Swiss folk music has enjoyed a remarkable upswing since the 1990s. This new delight in tradition owed much to outside stimuli, and was supported by musicians from other genres. But today, this new Swiss folk music has very much established itself on the traditional scene, and there is no sign of this enthusiasm for innovation dwindling any time soon.
It isn’t really a new phenomenon. Folk music has always been notable for adapting to the tastes of any epoch. Since the Romantic era, folk music has been a part of the national canon in many European countries, and it enjoyed increasingly broad societal acceptance from about 1900 onwards. In Switzerland, many regional traditions coalesced in a music that came to be seen as typical “Swiss folk music”. In the (largely German-speaking) urban centres of the 1920s, this was a kind of popular music peculiar to the Alpine region that was called “Ländlermusik”.
By contrast, the folk music of the Italian-speaking parts of Switzerland oriented itself on the traditions of Lombardy and Piedmont across the border in Italy itself. Western, French-speaking Switzerland cannot draw on any such developments, because they simply did not exist. In this regard, the notion of any unified, national form of “Swiss folk music” is a fiction. That designation is generally applied to a music centred on the German and Rumansh-speaking regions of the country.
In the politically charged atmosphere of the youth culture of the 1970s onwards – and especially after 1990 – folk music in Switzerland increasingly became a field of activity for musicians who came originally from other genres. This music became a kind of melting pot in which musicians from different scenes and genres could come together and engage in a creative dialogue.
This new delight in experimentation was combined with a playful approach to the kind of traditional musical material that had hitherto been rejected by many. It also found adherents among musicians, event organisers, record labels, sponsors and an increasingly broad, enthusiastic audience. This highly varied phenomenon is today usually called the “new Swiss folk music”, though in fact it is difficult to find any common denominator to describe it. Lucerne University has been an important motor in this development, along with the many music festivals and organisers who in recent years have given a platform to this vibrant form of music.