Bart Plantenga and the gnosis of yodeling

“People still look at you funny when you point out that Pygmies yodel, that people in Asia yodel or singers in Colombia or Mexico yodel,” he says. “The Pygmies were indeed the original yodelers — so beautiful and enchanting that when you hear it you are transported to some other level of consciousness. The ‘Out-of-Africa’ theory of mankind, now commonly considered a very viable theory, says that Africans populated the world over a long period of time, bringing their genetic disposition for yodeling with them.”

One reason that professional vocalists in the West have tended to disregard yodeling is because the “break” — the glottal pop that produces a yodel when the “chest voice” slides rapidly into the “head (falsetto) voice” — is antithetical to the way they are taught to sing. In Plantenga’s earlier book, Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling, he terms this cultural division “the Glottals versus the Glissandos,” likening, say, the lieder or opera singer to someone who is dedicated to “sanding down the voice, polishing away that rough seam to the point of imperceptibility,” whereas the yodeler strives to sharpen and accentuate the glottal stop, “like some perverse post-teen trying to preserve the painful audio evidence of that boy-becomes-man rite of passage, the proverbial cracking voice.” (And as Leonard Cohen, who doesn’t yodel, has observed, “there is a crack, a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”)

Thanks to the efforts of Plantenga and other enthusiasts, however, and to its embrace by an increasing number of cool artists who are unafraid to push the vocal envelope, the dismissive and/or condescending attitudes toward yodeling are changing. No longer confined to beery Oktoberfests or scratchy tracks on old Jimmie Rodgers or McKinney Sisters albums, yodeling is now heard in rock, jazz, the latest and hottest sounds from Africa, Asia, and South America, and in the vocal experiments of such unconventional and challenging artists as Kutzkelina, Phil Minton, Erika Stucky, Jaap Blonk, and Shelley Hirsch. You can check out these and many other nouveau yodelers on Plantenga’s YouTube archives, easily accessible from his website, https://bartplantenga.weebly.com/.

Plantenga came to yodeling through his long vocation as a deejay, which began with a program on WFMU in 1986 that featured his signature “spoken word ghetto [contained] within an unusual musical mix.” (His current show, Wreck this Mess, was christened during a stint at Radio Libertaire, an anarchist station in Paris; the program eventually moved to Amsterdam, where Plantenga now broadcasts from “a secret location” to online listeners and to audiences of Dutch public radio, Aligre FM, Resonance104.4 FM, Radio Joy, and other entities boldly resisting the homogenized, corporate ethos of Clear Channel.) As he relates it, “I had been avoiding music with lyrics, especially postmodern cynical indie pop, and had turned to sampling and electronic music because I no longer had faith in the human voice to be able to transmit joy or meaning, which I found in beat-based music, electronica, and abstract vocals. But the yodel followed me like a lost pup, and it allowed me to re-appreciate the earnest potential of the human voice, and the fact that many vocalists turned to this marginal or debunked vocalization to gain emotional import or new meaning for their music was important — yes! That both dub music and yodeling use or are in part defined by echo was also a fascinating sonic aspect of this reawakening. And that I found dub yodeling only made the link between the two, via the deranging or extrapolative effects of echo, all the more psychotropic.”

Dub yodels, Dada yodels, doo-wop yodels, aboriginal yodels, even traditional alpine yodels — you’re likely to hear samples of all of them and more at Plantenga’s book signing and the subsequent party with Passero down the street. You’ll also hear some of the author’s illuminating and often hilarious anecdotes involving the yodel and its acolytes. Here’s a teaser, a condensed version of one of my favorites, taken from his earlier book:

It’s Cuba in 1959, and Johnny Weissmuller, former Olympic swimming champion and the most famous portrayer of Tarzan in the movies, is driving a car full of his friends to a celebrity golf tournament in Havana when they’re stopped by a troop of Fidel Castro’s rebels. The latter, fidgety and suspicious, aim their rifles at the car, but a quick-thinking Weissmuller stands up, beats his chest, and belts out his stentorian Tarzan yodel. The rebels immediately stand down, recognizing the yell as that of their movie hero, and start yelling, “Tarzan! Tarzan! Bienvenido! Welcome to Cuba!” After insisting on autographs, they personally escort Johnny and his pals to the tournament. Weissmuller remained convinced until the end of his days that this yodel had saved his life.

Saturday’s reading and book signing at The Golden Notebook is free. For Passero’s Cookbook Concert Series No. 2, admission is by donation ($10 is suggested). For more information, call the bookstore at 679-8000 or check out PasseroMusic on Facebook.

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