Imagine being within the planet’s most jaw-dropping “stage” with a backdrop of some of Switzerland’s highest Alps with altitudes over 4’000 m (13,124 ft) and the iconic Matterhorn as well as the fairy-tale traffic-free Swiss village and ski resort of Zermatt at 1’620 m (5’310 ft). Some very fortunate acoustic music fans were here April 17-21, 2012 for the Zermatt Unplugged Music Festival. Originating in 2007, this acoustic music festival has clearly established itself this year as a mature, professional, and exciting international event where top musicians, aspiring new performers and serious music festival-goers want to be. And this was accomplished by retaining its unique and unpretentious musical festivities and without losing any of its originality, authenticity and laid-back hospitable Swiss Alpine atmosphere.
After only 5 years, what started as a small seed of passion for singers and songwriters planted in the minds of Thomas Sterchi, festival director and Heinz Julen, local artist/hotelier along with Marco Godat, entertainment entrepreneur, Zermatt Unplugged Music Festival grew from a small series of concerts in the original Zermatt club, Vernissage. Today, with these creative minds and more, the festival has blossomed into an annual Springtime musical event of international proportion offering a large variety of bouquets of acoustic performances for any age on any budget from any country.
This one-of-a-kind festival in the international music world literally “tunes” into acoustic music performed by singers and songwriters sharing their love of natural, authentic music in a less cluttered, less wired with a more “unplugged” sound which resonates throughout the Swiss Alpine resort. Or as described jokingly by headliner Chris de Burgh, “We are playing unplugged for the first time – normally we have lots more lights and videos, dancers and dancing bears.” Furthermore, the concept of “unplugging” extends to the festival-goers as well who can collectively disconnect from their daily digital lives and reconnect to the pure natural sounds of the human voice and acoustical instruments.
After this year’s banner 5th edition of the Zermatt Unplugged Music Festival, it would be easy to fill these pages with superlatives but it could be probably best summed up with one word: MORE! As the festival has come into its own, there is now more of everything that had made it successful in the first place.
There was a total of 42 concerts, 29 of which were “New Talent”; promising young musicians on their way to fame which were invited by the Festival and whose concerts were completely free. Performances were planned for every musical taste to satisfy the 17’000 festival-goers. Starting at noon and lasting until after midnight when the party at the Club Vernissage just begins, one could spend entire days and evenings going from stage to stage which were spread out all over the Zermatt resort. The organizers referred to this year’s festival as “The Singing Marathon at the foot of the Matterhorn”
Almost every type of music suitable for acoustic was performed by singer-songwriters and their musical groups this year. The sounds of pop, hip hop, R&B, jazz, soul, rap, reggae, rock n’ roll, ballads, folk tunes, love songs, and even a touch of classical as well as some rare Swiss percussion sounds all blended harmoniously during these five much anticipated days in Zermatt.
Headliners this year included Chris de Burgh, Newton Faulkner, Anna Aaron, Amy Macdonald, Clueso & Bernewitz Trio, James Vincent McMorrow, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Jonathan Jeremiah, James Walsh, Grégoire, Brooke Fraser, Aloe Blacc and Peter Cincotti.
One of the admirable features of the Zermatt Unplugged Music Festival is their philanthropic mission to encourage new singer-songwriters. Originally at the Festival, the New Talent were Swiss artists but now they are being invited from all over the world. Some of this New Talent of individuals and groups have already recorded albums and had been given the opportunity to perform during the festival along with the headliners that have excelled in their music careers. This year there were 29 concerts given by New Talent who were scheduled to play on at least 2 stages. This is an important point when considering it was still snowing off and on and many of the stages were outside; one even on the open ski slopes.
Past festivals have been dominated by English, German and Swiss German language performers. However, this year we saw a more multi-cultural approach. French pop star Grégoire clearly attracted many Francophones fans who sang along with him word for word and who added a nice touch in the streets and bars of this Germanic Swiss village. Aliose, from the Suisse Romande Lake Geneva area of Switzerland also contributed to the French linguistic mix. Perhaps some Italian and Swiss Romanschnext year?
