Mane Matter, Switzerland’s most popular musician, is still alive half a century after his very untimely death. How is that, and why is it useful to examine its status as a national cultural wealth?
This content was published on Dec 27, 2022 – 09:00 Jul, Dec 27, 2022 – 09:00
Alan Mattley writes frequently about cinema in German and English, both on his own blog FacingTheBitterTruth.com and for a variety of predominantly Swiss publications, such as Frame and Maximum Cinema. He is also preparing a doctoral dissertation in English literature.
Deutsch (de) what mani matter can (still) tell us about switzerland
English (en) mani matter still says a lot about Switzerland, 50 years after her death
English (en) what mani matter can (still) tell us about Switzerland
what chansonnier mani matter can (still) tell us about switzerland (الأصلي)
English (en) What can Mani Matter tell us about Switzerland today?
English(en) Swiss national singer Mani Matter still has a presence 50 years after his death
Imagine that the Belgian singer Jacques Brel sings about a thwarted terrorist attack on the Palais des Nations, the seat of the Belgian Parliament, and then comes to the conclusion that nevertheless a bomb attack in time could prove necessary in the interest of the nation. Even given the tensions in Belgian politics, this probably seems an unnatural proposition.
Now imagine the same hypothetical scene of a singer from Switzerland contemplating how little it would take to bomb the parliament in Bern. For example, because male and female parliamentarians are not worthy of the democratic values that they claim to defend.
Does that sound strange and terrifying? In any case, the Swiss, men and women, are known, and even exemplary, for their reverence for the rule of law and for their reticence in political debate. But that is not a contradiction, at least for the German-speaking people of Switzerland.
The intended singer is ‘Hanspeter Matter’, better known as ‘Money Matter’, and the song in which he weighs the fortunes of Parliament against ‘a few sticks of dynamite’ is called ‘Dynamite’. Like many other mater songs, this song is part of the repertoire 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 at the age of thirty-six, Money Matter has been one of the most unanimous pop culture celebrities in German-speaking Switzerland. An undisputed personality, to a large extent, and loved by almost everyone, regardless of age, educational level, or religious orientation.
Given the exciting content of a song like ‘Dynamite’, to the uninitiated this popularity may seem like a strange anomaly. But in reality, Matter was never afraid to let his songwriting draw inspiration from politics.
‘I lit a match’, his biggest selling single, is an obvious allusion to contemporary fears of nuclear annihilation. The song imagines how the accident of a burning match falling on a carpet could escalate to the annihilation of humanity. As for the song “Inhibitions”, it expresses the hope that confusion and human impotence will prevent those in power from embarking on a disastrous war.
‘Formal Summoned’ and ‘Hugo Sanders’ Representative Piece’, two songs aimed at Swiss bureaucratic behavior, or more precisely, the political hiatus. While his song ‘Those Who Are Alright’, which is perhaps the most beautiful and important, is a captivatingly simple critique of economic inequality.
But for those who grew up viewing Matter as a deserving relic or a mustachioed uncle in black-and-white images from the 1990s who sings funny songs, the transformation from sharp-eyed rebel to depoliticized national treasure seems entirely natural.
The posthumous myth of Matter, as it is propagated in school curricula, in documentaries and in his memorial releases in his collections, is the myth of an artist from a long, long time ago, an artist who told the truth to those in power, brazenly but innocently. Because of his tragic untimely death he was firmly preserved in the nostalgic ‘capsule’ of post-war Switzerland, thus becoming a non-threatening Swiss version of the countercultural protest singer.
This decorated tram was one of Bern’s tributes to the late Matter on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of his death in 2002. Keystone / Edi Engeler
It is natural that Matter’s music lends itself to such an interpretation, as his songs in the sweet Berne dialect were firmly rooted in the popular phase of contemporary songs formulated by Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens.
But while the fame of these two French-singing poets transcended the country’s borders, the music of ‘Matter’, due to its cultural and linguistic specificity, could only flourish within the narrow confines of the German-speaking parts of Switzerland. Thus the phrases of his ‘Bernawi’ dialect, which are mostly untranslatable, remain his special feature even today, and these have been immortalized in his free-rhythmic ode, which is riddled with insults such as: naive idiot, stupid dumb, clumsy, and reckless.
His songs are entertaining above all, and tell of failed attempts at painting, as in the song ‘A Cow at the Edge of the Forest’, or of sinister wake-ups, as in ‘The Alarm Clock’, or of the ‘metaphysical horror’ when he finds himself between two mirrors of a barber, as in ‘ At the barbershop’.
And although most of Matter’s songs, with more clarity here or there, act as moral tales of the absurd or as gently satirical social commentary, or contain both—’Cow at the Edge of the Woods’, for example, depicting the danger of clinging to prejudices—their melodies are not The complex on the guitar, with its childish rhymes, is quite easy to digest.
A song by Money Matter with a clear message is somehow more like a bedtime fairy tale than a typical 1960s protest song.
This impression is further reinforced by the modest theatrical presence of ‘Matter’. Existing live recordings of his performances, such as the song ‘On the Train’, dating back to 1973, show a man of few words telling a joke and sarcastic himself with talent,
And it contradicts the ideal image of the songwriter, because it seems that he does not put forward requirements behind his work. The fact that Matter holds a doctorate in law, taught at the University of Bern and worked as a legal advisor to the city, contributes to a part of his middle-class appearance.
Despite his early success as a singer-songwriter, Matter made a living as a lawyer and university professor. Keystone / Walter Studer
The coup of time and the transformation of customs and traditions
But there are indications in the public debate that Matter’s largely unchallenged status as an authoritative and restorative cultural icon is no longer as evident fifty years after his death. And it was the song ‘Dynamite’ in particular that recently led to that clarity.
In the winter of 2021, at the height of the protests against the measures taken against the Covid-19 pandemic, Matter’s veiled warnings to those in power came to the surface in an examination of politics in Matter’s work.
Disastrous Journey: Near the village of Kilchberg on the outskirts of Zurich, Matter crashed into a heavy truck on his way to a concert in Rapperswil (November 24, 1972). Keystone/Str
Some of his songs, such as “Heidi” or “The Woman’s Psyche,” are imprinted with the gender bias that was common and usual in the sixties of the last century.
On the other hand, the song ‘Eskimo’ uses traditional stereotypes about the life of the ‘Inuit’ people, while ‘Sidi Abd al-Athar from al-Hama’ presents an Arab man who cannot get the woman he desires. Both songs, the examples, are stereotypical depictions of ‘foreign’ cultures in Western art. (In the case of ‘Sidi Abd al-Athar from al-Hamma’, ‘Mater’ emphasized in his presentation of the song, his point of view limited to the subject)
A critical review of this aspect of Matter’s legacy is important, not least because of its continued artistic presence in school classrooms. But the political climate in Switzerland, which follows the international trend towards polarization and debate over how to deal with ‘problematic’ behaviors and historical figures, calls into question a fruitful discussion.
If the recent public debates in Zurich about cultural appropriationexternal link and statuary of the international slave trade are any indication of this, it is not surprising that Matter’s reconsideration would warrant heated headlines warning of ‘politically correct surveillance’.
It actually seems like the logical conclusion of a fifty-year-old legend. A nation raised regarding Matter as an untouchable national cultural icon will probably fear the possibility of seeing him and his work in a different light.
One of many that point to Mani Matter being remembered after his death: “Does Mani Matter” by Swiss indie-pop quintet The Bianca Story and Dieter Meyer from Yello.
Edited by: Mark Livingston
Translated by: Jawad Al-Saadi