The Ensemble Raye by Thomas Bodmer
When the first recording by
an American group called The Ordinaires appeared in 1986. an American
music journal compared it with a Swiss ensemble called Débile
Menthol. And in fact, this wild group from Neuchatel was the wittiest,
most intelligent and most imaginative rock band that Switzerland
had hitherto produced.
When the legendary English gui-tarist
Snakefinger gave his final performance in Switzerland in 1987, he
said: 'I like playing in Switzerland, because you are such groovy
people and becaise Fried-rich Dürrenmatt lives here."
Had Snakefinger known what the Débiles Jean-Vincent "Jean-20"
Huguenin and Cedric Vuille were working on at the time, he would
undoubtedly have men-tioned the Neuchatel ensemble in connection
with the Neucha-tel-based Dürrenmatt, because, like Snakefinger
and Switzer-land's greatest writer, this is a group that knows no
This is in itself not unusual in our age of ethnopop
and world music: but. unlike musicians who merely sprinkle their
own insipid mash with exotic spices from the musical grocer's shop.
the five members of this "multi-coloured ensemble" use
the music they hear from all corners of the world as a basis for
something really new and entirely their own.
But I am jumping
Debile Menthol was founded in 1979 and consisted first
of nine. and then of seven, members (among them a classical violinist).
They recorded the spectacular Emile au jardin patrologique
with Zurich RecRec. A label founded specially for the purpose, and
they exploded with sheer energy shortly before the appearance of
the second album, entitled Battre Campagne (1986). How fresh and
exciting their music.
The great adventure
is, can be heard on the double-CD Emile à la campagne (RecRec).
Debile Menthol (a play on the words "débile mental"
= imbecile) rehearsed together five times a week, whereby one evening
was devoted entirely to improvisation. They developed highly ingenious
compositions combining elements of jazz, punk and modern classical
they gave live performances with an abundance of
energy that set the audience's toes tapping and with a compelling
complexity that made their listeners want to sit and listen so as
not to miss a note. It was precisely this electrifying tension that
was the band's undoing: the percussionist had a passion for punk.
the keyboard player liked things as complicated as possible, and
the concert tour through Czechoslovakia. Hungary and Yugoslavia.
although greeted by enthusiastic audiences. was financiallv disastrous
and extremely stressful.
Looking back. Cedric Vuille recalls
that in the end "things got so bad that! didn't even dare to
suggest a piece. And above all, I had a regular percussionist's
trauma. After this tour, Vuille refused to appear live and began
composing and recording with various instruments using the playback
method, and combining his love of ska and reggae with his innate
sense of the ridiculous.
He was joined by Jean-20 Huguenin,
who during the time of Debile Menthol had kept quiet about his love
of ragtime because his punk-loving colleagues would not have approved.
What a loss it would have been to the world of music if Huguenin
had not come out into the open with this love! His solo number Rag'n'Râle"
on En Frac?, Ensemble rayé’s third 44 CD, is absolutely breathtaking.
Huguenin sounds like two guitarists at the same time, yet his virtuosity
is never an end in itself but is always in the service of the music.
No wonder that in 1994 an American critic wrote that Huguenin is
"one of the most impressive guitarists" ever.
to his work with Vuille, Huguenin composed music for the internationally
renowned marionette theatre Théâtre de
la Poudrière, as well as playing with Nimal, the group headed
by Jean-Maurice "Momo" Rossel,
another former member of Debile Menthol. With the American cellist
Tom Cora and the Slovenian accordionist Bratko Bibic. he created
a kind of music which fused the energy of rock and the tonal colour
of Balkan folklore into a new and exciting whole.
Huguenin founded the Ensemble Rayé (henceforth referred to
as ER) in 1987, and their Même en hiver/ Comme Un pinson dans
l'eau on the French label AYAA appeared in 1990. This record has
two titles because each of the musicians is responsible for one
side. The artist Tatjana Hauptmann painted her impressions of all
the compositions, thereby creating one of the most beautiful record
covers in the history of recorded music.
The international echo
ranged from "truly wonderful " (USA) to "impagabile"
(Italy) and "on le reecoutera a' l'infini" (France), but
Swiss radio declined to broadcast the music because it did not fit
into any category. The record contained unclassifiable compositions
such as a skaggae with hitherto unknown tonal colours, a piece entitled
"Elle court, La basse-cour", in which a whole henhouse
of chickens trips over the keys, and strange instruments such as
a "musical hedgehog" and a "pedalophone" can
ER's second CD, entitled Quelques
pieces detachées, appeared in 1993, and once again the foreign
critics were united in their enthusiasm: in Italy, the group was
called "quasi una Penguin Brasserie Orchestra" and
awarded the highest distinction; the American critic Peter Thelen
felt that Vuille and Huguenin had expanded the possibilities of
the guitar and taken it to new heights, and the CD was a "must-have"
for guitar fans; and in France, the music was described as "tout
ce qui rend la musique agréable".
And it's true:
the group makes pleasant, heart-warming music which reminds us of
films by Fellini, folklore, circus music, and all our childhoods.
The compositions are full of melodic invention, wit and ingenuity,
unusual tonal colours and unexpected changes of rhythm. And there
are few groups whose joy in music-making is so directly perceptible.
Whereas the first two albums were
pure studio projects, the ER has since developed into a "live"
band with the saxophonist and clarinettist Pierre Kaufmann and the
multi-instrumentalist Shirley Anne Hofm ann from Canada. The group's
tour of Italy last year, although it was a financial catastrophe
owing to the unfavorable exchange rate, was an unqualified success
with the public. There was talk of "singolare magia'; and the
ER was described as "uno dei gruppi piu accreditati dell 'ultimo
decennio". "It is really strange," says Shirley Hofmann,
who runs the musicians' own recording business, LabelUsineS, "we
sell more CDs in Japan than anywhere else." "And Radio
Bremen plays our music regularly," adds Momo Rossel. "In
Switzerland, the powers that be tend to say 'Personally, I like
your music very much, but our listeners prefer something they can
talk across rather than having to listen to.' In December 1996 Shirley
had a baby, but we plan to start touring again autumn 1997, and
in 1998 we want to play in japan and Can I wonder if, some time
in the future, news from abroad will reach the cars of us Swiss
that one of the best international instrumental ensembles is Swiss?
En Frac!, the ER's third and best CD to date is a rare musical delight.
But then, our country is not exactly famous for relishing delights...
Translated from the German by Maureen
Thomas Bodmer was born in Zurich
in 1951. After twenty years in a publisher's editorial office. he
now lives and works as a freelance translator and journalist in