The 11th Edition of the Swiss Fête Fédérale des Sonneurs de cloches
Swiss cow bell ringing competition… without the cows
Article By Sonja Holverson • Photos By Dominique Schreckling
Many visitors to Switzerland have had the pleasure of encountering the inalp ascent of cows and their cow herders up to the high Alpine pastures in the spring for summer grazing. Others experienced the Swiss “Desalpe” when the cows come down from the pastures in the Autumn and stay on the farm for the winter. Knowing about this tradition helps a great deal in understanding the Federal competition of Swiss bell ringers.
These are wonderful occasions to experience Swiss culture and festivities in the countryside. The cows are decorated with many colorful flowers, sometimes floral hats and of course, these enormous cow bells with the personalized brightly embroidered collars which have oftentimes been given as gifts to the bell owner for their 15th or 30th birthdays, for example. The cow bells belong to individual “paysans” (farmers and cattle ranchers) who wear their Swiss folkloric costumes of their regions. The herders wear a short puffy-sleeved jacket (their Sunday best) called “Bredzon du dimanche”. Around their waist are very attractive and colourfully designed pouches called “loyi” which holds salt to give to the cows during their pre-Alps journeys.
The inalp, the ascent, is known in the local “Patois” as “La Poya”. It is a franco-provençal word which means “to climb”. The desalps in the Germanic areas of Switzerland is called “rindyà”. Both the inalp and the desalps include festivals when the cows parade through several villages (and literally stop traffic because they have the right away). These celebratory festivals are easy for an outsider to understand because there are cows involved. These cows are herded down the streets by the “armailli“ (chief of the cow herders) of tiny villages and then upwards to higher elevations to feed in the Swiss pastures until Autumn when they descend.
There is also more going on in the alpine pastures than just cow herds feeding on rich plants, breathing fresh air and being milked; it is also the summer home of agriculture families who make their year’s supply of some of the most delicious cheeses that one can imagine and they are still doing it in the traditional ways of many centuries gone by.
The veneration of Swiss cows as a source of life is an integral part of the Swiss culture, economy and international reputation for its treasured by-products from cows such as the 100s of types of cheeses and, of course the invention of the Swiss “milk chocolate” with which the whole world is familiar. There is a proliferation everywhere in Switzerland of the black and white Swiss cow hide motif on many articles for the home such as dishes, tea pots, tea towels, toys and an unlimited number of other objects. And interestingly enough, these are not just souvenirs for the tourists.
The Swiss love to be surrounded with their valued bovine designed objects in their daily lives which reminds them of their rural roots and high quality dairy products. This pride is collective and is even shared by those gray suited business persons rushing around the banking and financial centres of Zurich and Geneva as well as by the Swiss politicians and even the Conseil Federal (Highest executive council in Switzerland) in the capital of Berne.
However, during the Swiss national festival and competition of the Sonneurs de cloches (the Swiss cow bell ringers) there are simply…no cows (except the ones you may see on the many picturesque little farms on the way to the festival). It is the cow herders who compete with their cow bells. They have formed enthusiastic and competitive teams to participate and pass on this traditional Swiss creative performance. It has been developed into a fine art of choreographed imitations of the cattle herds’ behavior while ascending and descending the Alps for the season.
The Sonneurs de cloches (Scheller und Trychlerin German) is a most particular festival with serious national competition which only occurs every 3 years. It is closely connected to the crucial importance of cows and their journey up and back down from the alpine pastures. The ringing of the cow bells is performed by the cow herders themselves in a re-enactment of the cow’s behaviour during the inalp and the desalps.
Although no one seems to have verified facts regarding the origin of this very unique tradition, there are actually many rituals and festivals that begin in the pre-Christian era, most likely evolving from many remnants of pagan practices or even before during the Iron age when the Celtic tribes came into the Swiss Alps in about the 9th century BC. One tribe called Helvetians, arriving from the Germanic region of Europe gave Switzerland it’s official name which is still in effect today: Confoederatio Helvetica (Latin) or CH as you can see on the Swiss automobiles’ license plates, postal material, and Internet addresses. As with many rituals which were started during these times in Swiss history, a common theme was creating ways to chase away evil from the lives of the Swiss and their valued livestock, in particular, the Swiss cow. You only have to be present during the many Carnivale Parades in Switzerland that include people wearing frightening costumes and other ritualistic traditions to scare away the evils of winter.
