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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 bounds.
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 the gun.
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
(1983) 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
sic still 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 music, and
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.
In addition 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.
Vuille and 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 be heard.
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 Oberli-Turner


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 Zurich.


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