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Berlin yodel school revamping alpine sound of music

The distinctive warble of yodeling strikes a dissonant note in the middle of a gritty Berlin district that is home to a thriving Turkish population and peppered with trendy bars.
To go with feature GERMANY-YODELLING/
A participant holds his song sheet during a yodel workshop at Berlin's Kreuzberg district.Fabrizio Bensch / REUTERS
/ Source: Reuters

The distinctive warble of yodeling strikes a dissonant note in the middle of a gritty Berlin district that is home to a thriving Turkish population and peppered with trendy bars.

But if you walk down the street from the kebab shops and anarchist graffiti scrawled on the pavement, you will catch the mellifluous sounds usually heard in Swiss Alps -- a noise that grows louder when you enter Doreen Kutze's hairdressing salon.

Instead of perms and highlights, Kutze rents out the space to offer wannabe yodellers lessons in the art of alpine singing.

"It's good to be able to offer this to people here in Berlin, so they can try it out without having to travel all the way to Switzerland," Kutzke said.

Once used by alpine cattle herders to communicate across the open meadows and deep valleys of the Alps, yodeling is usually associated more with the fusty repertoire of the Sound of Music's von Trapp family than the edgy music scene of Berlin.

But the 37-year-old is coaxing yodeling down from the snow capped peaks and into the urban jungle of the German capital, in the hope of stripping alpine singing of its kitschy image.

"Yodeling used to mean standing in the middle of some marketplace in a dirndl (traditional German woman's dress) during a folk festival," she said.

"I do a lot to try to work against yodeling clichés."

"Filthy sound"
Furnished with an old-fashioned wood burner and decorated with pine cones, the hairdressing salon where Kutzke holds her workshop is reminiscent of a cozy alpine lodge -- save for the barber's chair.

Kutzke draws the curtains across the huge window front to stop local children from staring, before the pre-yodeling warm up of stretches begins, interrupted only briefly by a passer by wanting to make a hair appointment.

There is enough demand from Berliners to learn the technique that her workshop for beginners runs every month, with up to 10 participants, Kutzke said.

"It's not tiring exactly, to yodel, but I feel hoarse," said one participant named Michaela, during one of the regular breaks to allow the budding yodellers to rest their vocal chords. She said she had read about the yodeling school in a newspaper and had always wanted to try it out.

The remainder of the group were unwilling to talk, seemingly embarrassed to be caught yodeling in a hairdressers' for three hours on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

It took a while for the troupe of mostly middle-aged yodellers to overcome their shyness and bellow "yo" and "hee" at the top of their lungs as they slouched awkwardly in a circle.

"Children pick up yodeling a lot faster than adults because they can mimic and are so uninhibited, they have no fear," Kutzke said.

The tricky technique requires quick alternation between shrill falsetto and rough chest voice. A good singing voice can often hamper learning how to yodel, Kutzke said.

"People who sing well can have problems because they are just not used to making those sounds," she said.

"It sounds a bit like a donkey. It's not a pretty sound, it's really quite filthy."

Kutzke, however, can both sing and yodel, and has showcased her talents on German national television and in clubs.

Under the performing name Kutzkelina, the singer experiments with yodeling and dub music - a genre of emphatic bass beats that grew out of reggae.

The result is a brand of yodeling you can dance to and that recasts the trilling song for the warehouses, power plants and concrete basements that house Berlin's club scene.

"The echo element in dub fits well with the echo in yodeling. Single phrases and echoes are used and then sampled," Kutzke said.

"But yodeling can also be sung to jazz and classical music -- there are really no limits to it. I want to show the diversity," she said.

It's a message she tries to impart to her students, whom she guides through the many facets of yodeling, from country music to a yodel-lay-ee-oo-ing rendition of "You Are My Sunshine", a song made famous by Bing Crosby.

Evil spirits
Aside from its musical versatility, yodeling also serves other purposes, far removed from its alpine form.

The cry is used by African tribes to ward off evil spirits, Kutzke said.

"The idea was that wherever a yodeler was singing there would be no room for demons," she explained.

To hear the hollering of five yodellers in the small hairdressing salon, it is easy to understand why -- it is impossible to yodel quietly.

For the urban yodeler, the volume of the technique can be a stress buster for the strains of modern life.

"Yodeling can get rid of stress and it can really put you in a good mood because adults are rarely so loud," Kutzke said.

"In yodeling there's this 'Aha!' factor, when you realize 'I can sing loudly -- I'm allowed to sing loudly!'"

But this aspect of yodeling can also be a curse - suitable practicing space for yodellers is hard to come by in the crowded city.

Kutzke recommends her students practice in the closed-off space of their car to avoid annoying others with their yodeling endeavors -- if they want, that is.

"Some people just decide they don't care about their neighbors," she said.