One could imagine that this traditional ritual could have been an effort to ensure a safe passage for the cows, family, and supplies to ascend and to descent the Alps without incidents. Anyone who has spent time in high altitudes would know how very dangerous the Alps can be and that Mother Nature is definitely in charge. Even during summer, there are still rock slides, landslips, weather-beaten trails and an unlimited number of other incidents including thunderstorms that literally can kill. It appears that the Swiss cow herders perform these rituals as a kind of festive and collective prayer for a successful summer grazing and cheese-making.
Following the end of the Roman occupation in the Swiss Alps driven by the invasions from Germanic tribes, the alpine populations began to merge. A new era began with the arrival of Christianity in the 4th century at which time many pagan rituals were changed and/or eliminated.
However the Sonneurs de cloches tradition continued to be passed down from generation to generation, including to women. It’s delightful to see that young Swiss people are still performing this authentic unusually traditional art. Of course, as with all young people, there are some young groups of cow bell ringers who have brought the tradition a little closer to the 21st century with a touch of “hip hop”. But the love and passion of the art representing the beloved Swiss cow is still definitely present today.
For the 11th edition of the Swiss Fête Fédérale Sonneurs de cloches the theme was the Son de la Poya (sounds of the ascent of the cows to the alpine pastures). Each team had a specific time (3-5 minutes) to perform their imitation of sounds and movements of the herd while climbing. The participants choreographed their rendition as well and coordinated the ringing the bells of different sizes and tones in specific and changing ways that would occur during an actual ascent of the cows. The criteria that the Jury was using included sound imitation, dynamism, and choreography.
During the competition each team (as with each cow herd) has an “armailli” who is the head cow herder carrying a cane and keeping the “cows” in the right direction. There were some fascinating interpretations on a sunny Saturday, 3 September, 2011.
This traditional Swiss competition is less known in the French-Speaking region (at least by city dwellers) than in the larger Swiss German region which was represented by 128 groups. However, there were 15 very talented French-speaking groups that also participated in the contest and contributed a great deal to the ambiance of the festival.
This year, for the first time ever, the event was held in a French-speaking region (minority population) which was welcomed with enormous pride and enthusiasm by the Suisse Romande. The honor was awarded to the Canton of Fribourg (a bilingual canton German – French) in the region of Gruyère (which makes the world famous cheese of the same name developed in the 16th century) near the fairy tale castle and village of Gruyère in the small town of Bulle (pop. 20’000). Here one finds an ancient town centre with Medieval origins surrounded by picturesque farms, rolling hills and pre-Alps.
Anyone arriving at the Bulle train station would know that this was definitely a very special weekend. The station master at Bulle has never seen anything like this before. There were the usual visitors many of whom were carrying backpacks in order to discover the many hiking trails in this beautiful region of Switzerland. But on the festival weekend the Bull train station was bursting with the many group arrivals wearing their regional costumes and carrying their enormous cow bells. Both men and women compete and each carries their own personal cow bell attached to brightly colored collars which have been embroidered with personal messages and dates to honor special occasions for the bell ringer.
The contest was followed by a Swiss folkloric show and other entertainment ending with a DJ playing until 3:00 AM.
Sunday morning started at 6:30 AM for the groups of bell ringers. Unfortunately, the weather turned and the parade of the bell ringers which is always a highlight received a bit of rain.
The weekend festival was not only about cow bell ringers. There were large groups of Alphorn players in the market place and other spots in the centre of Bull
There was not only cow bell performances during the festival but also groups of Alphorn players stopping in various areas of this charming town of Bulle that had bells hanging from everywhere you can imagine. The Alphorn players performed beautifully while one member did some impressive Swiss flag throwing performances. A band stand was set up in the middle of town and several different Swiss bands played throughout the weekend. While all of this was going on, there were stands of all kinds from all over Switzerland in the market place including one that was actually making a cow bell for all to watch. Other artisans were there and many of the local food producers and bakeries were giving out samples to introduce the festival goers to their specialities. Even the local nunnery of Carmel had a stand with some delicious cookies that the nun’s made. There were many other products, especially sausages, breads, caramel candies and the fascinating stand representing their absinthe business (no samples there!)
For these types of festivals it is best to go early in order to talk with the people in the kiosks. They are happy to answer your questions about bell making or sausage making, etc.
In addition to the festival market stands, there are also all of the boutiques and shops with wonderful local foods from Bulle and the surrounding areas. One example was the quaint little Macheret fromage cheese store with 100’s of cheeses that had some fresh ricotto-like sérac whey cheese that was better than candy.
The next federal Sonneurs de cloches festival and competition will not be until 2014!
Article by Sonja Holverson, photos by Dominique Schreckling.