Even English had its special versions: Australian English, New Zealand English, American English, British English, Scottish English, Irish English…
Irish pop-bard, Chris de Burgh, a Zermatt favorite, appeared at the first Zermatt Unplugged Music Festival in 2007 at the original Vernissage and sang to standing ovations this year in the Marquee. Hinting at but holding off singing one of his most popular hits, Lady in Red, Chris de Burghsurprised a full house towards the end of the concert by promenading around the Marquee tent of 2’000 fans while singing this famous hit, all the while bestowing kisses on obviously happy female fans.
The lovely, self-confident, Amy Macdonald had some expectations to live up to as her concert was sold out 3 weeks after ticket sales opened. All in all, considering this pressure and the fact that this was her first unplugged concert and that she had just finished recording her new album Life in a Beautiful Light that very day, her performance was outstanding. Besides her brilliant songs of substance and her powerful voice and guitar playing, she charmed the audience while talking to them in her Scottish brogue.
Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III from New York, better known as Aloe Blaccbegan his concert with a most unexpected Dusseldorf String Quintet.
Aloe Blacc was very relaxed expressing his admiration for the Swiss Alpine resort and experimenting more with his soulful voice. He sang a classical version of his hit I need a Dollar and transfixed the audience. Then he replaced the chamber music ensemble with his Paris band and the marquee shook! His previously calm demeanor was transformed into an energetic performer with some very rhythmic hip movements and singing that propelled the audience from their seats to join him in their own enthusiastic clapping and dancing.
American songwriter, singer and actress, Ms. Lauryn Hill, formerly of the Fugees (The Refugee Camp) had already gained fans with her a cappella singing as well as singing with her acoustic guitar in her MTV Unplugged 2.0 album. Ironically, she came to Zermatt completely wired. Reputed to be somewhat defiant, Ms. Lauryn Hill literally electrified the marquee crowd which thrilled some and shocked others as not being in the spirit of an unplugged music festival. The 5-time Grammy winner of Jamaican African-American descent had never been to Zermatt before. It seemed that after her very plugged-in marquee performance she became spell-bound by the breathtaking Alpine setting and relaxed Zermatt Unplugged musical ambiance. She joined festival-goers and other headliners during the rest of that Unplugged evening at the Club Vernissage. Then she surprised everyone by playing at the Jam Session in the Hotel Post which lasts until the wee hours of the morning. She was not ready to leave and expressed regret that she was already scheduled for departure.
One-man-band Newton Faulkner is all about surprises and improvisation that kept the crowds totally engaged in his musical “experiments” and audience participation which enabled him to create a room full of unique sounds. He had excellent guitar skills but also played the “piano” (a large floor instrument with a couple octaves) that he played with his right socks (as he explained it) as well as the drums which he plays with his left socks. He was clearly a real entertainer and having fun with the crowd and his spontaneous musical creations.
Swiss New Talent group Kummerbuben beguiled the audience with their Bernese Swiss German dialect at the Cervo Hotel terrace. At the end of their session they surprised the crowd by offering an authentic lesson in yodeling.
All set up to play at 4:00 PM on the terrace of the Zermatterhof, Swiss Francophone couple Aliose from the Lake of Geneva region were covering their instruments up as snow began to fall suddenly and heavily after a sunny morning. Ironically, their newest album is called in English “The wind has Changed”, Le vent a tourné. The concert was postponed for an hour and the group moved themselves into the Zermatterhof lobby. They were able to include the percussion instruments and acoustic guitars but for logistical reasons, they were not able to include neither their electric keyboard nor the microphones in the bar and lobby area that was broken up into 3 sections.
Hearty admiration goes out to the versatile Aliose who substituted an existing grand piano for their keyboard and gave a lively improvised concert without any microphones. The lobby and bar were full of festival-goers who were fascinated with their interactive style and use of other unusual instruments such as a Hawaiian ukulele, a xylophone and a rare melodic Swiss percussion instrument called The Hang. Although it was serendipity, due to the rapidly changing Alpine weather, pure acoustic music fans were treated by this flexible group to what was, without a doubt, the MOST unplugged concert at the Festival. Not a wire in sight! Bravo!
