and I wish this film all the best – but this film’s entrance into the summer blockbuster market really is unexpected.

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