Culture » Festivals

A Yearning to Yodel

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Growing up with family in Southern Germany, Norman Gwaltney was exposed to the culture of the Alps at a young age, eventually discovering the customary music of the region and deciding he wanted to sing along. But unfortunately for him, yodeling lessons weren’t actually an option.

“There aren’t really teachers,” he says. “It’s mostly listening and just practicing what you’re hearing -- kind of seeing if you have that ability.”

Alpine Express performs regularly at Central Indiana events, including the 2013 Sun King Oktoberfest pictured here. - COURTESY OF ALPINE EXPRESS
  • Courtesy of Alpine Express
  • Alpine Express performs regularly at Central Indiana events, including the 2013 Sun King Oktoberfest pictured here.

Eventually honing in on the vocal skillset required, Gwaltney decided to team up with a group of Indianapolis musicians in the ’80s. He recalls, “I picked up on the music, brought it over here and found a couple of guys willing to play it with me.” Thus, Alpine Express was born. Now decades later, the accordionist and yodeler still plays several concerts of lively Alpine polkas, waltzes and the like in the band, with a current lineup that also features Mike White (performing trumpet and vocals) and Brian Ahlbrand (who does drums, guitar and vocals).

Gwaltney remembers when he first was drawn to the traditional music of the Alps, saying, “I was kind of mesmerized and obsessed with it starting out, especially the yodeling.” It was ultimately because of this that he decided to give the style of singing a try, despite its peculiarity.

In addition to musical performances, GermanFest includes a wiener dog race. - COURTESY OF INDIANAPOLIS MEETUP PHOTO CLUB
  • Courtesy of Indianapolis MeetUp Photo Club
  • In addition to musical performances, GermanFest includes a wiener dog race.

“Everybody played guitar and sax, so it was kind of like, ‘Eh, pick up an accordion and do some yodeling. You’re either going to isolate yourself or you’re going to be a novelty,’” he says.

After purchasing several cassettes and albums by many different German, Austrian and Swiss yodelers, Gwaltney emulated what he heard and worked to sharpen his skills. Through these self-tutorials, he learned the importance of “being in tune,” “good breath support” and being able to move the voice back and forth from the chest to the head. Today, Gwaltney even has a website dedicated to dispersing his acquired yodeling expertise, fully equipped with a series of online tutorials.

In a similar vein, Alpine Express works to spread its love for the historic European music through the lineup of gigs its members play each year, engaging audiences with a fun and accessible experience no matter the occasion. Creating this atmosphere is something they definitely take into consideration when choosing which songs to play too, often sticking to light-hearted lyrical themes, Gwaltney explains. Nevertheless, the trio still strives to stay true to the time-honored music of the Alps, even if a great deal of unearthing is required.

“We transcribe the music that we’re going to play from other artists by ear,” Gwaltney says. “You’re not going to really be able to buy it anywhere. You can get a little bit now on the Internet, but still not that much.”

Currently all with full-time jobs, the trio simply looks forward to coming together and sharing their love for the long-established Alpine music style with others, explains Gwaltney.

“We’re trying to bring a unique sound to people who maybe don’t get a lot of that and to bring fun to the audience,” he says.

This Saturday at the Athenaeum, Alpine Express will be one of many acts performing at the sixth annual Indianapolis GermanFest -- an all-encompassing event that gives the Indianapolis community an opportunity to learn more about the city’s German culture. In addition to live music, the daylong, indoor/outdoor festival will feature German dancing, German food and beer, a yodeling contest (coordinated by Alpine Express), beer games, the Bavarian Strong Man competition and the much-loved wiener dog race. All proceeds from the event benefit the maintenance and care of the Athenaeum.

There's more to GermanFest than beer and lederhosen, but both make a prominent showing.  - COURTESY OF INDIANAPOLIS MEETUP PHOTO CLUB
  • Courtesy of Indianapolis MeetUp Photo Club
  • There's more to GermanFest than beer and lederhosen, but both make a prominent showing.

For more information on the 2014 GermanFest, visit the Athenaeum Foundation’s website.

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