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Inside Swiss Walter Bachmann's alphorn workshop

A holiday in the Alps is never complete without playing a traditional Alpine instrument called alphorn, which incidentally is twice your size, writes Sonali Shah.

brunch Updated: Mar 29, 2014 20:43 IST
Sonali Shah

Arre, not like that. Make a car engine's noise," said a friend, as others tried hard to control their laughter. I was clearly embarrassing myself in an attempt to play the traditional Alpine musical instrument, a four-metre-long alphorn. I blew into the mouthpiece of the wind instrument, the way one would blow a trumpet - pursed lips forming an O. But no sound was heard.

The only one I could hear was a faint whistle as the wind uselessly blew down the hollow of the alphorn. "You're supposed to let your lips tremble as if imitating a bike's or a car engine's noise," he said. After another embarrassing effort, I gave up and stood in a corner as my friends laughed.

MOUTHING OFF: Alphorns are best appreciated when they’re played by the water, which reverberate the sound beautifully.

Work of Art
I was in Eggiwil, a village in the Swiss region of Emmental. The wood floor creaked under my foot as I climbed out of a gorgeous horse carriage and went up a flight of stairs to enter Walter Bachmann's workshop. Started in 1925, this is the world's oldest alphorn-manufacturing workshop.

The moment I entered the workshop, the distinct smell of timber caught my attention. I looked around and saw beautiful alphorns adorning the ceiling, tables full of tools and wood slabs resting against a huge wall. Bachmann is the third generation in his family who hand crafts alphorns for a living. His grandfather built an alphorn for himself, and when his musician classmate bought it off him, he started making them for pocket money.

When you look at an alphorn, you might mistake it to be a single stem of red fir tree that is carved to shape. But actually, an alphorn is made by hollowing the timber and then joining smaller pieces one by one with glue along its curves. The length of an alphorn determines the tones and scale. But is the ridges and curves on the timber that give it its distinct sound.

To change scale, players simply unjoin a part of the long body or add a piece. These days, alphorns are played at yodelling fests and are best heard when played next to a water body, where the sound echoes.

Read: B'wood drives Indian tourists to Swiss Alps

The land is also famous for its tulips.

At Bachmann's workshop, the timber is bought young and stored for five to six seasons. A large stem is used as a stencil to build new ones. They make about 30 alphorns a year, but if you wish to buy one, you're added to a two-year waiting list. 90% of Bachmann's alphorns stay in Switzerland and the rest go to USA or Canada.

Large alphorns can cost between CHF2,500 and CHF5000 (approx Rs 1.5lakh to Rs 3lakh). Souvenir miniatures can be found in local shops and obviously cost a lot less. Machine-made alphorns are also available, but musicians and connoisseurs prefer hand-made ones.

The Wind Dancers
I was lucky to be in Eggiwil toward the end of spring because the weather was just perfect. And I was lucky to see the countryside on a horse-drawn carriage. As I rode past tall coniferous trees, carpets of yellow flowers greeted me at every turn. Eggiwil has no ugly steel buildings, and the landscape is sprinkled with stunning cottages. Don't be surprised to be greeted by inquisitive cows.

But, what drew me in the most were the cute cottages. Most have flowery lawns, complete with garden chairs and gnomes. I imagined myself sipping tea or coffee surrounded by tulips that seem hand-painted because they are just so perfect. Honestly, this might sound a bit clichéd, but I really felt like I was in a Yashraj movie.

Travel Info
* One Swiss Francs (CHF) is approximately Rs 69
* SwissAir and Etihad offer flights from Mumbai and Delhi
* Get a Swiss Pass online. It allows you unlimited travel on most trains, busses and ferries
* Bachmann's offers workshops on Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. They charge a fee of CHF5 per person or a minimum of CHF50 per group

From HT Brunch, March 30

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