What Mani Matter can (still) tell us about Switzerland

Words that still resonate after half a century: Mani Matter plays at home in Wabern (Bern) with his wife Joy in the background (1969). Keystone/Walter Studer

Mani Matter was one of Switzerland’s most popular musicians. Half a century after his untimely death, he is still around. What is the reason? And why is it worth questioning its status as a national cultural asset?

This content was published on December 10, 2022 – 11:00

Imagine if Jacques Brel had sung the story of a terrorist attack against the “Palais de la Nation”, seat of the Belgian Parliament, prevented thanks to him. And imagine if he had concluded the play by saying that when the time came, a bombing might still be necessary for the good of the nation. Even given the tensions that exist in Belgian politics, this proposal seems rather unusual.

Now imagine the same scenario where a Swiss chansonnier ponders how little it would take to blow up the Federal Palace in Bern. For example, if parliamentarians do not live up to the democratic values ​​they claim to uphold.

Does this seem excessive to you? After all, the Swiss are known for their legendary respect for the rule of law and their moderation in political discourse. However, this is not contradictory, at least for German speakers in Switzerland.

Because the singer in question is Hans Peter “Mani” Matter and the song in which he weighs the chances of the Federal Palace against “a few bags of dynamite” is called “Dynamit”. And like many other songs from Mani Matter, it forms part of the music curriculum for primary schools in German-speaking Switzerland.

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Since his death in a car accident on November 24, 1972, aged 36, Mani Matter has been one of the leading “consensus celebrities” in German-speaking Swiss pop culture – a largely undisputed figure, beloved by virtually everyone, regardless of age, origin and ideological orientation.

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Such popularity might seem like a strange anomaly to the uninitiated, especially given the explosive content of a song like ‘Dynamit’. However, in reality, Mani Matter never hesitated to be inspired by politics to write their songs.

His biggest hit, “I han es Zündhölzli azündt” (I Strike a Match), is a clear allusion to contemporary fears of nuclear Armageddon and imagines how a lighted match dropped on the rug can bring about the end of humanity. “Hemmige” expresses the hope that human constraint will prevent the powerful from unleashing a catastrophic war.

“Är isch vom Amt ufbotte gsy” (he was summoned by the authorities) and “Ballade vom Nationalrat Hugo Sanders” (the ballad of national councilor Hugo Sanders) attack Swiss bureaucracy and political inaction, respectively. Perhaps Mani Matter’s best and most important song, ‘Dene wos guet geit’ (Those Who Are Doing Well) is a simple and disarming critique of economic inequality.

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But for those who grew up with Mani Matter as an esteemed holdover, a sort of mustachioed uncle belting out funny songs on black-and-white recordings from the 1960s, the shift from subversive persona to sharp analysis to depoliticized national treasure feels natural enough. The posthumous myth of the chansonnier, propagated in school curricula, documentaries and tribute albums, is that of an artist from a bygone age, who brazenly – but innocently – spoke the truth to the powerful. And that, due to his untimely and tragic death, he is firmly encapsulated in post-war Switzerland’s nostalgic past.

Thus, he became a non-threatening Swiss version of a counterculture protest singer.

This decorated tram was one of the tributes paid by the city of Bern on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the death of Mani Matter in 2002. Keystone / Edi Engeler

The hero in dialect

Mani Matter’s music naturally lends itself to such an interpretation. His songs, interpreted in a strong Bernese dialect, were firmly rooted in the contemporary popular song genre, influenced by Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens.

But, while the fame of these French-speaking troubadours surpassed national borders, the music of Mani Matter, due to its cultural and linguistic specificities, has always managed to flourish only within the narrow limits of German-speaking Switzerland. Thus, his often untranslatable Bernese idiom, immortalized in his offending ode “E Löl, e blöde Siech, e Glünggi un e Sürmu” (four expressions synonymous with idiot in Bernese), has remained his trademark to this day.

