Eliana Burki & Band
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Eliana Burki & Band


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"When She Blows the Alphorn"

SEPTEMBER 23, 2008

When She Blows the Alphorn, It's Not All Mountain Music
Ms. Burki Plays Jazz, Funk on Instrument Used by Swiss Shepherds; Riffing in Berne

BERNE, Switzerland -- The alphorn, a 12-foot-long wooden folk instrument played by Swiss shepherds to communicate across mountain valleys, hasn't exactly been the inspiration for many rock stars.

Never mind its unwieldy size. Would-be players are also turned off by its limited tonal range and the traditional tunes evoking images of misty Alpine meadows. And then there's the outfit. The alphorn costume is typically a black felt hat, short-sleeved black velvet jacket with silver buttons and a crisp white shirt.

Rocking the Alphorn

Enter Eliana Burki, a petite 25-year-old jazz musician with a pierced nose from Solothurn, Switzerland. She performs in short skirts and torn jeans, and likes to play funky jazz tunes on her collapsible carbon-fiber alphorn. "People thought I was a bit weird at first but it's getting more accepted now," she says in her apartment in Berne, before tearing off a riff, skipping from low to high notes, blending in trills and low rumbles.

Ms. Burki is on the cutting edge of a decidedly uncool instrument's newfound chic. She has brought the alphorn out of its pastoral roots, teaming up with David Richards, a music producer who previously worked with the rock band Queen, to produce a CD with blues, funk and rock tunes.

She last appeared at a traditional alphorn festival when she was 9 and says she has no desire to play the old-fashioned way. "It's beautiful, but it's not my world," says Ms. Burki. She prefers the music of Miles Davis, Prince and Amy Winehouse to classical tunes such as "With the Cows" and "On the Sheep's Meadow," or ancient melodies such as "Old Man From the Muotha Valley."

"It's amazing what people are using the alphorn for these days," says Gilbert Kolly, president of the Swiss Expert Commission on Alphorn Blowing, a unit of the Swiss Federal Yodeling Association. "We're trying to accommodate the renewed interest from outsiders but many of them don't want to play by the traditional rules."

Rules to Break

There are a lot of rules to break. Only those willing to play a traditional tune, don traditional garb and perform for no longer than four minutes at a time are eligible to compete in Swiss Federal Alphorn festivals. Group performances are allowed, but only in teams of four or eight. A team of five, six or seven players will be turned away, says Mr. Kolly. The committee's rules seek to preserve a style of alphorn playing devised more than 100 years ago. Players are encouraged to practice tunes that are played slowly using a limited range of notes to produce mysterious and often melancholy tunes.

Ms. Burki first heard the alphorn when she was 6 years old, while at a family outing in Switzerland. "I was transfixed," she says. "I knew immediately that I wanted to play this instrument." Because her parents thought her interest was a passing fad, they initially didn't get her a horn. So Ms. Burki borrowed an instrument from a friend and when on vacation practiced using a piece of garden hose with a wooden alphorn mouthpiece. While the sound of a garden hose isn't much to listen to, she says it was a good way to train her lungs and lip muscles.

"You have to be in shape to play," she says. "Having good stomach muscles helps."

With the help of a tutor, Ms. Burki first learned old melodies such as the "Mountain Blessing." She became a full-time musician at the age of 16. After attending a jazz school, she moved beyond classical tunes.

Today she plays original music with a band accompanied by an electric guitar, bass, drums and a keyboard. Crowds often clap along -- a far cry from the more solemn performances in the Swiss countryside.

The alphorn is a 12-foot-long wooden folk instrument traditionally played by Swiss shepherds to communicate across mountain valleys. Now musicians in cities are embracing it. WSJ's Edward Taylor reports. (Sept. 23)

Outside Switzerland, Ms. Burki has become something of a cultural ambassador. She's made appearances at trade fairs, shopping centers and concert halls in Ecuador, India, Germany and Taiwan. "People like to see a fresh twist to the alphorn," she says with a smile.

The alphorn is beginning to attract foreign players. Bryony Stahel, a 65-year-old English artist, decided to take up the instrument after she asked her daughter what she should do as a hobby. " 'Learn to play the alphorn' is what she told me," Ms. Stahel says. The deep rumble of the alphorn gives her a feeling that's "quite zen" when she plays.

In Canada, William Hopson -- who normally plays the French horn with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra -- has won acclaim for his traditional alphorn music, but also dabbles in modern styles. He makes his own instruments of Canadian spruce and gives lessons to Swiss aspirants.

"The alphorn can be many things. It can be melancho - The Wallstreet Journal


"Heartbeat" - Release Germany November 2008, Release United Kingdom, Middle East, Netherlands, USA 2009. "Heartbeat - funky Swiss Alphorn" is composed by Eliana Burki and David Richards, Mountain Studios, Montreux.



By the time she was five years old, Eliana Burki knew that she wanted to be a professional musician. Born into a musical family in Switzerland, Eliana was expected to take piano lessons. Her mother, a piano teacher, was amazed when the young girl expressed her independent spirit very strongly: “No, thank you, Mom, I’ve decided to play the Swiss alphorn.” And play it she did. At the age of nine, she was giving her first concerts, enchanting audiences with her traditional Alphorn style and winning many awards. Within a few years she was attending the prestigious music conservatory in the Swiss capital of Bern, and then later studying at the Jazz College in Basel. As a teenager, she played mostly classical music, appearing as a guest soloist with various chamber groups and philharmonic orchestras all over Europe, where she played Alphorn music by such diverse composers as Leopold Mozart, Jean Daetwyler, Kaspar Ewald and Daniel Schnyder.
When she was seventeen, Eliana made two bold changes in her life. First, she started her own band, bringing together elements of jazz, rock, funk, and blues to form a unique musical fusion around the Swiss Alphorn. At the same time, she decided to turn professional, signing a long-term agreement for management, publishing, and recording with Astrid Van Der Haegen, CEO of Suonix Music. For her debut album, Eliana chose producer/engineer David Richards, owner of Mountain Studios in Montreux, who has worked with artists as diverse as Queen, Chris Rea, and David Bowie. The resulting CD, “Heartbeat – Funky Swiss Alphorn” was released in the spring of 2008 to immediate critical acclaim and best-seller status in its home country. A video of the CD’s first single, “Vacuum Funk,” garnered thousands of hits on YouTube and MySpace.Taking advantage of the momentum, Eliana and her band started touring immediately, playing concerts, festivals, clubs, and TV Shows throughout Switzerland, Germany, France, Austria, and eventually all over the world, including successful tours of Asia, the Middle East, and South America. Everywhere she goes, critics have lauded her performances and audiences have fallen in love with her and her unique musical style. She has taken the music of the Alphorn to unprecedented heights, spreading the word about this wonderful side of Swiss culture. And what’s next? Eliana’s upcoming tour of South America will be completed on September 22, and after a short break, she and the band will begin work on their second CD for Suonix, tentatively entitled, “Heavy Wood.” The new production team includes Grammy-winning American producer John Boylan (Linda Ronstadt, Boston, Little River Band) and noted Los Angeles percussionist and educator, Alan Waddington. Plans are to record the CD in Hollywood at the famed Capitol Studios with Eliana’s new band and selected guests. Eliana has already started writing and arranging new material for the project, which she hopes to have ready for release October 2010.