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The shadow man of dialect rock

The shadow man of dialect rock
Hanery Amman, a member of SUISA since 1976, in a photo taken at a meeting of SUISA members in Bern on 10 November 2009.
Photo: Wolfgang Rudigier
Obituary by Ane Hebeisen, guest author
He composed many of the hits which made Polo Hofer, in particular, famous. Hanery Amman has passed away at the age of 65.

When you asked Hanery Amman what his dream was, he would answer that he hoped to be able to make music until the day he died. Life was not always kind to him and would hold in store more than a few disasters and disappointments, but at least that one dream came true: he did what he loved most to the very end – he made music.

It would be exaggerated to say that he displayed any great productivity in his music-making. He had too many other adversities to cope with. Only a fraction of his lifetime output was ever published; we assume that, somewhere in Interlaken, a treasure trove of Hanery Amman essays and studies is awaiting discovery.

The soul of Rumpelstilz

Hanery Amman’s music career got off to an early start. At school he played the banjo and the ukulele. But the piano in the school’s music room would change the entire course of Hanspeter “Hanery” Amman’s career. As soon as he started playing it, he realised that the piano was capable of producing far more emotion than the nasal-sounding plucking instruments.

After his apprenticeship as a precision mechanic, and a detour in the theatre (he is known to have played the general “Treffpunkt Vietnam”, a play staged at the Zurich Zimmer-Theater), he started meeting regularly with his old neighbour, a certain Urs “Polo” Hofer, to play music. The two had lived with their parents in the same house in Interlaken for a long time; the Hofers were witnesses at the Ammans’ wedding, and Polo – who was seven years’ older – used to push baby Hanery’s pram around the neighbourhood.

At the time, nobody knew that they would stay close – sometimes more, sometimes less – to the end of their days; nor that the town of Interlaken would name a square after them.

At their get-togethers, the roles were clearly distributed. Hanery Amman composed the music, Polo Hofer wrote the lyrics. Hofer was the salesman, singer and the cool guy; Amman was the soul of the project and decisively shaped the sound of 1.0 dialect rock. Their blueprint was Udo Lindenberg who had succeeded in merging the German language with the music of the times. Their aim was to do the same with the Swiss-German dialect.

The first Swiss Reggae

Rumpelstilz brought together the most diverse and raging energies. Hanery Amman’s piano playing was influenced by such opposites as Elton John and Chick Corea, for example; the band admired fusion-jazz saxophonist Jim Pepper as well as Bob Dylan and, because their temporary percussionist (and future world music guru) Res Hassenstein was well-acquainted with Caribbean music, they decided to add Reggae to their repertoire.

Hanery Amman wrote his first big hits in this period: “Teddybär” (officially the first dialect Reggae) or the six and one-half minute long “D Rosmarie und i” preluded by a sparkling piano introduction, with a solo in the middle which swung from boogie to blues to jazz. He loved fusion.

Hanery Amman later described his years with Rumpelstilz as the most formative in his career. He liked to say that the band was multicultural at a time when the term “Multi-Kulti” did not even exist. It was with Rumpelstilz that he developed his own style and individuality both as a musician and a composer.

Disbanding of Rumpelstilz

Rumpelstilz may have been extremely successful, but they were by no means sacred in Switzerland at the time. Not even in Interlaken, Hanery Amman’s hometown, was the man with the long blond hair considered a worthy shepherd of Switzerland’s musical tradition; on the contrary, people thought he should go and get some proper work.

In 1979, tension between Hanery and Polo caused the group to disband, which is to be expected when two hard-headed “Gringe” from the Bernese Oberland collide. In an interview shortly afterwards, Hanery explained : “There were two bellwethers in one band. At a certain point, success went to Polo Hofer’s head. That hurt the band.”

And it was also about money: despite the band’s huge success, money was always tight, and nobody really knew why. In hindsight, he was to describe his relationship with Hofer more objectively: “We complemented each other and needed each other”. With age, they regarded each other as friends.

An evergreen hit

After they broke up, Polo Hofer founded his SchmetterDing while Hanery Amman tried to go it alone under his own name. In 1980, he released “Burning Fire”, a solo album produced in Germany; the songs were in English, the style lively Americana rock; in interviews he explained that he wanted to tour with his songs and that in any case Berndeutsch was not really a good language for rock.

In the Bernese Oberland he had little success. But he did play a few concerts in Germany and Austria. Alongside he composed film scores or wrote songs for the Italian pop singer Rita Pavone. He soon ended his cooperation with the German production company, set up his own studio in Interlaken, gave concerts and did what he liked best: wrote songs.

One of these was called “Kentucky Rose” and would probably also have been buried in his archives if Polo Hofer, who was touring with his SchmetterBand, had not heard a demo tape of the song. He simply added lyrics in Berndeutsch, and landed the biggest hit in the history of Swiss music: “Alperose” made Hofer and Amman immortal.

Under his stubborn Bernese skull, Hanery Amman had a heart of gold. Friends say he was a quirky but extremely lovable character. One often hears attributes like direct, honest, stubborn and highly sensitive. He had a good sense of humour and often showed flashes of his wit and warmth.

What he did not like at all, however, were musical lapses: in May 1984 he went to the studio with his band to record an album. He found the result so poor that he refused to release it. Why was soon known: in an interview he criticised his musicians’ work. The band had not been sufficiently motivated on that day. The outcome: Scrap it! Change the Band!

The “Chopin of the Bernese Oberland”

Hard years followed. After an operation for an infection of the inner ear, he developed a tinnitus which would make it nearly impossible for him to play music for a long time. He still played a few concerts, initiated a Rumpelstilz reunion and helped cut three concerts in the Anker in Interlaken (he lived just above the concert hall). The resulting recording “Live im Anker” is one of Switzerland’s best known concert albums.

Amman’s next solo album was only released in 2000. “Solitaire”, as it was titled, was greeted by enthusiastic critics but did not make it further than 90 on the Swiss hit parade. People were then listening to Manu Chao, the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Britney Spears; Amman’s long-brooded and carefully arranged dialect pieces seemed out of fashion. Nor did his doctors have any good news. In 2007, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. A disease that has now, ten years’ later – and five months after Polo Hofer – taken his life.

He never complained about his fate, even though life “dealt him one blow after another”, as he recently said. On the contrary, he felt very grateful. Hanery Amman was never one to push his way into the limelight. His songs made Polo Hofer famous, not him. Show business was a world full of con artists and dazzlers, he would say, and he never really felt at ease in it.

He was happiest at the piano when he could hear his fingers playing. He worked mostly at night (often naked, as he once revealed) – it was his way of meditating the moodiness of the world. “When everything “goes to pot”, in the end you still have music”, was his motto.

If he had had someone at his side to bring a little order to his work and ease his recurring bouts of self-doubt, the man Polo Hofer dubbed the “Chopin of the Bernese Oberland” might have left behind a world-class oeuvre. But the Interlaker never cared much for consultants.

Nevertheless, what he did publish is saved in Switzerland’s long-term memory of dialect music. In his final months he was working on an instrumental album which he hoped to finish before he died. That was not to be. The night before New Year’s eve, Hanery Amman passed away at the age of 65, surrounded by his closest family.

As he sang so beautifully in his solo album “Solitaire”: “U we de meinsch, die Wält göng under, de si d Stärne geng no da”. (When you think the world has ended, the stars are still there.) There is now one more star in the firmament.

This obituary by Ane Hebeisen was published in a similar form in Der Bund and the Tages-Anzeiger at the beginning of January 2018.

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