In the pictures below, you can take a look at my recent visit to a yodel festival in the Harz. This is a forested hilly area right in the middle of Germany - right on the former East/West border. Driving there with some music colleagues from Halle, we noted where no-man's-land used to be - we would have been shot taking that trip 20 years ago!
Anyway, besides former borders, the Harz is also known for (a) scenery (b) witches and (c) yodeling. A winning combination.
As for (a), just outside the parklands we visited the town of Wernigerode. It was really ridiculously charming, full of cobblestone streets, half-timbered houses from the 16th century, and a giant, multi-spired city hall of about the same vintage. Also lots of Dutch tourists. You can see us in the town square in the photos.
Inside the national park area, it is a wilderness of Christmas trees. Really: giant fir trees with a perfect triangular shape, ready for twinkly lights and glass balls to be hung about. I never saw a forest that looked so well groomed. No wonder witches like it here.
As for (b), the folk tales tell of witches in the Harz, and that's still what Germans think of when they hear the name. I think these are our classic idea of witches, broomsticks, hats, and all. I'm also pretty sure this is where Hansel and Gretel must have gotten lost and found the gingerbread house - it looks like the spot for that. The only witches we saw were onstage at the yodel festival - apparently, the Harzers, or whatever they're called, are as proud of their supernatural heritage as they are of their history as miners and lumberjacks (see their logo in the photo).
(C) was naturally our real reason for visiting. Screw the pretty trees! Seriously, on August 2 there was a yodel competition going on right in the center of the forest, at the town of Clausthal-Zellerfeld. They had already started when we got there, and we could hear them as soon as we got out of our car. The Harz yodellers have a very particular and unique yodel technique: they alternate beteween head and chest voice extremely rapidly while also alternating vowels, for example; another characteristic is them singing the lower note twice and the upper once so as to make a kind of triplet feeling in countertime to the duple meter of the accompaniment. They also accompany themselves on accordion and/or guitar, and both women and men play both instruments.
We were pretty impressed with them overall, although the Jodellieder (yodel songs with text verses and yodel refrains) were pretty cheesy, all about how great their Heimat was. Also one group apparently wanted to compete in the quintet division simply because there were only two other groups in the category, thus guaranteeing them a trophy. They seemed to have thrown two men in at the last minute, as neither was dressed in the group costume, and the men also didn't know the song but just made sort of vague low-pitched tones in an indeterminate tonality. It was a little startling.
The "free yodel" item was pretty exciting, though. In this the solo competitors (in four categories, divided by sex and also according to whether they'd ever won before - if they had, they were placed in a separate group of "Meisterjodler") had to improvise a yodel for about a minute. Some of these were quite impressive, employing many contrasts in vocal register and tempo.
Yours truly also took part in a way. One of the organizers came over to talk to us, and Helen had already let him know that I too was a yodeller. Thus I was asked to yodel something between some of the competitive parts of the program. After first ascertaining I wouldn't be thrown out if I yodeled in the Swiss style - I don't know any German yodels - I proceeded to do so, to great acclaim. They were a pretty happy audience. Also all five judges spontaneously awarded me with 6.0 points each (out of 6.0). If only I'd been competing!
Alas, we were not so pleased with the outcome of the competition. The young woman who won was indeed good, but so clearly overshadowed by the absolute confidence and strength of an older woman that we were shocked to hear that that woman only took second. We were told that this was due to a technicality: in her free yodel she had apparently quoted a passage from a Jodellied the judges new, so points were deducted.
Another side note to vegetarians: you won't find much to eat at a German yodel competition. The only non-meat items were French fries, ketchup and mustard. Or cake. Helen tried to convince me I could eat a Schmaltzbrot, but I reminded her that Schmalz is lard, which is made of meat. Or is fat not considered meat? Either way, it's nasty. Oh yeah, you can also have beer.
Thus nourished, I proceeded on to Berlin on the extremely slow train. Even slower than usual - some problems on the tracks - and I had to wait for an hour in a boring station where everything except Subway was closed, and then I had to sit for 2 hours in the worst train I've ever been in - including Cuba! While in possession of more electricity, greater speed, and possibly even less smelly restrooms than a Cuban train, it was overcrowded (due to the fact that all passengers from three scheduled trains, of which two never made it, were all squished together), there was no air conditioning, and you couldn't open the windows. It was absolutely suffocating and I actually thought I would pass out from lack of air - you could feel the carbon dioxide level rising, and notice it as people got quieter and quieter. By the time we reached Berlin, it was so hot the windows had actually fogged over. Also, I couldn't even manage to make it to the restroom the whole time because the passage was so crowded, which is why I can't provide you with an accurate smell assessment.
Some German witch had clearly not appreciated my Swiss yodeling!