Singer, songwriter, and pianist Peter Cincotti from New York started playing a toy piano at 3 years old and was playing at Manhattan clubs as an adolescent in crisp suits with impeccable style which is still his signature look. An impressive jazz pop pianist with a faultless voice, Peter experienced some interruptions in the wings during his performance along with his four-piece band. As a polished performer, he charmingly confronted the situation by telling anecdotes about Switzerland and his first appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Festival-goers were an enthusiastic and exceptionally energetic crowd on that last night of the festival. Peter Cincotti appeared to master any situation with class and good humor. As an experienced night club performer, he seemed to love flirting with the audience especially those festival-goers making flippant remarks. His performance was much appreciated by the Unplugged music fans.
All in all, there were 10 stages set up for concerts for the Zermatt Unplugged Music Festival this year which were spread out all over the village and Alpine slopes creating unique melodic echos around the normally very quiet Alpine village.
Two major stages had been set up for the headliner performances which were held nightly. This includes the atmospheric Marquee tent (Zeltbühne) located in the middle of Zermatt village which is the largest tent of its kind in Switzerland and which seats up to 2’000 fans. Sheep skins cover the seats in the section in front of the stage and comfortable bleacher seating was available all around the circular tent which enabled everyone to optimally watch the performances. The pièce de résistance of the Marquee tent is the large extravagant chandelier which artist/hotelier Heinz Julen created using a combination of trumpets, violins and guitars mixed with crystal resulting in impressive work of art. It was hanging during the very first Zermatt Unplugged Music Festival and is ceremoniously moved from his new Backstage Hotel to the marquee tent every year and hung from the center of the tent top.
Attached to the Marquee tent was the foyer tent (Foyerzelt) with a New Talent stage, many food and beverage stands catered by local hospitality companies which has become the place to meet during the festival.
Also showcasing headliners every night was the Club Vernissage at the Backstage Hotel which was always packed. Following the concerts everyone was invited to the free Midnight Vernissage party which is now a legend and definitely not unplugged with celebrated DJs keeping the fans dancing until near dawn.
Local bars, clubs and hotels such as the Alex, the Zermatterhof, and the Pink in the Hotel Post offered their terraces or inside spaces for stages in which the New Talent could perform as well as some Jam Sessions for all musicians.
The Cervo Mountain Boutique Lodge which is accessible by elevator set up their terrace again this year for a stage for the New Talent every afternoon. Just above the village at 1’720 m (5’643 ft), it was always full and acoustic music lovers soaked up the sun and/or the snow along with great sounds and a lovely view.
Last year we saw the addition of the wooden terraced Blue Lounge stage at the Blauherd ski lift station right on the slopes at 2’571 m (8’435 ft) just below the Rothorn Alp. It was a popular spot this year also due to the excellent snow conditions and skiers as well as snowboarders could take an early afternoon musical break and perhaps a little mug of Glühwein.
However, this year the newest Alpine concerts were at the “Sunnegga Sessions” stage, located at the Sunnegga funicular terminus at 2’288 m (9’452 ft) the first of a series of sunset concerts including Anna Aaron, James Vincent McMorrow and Zermatt favorite James Walsh. The evening arrangements included the funicular ride, fireside aperitif, stand-up dinner with local cuisine and Festival wine in a friendly rustic ambience which holds about 50 spectators.
Zermatt village was not yet blossoming with a lot of Spring flowers but more importantly, the slopes had been dusted with powder just before the festival opening. There was also occasional snow fall during the festival to keep the snow sports enthusiasts happy as well as add to the charm of the village and the alpine atmosphere.
Notorious for being oftentimes difficult to see due to cloud coverage, the Matterhorn made more unobscured appearances than usual during this year’s festival. Even the small cloud that oftentimes lingers at the peak, is a delightful view to get to see. On the last day of the festival, the Matterhorn (known in French as Mont Cervin and in Italian as Monte Cervino ) appeared majestically as if to say farewell to the Unplugged music fans and to be sure to come back next year.
More fans departed who had experienced more musicians with more passion. Fans generously provided more clapping, more whistling, more foot stomping, more standing ovations, more smiles and more laughter. The 5th year anniversary of the Zermatt Unplugged Music Festival was definitely about more of everything that resulted in a mature and international festival. It has already become a unique contemporary Zermatt tradition in the truest sense of the word and will no doubt be celebrated like other Swiss traditions every Spring for eons to come. You will know where to be for unplugging during the Spring of 2013 from April 9-13, 2013.
Article by Sonja Holverson, photos by Dominique Schreckling.