Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Caludo brings Appalachian sounds from the Swiss Alps

Switzerland and Appalachia may not have much in common, but they do share a similarity when in comes to their higher elevations. So it hardly seems a surprise that the band known as Caludo found common cause when it came to having a basis for bluegrass. Based in Zurich, Switzerland, the trio boasts three singers, fiddle, guitar, and bass, as well as a ready supply of international influences. 

The band first came together in 2017 after guitarist Stefan Behler left his previous band and went in search of a fiddle player and singer. At first, his efforts proved futile, at least until he was told by a friend that there might be a suitable fiddle player in Zurich, and that he might want to meet her. Thus, the connection with fiddler Catie Jo Pidel, was secured. A few weeks later, he asked his buddy, Vincent Zurkinden, to join the duo on bass, and once he agreed, Caludo officially convened in May of 2018.

Each of the players were well-versed in their respective instruments. Behler was raised in northern Germany, and it was there that he was first introduced to bluegrass by way of an FM radio station in Hamburg. He picked up five string banjo at the age of 15, and eventually mastered the instrument by reading instructional books and listening to recordings. Once he was able to meet some like-minded musicians, he was able to hone his musical skills while taking part in various jams and bluegrass concerts. Eventually he found himself touring not only his native Switzerland, but also in Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, Ireland, and the US. He also recorded and released a folk album of his own making.

Pidel is studying for her masters degree at a university in Zurich, but she originally comes from Minnesota, and it was there that she found herself part of a vibrant bluegrass community. She’s played the fiddle since she was nine, and in the years since, she’s taken part in various concerts and festivals, in addition to making several appearances on A Prairie Home Companion.

Zurkinden grew up in a French speaking part of Switzerland. He played bass with various folk, rock, and pop bands, including one group that found him partnering with Behler. He composes songs in English, French, and Greek, and pays particular attention to arrangements and timings. To that end, he frequently uses the body of the bass to pound out percussion. 

“We call our music ‘Swissicana,’ a Swiss version of Americana,” Behler says. “Three voices, fiddle, guitar, bass. Original hand-written folk music with bluegrass drive. The band finds a ready blend of bluegrass, singer/songwriter sounds, and Irish folk, and makes it all their own. Our lyrics are in English, French, and German.”

Behler says his main influences center on bluegrass music, but in recent years, he’s been equally inspired by more folk and Americana-oriented bands like Watchhouse and Mipso. Pidel’s interest in bluegrass was spawned from a four-CD Flatt & Scruggs anthology she bought at Barnes & Noble when she was around ten years old, and then listening to it almost non-stop for months after. She became acquainted with the band Bluegrass Junction soon after that and quickly became aware of contemporary bluegrass around that same time. In her teens, she started branching out to more progressive bluegrass and folk music, when bands like Crooked Still and Cadillac Sky began making their mark on her. Overall, her tastes have become quite eclectic, but she says her tastes always come back to bluegrass. She calls it her musical comfort food, and says that nothing quite beats a good banjo lick to kick off the proceedings. 

“We play about 15 – 20 concerts a year in Switzerland, mostly small theatre-like venues where the people will listen to our music,” Behler says. “Our first band tour took us to Ireland in 2020. In 2022 we did a two week concert tour of Minnesota and Wisconsin, where Catie Jo is from originally. In 2023 ,we played the Birkenried Bluegrass Festival in southern Germany.”

At the same time, they’ve been well-received back home. “Audiences can be quite different in different parts of the world,” Behler observes. “In Switzerland, we are not considered a bluegrass band by bluegrass music fans, mostly because we don’t have a five string banjo in the band, and we don’t play the usual bluegrass repertoire. Therefore, in our home country we market ourselves as a folk band, and we get booked at culture clubs where the people really like and enjoy what we do. In Germany, Ireland, and the US, the bandwidth for what is considered bluegrass music seems to be a bit wider, and there our music would likely be appreciated by bluegrass music fans.”

To date, the band has recorded two EPs. The first, Arrival, was released in 2022 and can be heard on all major streaming platforms. At the end of their stateside tour, they recorded a second EP entitled Beyond, which was released this past January. Both EPS consist entirely of their own original material. 

“We love to record videos of our music, and we also ask guest musicians to sit in with us,” Behler continues. “Many of those videos can be watched on our YouTube channel.

Behler also offers his own thoughts as to why bluegrass maintains such international popularity.

“As a musician, you can drop into any bluegrass jam anywhere in the world and start to play music and make friends,” he maintains. “I do not know of many other musical styles where this is possible. And you do not needs amps and things of that sort. As a listener, there’s a certain happiness to the sound of the five string and fiddle, especially when it’s backed up by a driving guitar, mandolin, and bass. Everybody can understand that.”

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About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.