His texts are above all amusing and tell short stories of failed attempts at painting (“Chue am Waldrand” / a cow at the edge of the forest), of villainous awakenings (“Dr Wecker”) or “metaphysical horror” to find himself between two mirrors (“Bim Coiffeur” / at the hairdresser).

And although most Bernese songs operate more or less explicitly as nonsensical moral narratives, mildly ironic critiques of society, or both – for example, ‘Chue am Waldrand’ illustrates the dangers of clinging to preconceived ideas – they remain very digestible. thanks to its catchy melodies played on the guitar and its nursery rhymes. In some ways, a Mani Matter song with an explicit message sounds more like a children’s story than a typical 1960s protest song.

This impression is further reinforced by the Swiss’ discreet stage presence: existing recordings of his shows, such as the live album “Ir Ysebahn” (on the train) from 1973, show a taciturn man, full of humor and self-confidence. mockery, which goes against the idealized image of the singer and composer.

The fact that Mani Matter was a doctor of law, taught at the University of Bern and worked as a legal adviser to the city of Bern contributed to his bourgeois allure.

Despite his early notoriety as a singer-songwriter, Mani Matter made his living as a lawyer and university professor. Keystone/Walter Studer

Changing times and customs

Fifty years after his death, however, signs in public discourse show that Mani Matter’s undisputed status as a credible and conciliatory cultural icon is no longer as clear as it once was – and it is precisely ‘Dynamit’ that has recently illustrated this phenomenon.

Last winter, at the height of protests against anti-Covid measures, the composer’s veiled warning to the powerful appeared in anti-government protest speeches and threats against the Federal Public Health Secretariat, in charge of the process.

The appropriation may have been lighthearted, but the effect was undeniable: it was as if the song “Dynamit” – and with it Mani Matter – had been plucked from its locked display case, stripped of its untouchable iconicity and forcefully integrated into the Switzerland of today, political polarization or not.

Therefore, it would not be surprising to see the work of the Bernese people play a role in current debates about “wake” culture and “cancel culture in Switzerland. Indeed, the Germanist Nicolas von Passavant has written a new book in which he examines the political dimension of Matter’s work.

The wreckage of the fatal car crash at Mani Matter near the village of Kilchberg on the outskirts of Zurich. He crashed into a truck on the way to a concert in Rapperswil (November 24, 1972). Keystone / Str

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Some of her songs, such as ‘Ds Heidi’ or ‘D Psyche vo dr Frou’ (Psyche of the Woman), are imbued with irreverent sexism, as was the case in the 1960s. ‘Dr Eskimo’ uses conventional stereotypes of Inuit life, while “Dr Sidi Abdel Assar vo El Hama” paints a portrait of an Arab man who cannot “afford” the woman of his dreams.

Both are excellent examples of cliched representations of “foreign” cultures in Western art (although in the case of “Sidi”, Matter emphasizes his own limited perspective on the subject in his introduction).

Critically questioning this aspect of Mani Matter’s legacy is important, not least because of its resonance in classrooms. The political climate in Switzerland, which follows the international trend of polarization and controversy over how to deal with “problematic” behaviors and historical figures, however, casts doubt on a productive discussion.

If recent public reckonings about cultural appropriation and monuments linked to the international slave trade in Zurich are any indication, it would not be surprising if this reassessment of Mani Matter generates feverish headlines warning of politically correct censorship.

In fact, it almost seems like the logical outgrowth of a 50-year-old myth. Once a nation is educated to regard Mani Matter as an indisputable national cultural asset, it will no doubt recoil from the prospect of seeing him and his work in a more nuanced light.

One of many posthumous references to Mani Matter: Swiss indie pop quintet The Bianca Story teamed up with Yello’s Dieter Meier for the song “Does Mani Matter?” (2013):

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Reviewed and verified by Mark Livingston. Translated from German by Émilie Ridard.

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