Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Caludo creates a sublime Swiss mix

If Switzerland has anything at all in common with Appalachia, it’s due to the mountains and a penchant for celebrating in upper elevations. That gave the Swiss band that calls itself Caludo cause to create a new brand of bluegrass, a sound they refer to as “Swissicana.” With a repertoire that consists of original material and some sturdy standards, the band finds a ready blend of both the classic and the contemporary, and makes it all their own.

Caludo consists of Stefan Behler (vocals and guitar), Catie Jo Pidel (vocals and fiddle), and Vincent Zurkinden (vocals and upright bass), but their cohesion is all the more remarkable considering the fact that they hail from such disparate environs. Behler, who was raised in northern Germany, taught himself to play five-string banjo at the tender age of 15, learning lessons from instructional books and whatever records he could find. After coming in contact with some like-minded musicians and plying his skills in jams and informal gatherings, he joined a folk band called Mala & FyrMoon, toured throughout Switzerland, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, Ireland, and the U.S., and eventually rebased a solo album of his own.

Pidel, originally from Minnesota, was practically weaned on bluegrass. She moved to Switzerland to earn her master’s degree, and never left. Her affinity for the fiddle began at age nine, and in the years since, she’s performed at concerts and festivals throughout the US, and gained further exposure through multiple appearances on A Prairie Home Companion.

Zurkinden, the trio’s only original native of Switzerland, honed his technique in a variety of bands. He takes a percussive approach to the bass and has a knack for composing songs in a variety of languages, including English, French, and Greek.

Given their diverse backgrounds, we asked the members of Caludo to share their trajectory.

For starters, please tell us how the band got its start.

Pidel: I grew up playing bluegrass in Minnesota, but I took a bit of a hiatus from music when I moved abroad. When it became clear I wanted to stay here on a more permanent basis, I started to wonder about finding people to play with here. Less than a week into thinking about it, I bumped into a friend on the tram to work, and it turned out she had just been talking with another friend who was looking for a fiddle player for a new project. She introduced us in a group chat, and Stefan came over the next night to play a couple tunes. It was a pretty instant match! We knew we wanted more people than just a duo, and since Stefan and Vincent had already been in a previous band together, Stefan invited him to our next rehearsal to see if it was a good fit. And boy, was it! We hit the jackpot in that we all have pretty similar goals and complimentarily eclectic musical tastes, and it’s been a blast ever since!

Behler: Towards the end of 2017, I was looking for a fiddle player and singer after a former project I was involved in disbanded. An endless and unsuccessful search followed, until a friend told me about a fiddle player that might be coming back to Zurich. Well, yeah, might. But then she did! So that is how I met Catie Jo, and it was a perfect musical match at first sight. A few weeks later I asked my buddy Vincent to join on bass, and Caludo was born in May 2018.

Who were your earliest influences?

Pidel: One of the first CDs I bought myself was a “Best of Bluegrass” compilation from Barnes & Noble. I think I was nine, and it was a four-disc set with all the usual suspects like Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers. Between that and going to lots of bluegrass jams and festivals, I become pretty steeped in the traditional stuff, until I started exploring more progressive groups as a teenager. I think I listened to Gravity’s Our Enemy by Cadillac Sky pretty much constantly for a year, and later was tuned into Bluegrass Junction on SiriusXM whenever that wasn’t playing. I was also really enamored with groups like Nickel Creek, Balsam Range, New Grass Revival, Crooked Still, and Joy Kills Sorrow. Other than that, just growing up at festivals and playing shows from an early age had a huge influence on me.

Behler: I have listened to the Bluegrass Album Band up and down, and of course all of Tony Rice’s albums. The first live bands from the US I saw were Bob Paisley & The Southern Grass, and Peter Rowan. I mostly played mandolin in my early years, so David Grisman is my hero. My first IBMA experience was in 1991 in Owensboro, Kentucky where I did lots of jamming with some great pickers. I remember one jam in particular with Martie and Emily of the Dixie chicks, and that was quite cool.

Why did you choose to tap into bluegrass? What drew you to that form?

Pidel: It’s honestly hard for me to remember a time when bluegrass wasn’t in my life. I remember one or two festivals where I didn’t really know many people, but the Minnesota bluegrass and old-time community is just so incredibly wonderful and welcoming that that didn’t last long, especially for an energetic kid fiddler. I loved the energy of the music, the kindness of the people, and having a parent-sanctioned excuse to stay up all night! Ha! As an adult, I keep coming back to it because it feels like home, and especially given the fact I was living so far from my roots, it was an incredibly precious feeling.  

Behler: There was a radio station in Cologne that featured bluegrass music every now and then. At that time — in the late ’70s — I didn’t yet know what it was, but i got hooked on a song called That’s Why You Left Me So Blue by Mac Martin and the Dixie Travelers. That was magic! I knew I just had to get me a banjo!

Does bluegrass have a following in Switzerland? What sort of reaction do you get from your audiences at home?

Pidel: Switzerland has way more bluegrass than I was ever anticipating. There are a couple of festivals, some regular jams, and some great venues that feature bluegrass and country music regularly. There’s also a really great community both here and just across the border in Germany. Old-time music is also getting more and more popular thanks to some awesome organizers here. It’s been an amazing way to connect and meet people.

Behler: Live bluegrass is mostly happening at dedicated festivals and small clubs in Europe. I’ve been playing traditional bluegrass in cover bands for many years, and it was fun, but it wasn’t evolving. The magic suddenly happened one day when a friend convinced me to play some original music instead — my own interpretations, but some that still retained that bluegrass drive. Suddenly we got booked at cool clubs and theaters, and got lots of “wow” feedback like never before. Lesson learned — you can reach people with all kinds of musical styles, but doing your own thing is really rewarding.

Why do you think bluegrass has such international appeal?

Pidel: I think there’s a universalism to the topics — love lost and found, missing home, etc. — and the social nature of the music makes it easier to find community. There are a lot of people here who really study its roots and play awesome, traditional bluegrass… and also a lot of people that like to make it their own. I really like that versatility, and it means there’s a little bit of something for everyone. And while bluegrass lyrics are usually sad, the music itself has a lot of energy and happiness… so I think that draws people to it as well. 

Behler: As a musician, you can drop into any bluegrass jam anywhere in the world and start to play music and make friends. I don’t know of many other musical styles where that’s possible. And you don’t need amps and stuff. As a listener, there’s a certain happiness that comes with listening to the sound of a 5-string and a fiddle, backed up by a driving guitar, mandolin and bass. 

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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.