You might think Swiss music is all about the yodelling, but visit Zürich and you'll discover reggae beats echoing across the Swiss AlpsFeatured April 10 Words by Celeste Neill Duvoisin
PHOTOS ELISABETH REAL
Most people associate reggae music with Bob Marley and a Jamaican tropical idyll of palm trees and sandy beaches. While a reggae tune occasionally storms the European music charts - usually in summer when we're dreaming of hot weather and holidays (think the annoyingly catchy Who Let the Dogs Out?) - the genre is not considered mainstream outside of the West Indies. And yet, reggae has lately gained a strong following in the cool climes of Switzerland. Not imported reggae, but a homegrown version that is fast becoming the biggest sound on Swiss dancefloors.
Reggae took off in Jamaica in the 1970s with such legends as Bob Marley and Lee "Scratch" Perry. An Afrocentric form of music, it became the voice of the struggling lower classes at a time of political and economic strife, when Jamaica was attempting to stand on its own feet after gaining independence from the UK in the late 50s. So what relevance does this have to Switzerland, an almost entirely white society and one of the world's wealthiest countries?
Finding common ground between a country famous for welcoming wealthy tax exiles and a genre synonymous with the poor and dispossessed of the Caribbean isn't such a stretch, says Swiss reggae star Junior Tshaka. The winner of the 2009 European Reggae Contest says today's Swiss youth also have grievances to air, and they've started using reggae as a platform for this. Junior uses it to vocalise his opinions on human rights issues and global injustices - themes so often left out of many modern and mainstream pop songs.
"Many young Swiss that would usually be attracted to rap music are now drawn to reggae music. They feel it's still rebellious, but more open. It's about relaxation and meditation, and a lot of young people really like its message," says Junior. "Reggae has always been very much the voice of the voiceless."
Junior also believes that the picturesque landscapes of Switzerland and Jamaica, though very different, both provide strong inspiration. "To be close to nature is normal in Switzerland and reggae music has always had a strong connection with nature too. There are a lot of songs in reggae which talk about the respect for nature and for Mother Earth, which is something we Swiss can also relate to."
Junior hails from the tiny town of Neuchâtel, the epicentre of Switzerland's reggae scene. The town is home to the recording studios of Damp Productions, where most of Switzerland's reggae stars start out. Damp Productions, which started in 1997, has produced albums for local reggae artists such as Junior, as well as established singers from the Caribbean. One such artist is the legendary Lee "Scratch" Perry, who now lives in Zürich.
Reggae was largely unknown in Switzerland before the 1980s, limited to the odd Bob Marley record played in bars and clubs. Then DJs such as Roots Operator became popular, and Ganglords, who played across Europe and Jamaica. It wasn't until Damp Productions and Zürich-based label One Ton started bringing reggae artists to the forefront of the airwaves in the late 90s that the genre really gained a foothold and became a part of mainstream Swiss music.
Six years ago, a new law ensured Swiss reggae artists would get their fair share of airtime. Until 2004, contemporary Swiss artists, especially those singing in Swiss languages, were rarely heard on mainstream radio. However, on realising that local music was in danger of dying out, the Swiss Government ruled that all radio stations must play a daily quota of Swiss artists and songs in Swiss languages. This move was a huge success, and there has subsequently been a rise in interest in all types of Swiss music.
In the German side of the country, the dialect varies from city to city, but reggae has helped unify many young people who were looking for an outlet for their frustrations and unease directed at society. Zürich-based Phenomden, Switzerland's most popular and successful reggae singer, has embodied this sentiment. His third album, Gangdalang (slang for "walk this way"), stayed in the Swiss album charts for 37 weeks, and was nominated for 2009's Best Urban Album by the Swiss Music Awards.
The 29-year-old Phenomden, with his backing band The Scrucialists, sings in mundart (a German word that defines the Swiss-German language). He has become so popular with the youth that he's often asked to perform at schools where children are eager to hear contemporary music in their own language.
And clubbers dig Phenomden's music too. "It's great that the reggae club crowd is so mixed here, as Zürich has become a very open society - it's changed a lot in the past 10 years," he says. "Nearly every evening you can find a reggae club or concert on. It's a huge scene and there are all kinds of people at the parties. You don't have to dress or think a certain way - there are guys in suits, ladies who are very dressed up, guys with dreadlocks, those who are more politically motivated by the music and some who are just there to dance."
It's not just Zürich that offers a daily diet of reggae clubs, gigs and artists, either. According to Jaba, the lead singer of eclectic band Moonraisers and founder of the website reggae.ch, reggae is now widespread throughout the country. "Geneva has a huge scene - every night there is a sound system or a group playing, and all over Switzerland there are many nights and events." Jaba's latest album, Do the Right Step, has been selling well in both Switzerland and France. "What has helped it become popular is that the reggae nights are hosted in all the clubs and there isn't really one venue devoted to reggae. It's in all the main places that everyone goes to." Jaba feels that alongside the radio exposure and the high production quality of Swiss musicians, the scene is finally on its way to becoming as fashionable as the rap or house music scenes: "Reggae is rebellious, but also respectful, so it's a soft style of revolution that is happening."
GET DOWN TO DE RIDDIMS IN ZURICH:
This buzzing nightclub in the Kreis 4 district boasts the coolest names in Zürich reggae. KOS Crew performs at Jamaica's Finest on Tuesdays, and Sound Haunted spins reggae styles on weekends. 56 Kanzleistrasse, www.kanzlei.ch
This old theatre attracts a laidback but trendy crowd for nights such as Caribbeana and Cool Ruler. The Level The Vibe night every Monday is the quintessential Swiss reggae experience, with the latest rhythms selected by Boss Hi-Fi. 8 Gessnerallee,www.stall6.ch
Home to the All Killer No Filler night with the famous Zürich reggae DJ Ali Baba Sound, Harterei also hosts live concerts. 219 Hardstrasse, www.haerterei-club.ch
Zürich's most vibrant venue is also home to the regular Enter the Dancehall club night. It attracts international stars, with previous guests including Sly & Robbie and David Rodigan. This month sees Junior Kelly and Warrior King perform on the 17th. 395 Seestrasse, www.rotefabrik.ch
This retro record store specialises in reggae, world music and soul. It's a great place for picking up collectable rare vinyl and flyers for all the coolest club nights in town. 25 Anwandstrasse, www.16tons.ch
WHERE TO STAY IN ZURICH
HOTEL FOYER HOTTINGEN
Comfortable and welcoming, this intimate hotel boasts a superb location in Zürich's Old Town, close to the action. Doubles from €85, book at www.hotels.easyJet.com
This seriously cool hotel has spacious rooms, plus a lively bar and lounge, and boasts one of the best clubs in town. Doubles from €108, book at www.hotels.easyJet.com
SORELL HOTEL RUTLI
For a truly trendy break, stay in one of 12 über-stylish rooms with walls bearing artwork by graffiti artists, right in the centre of Zürich. Doubles from €177, book at www.hotels.easyJet.com