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Hubert von Goisern was born as Hubert Achleitner on 17th November 1952 in Bad Goisern in the Austrian Salzkammergut region. At the age of 5 he told his parents that he wanted to be a conductor. When he was 12 he joined the local brass band and was loaned his ...

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Samantha Brickler
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Reclaiming the Lederhosen, Retracing the Sounds: Austria’s Hubert von Goisern Goes from Alpine Enfant Terrible to American Music (Trouble)Maker

For a man who has tirelessly pushed the envelope of Austrian popular music, while somehow scoring hit after hit in Europe, Hubert von Goisern keeps it simple: “I like sounds,” he insists. “I just like to get sounds out of everything,” one reason he brings everything from concertina to nose flute into his work. “I bang on things, pluck, blow... I love getting things to resonate. I am not into virtuosity, even though I do appreciate it. I am just into sounds.”

Yet behind that modest assertion lies a powerful curiosity, a burning desire to shake up tradition, both in his Alpine home region and worldwide, as part of a groundbreaking chart topping band and as a thought-provoking solo performer. von Goisern has long nurtured a fascination with America’s many sounds, exploring them on his latest (21st) album, Federn. He hears the Alps in “Amazing Grace,” and mashes up a Cajun tune with a well-loved and nearly identical ditty from Arnold Schwarzenegger's home region of Stygia ("Stoansteirisch”).

von Goisern hits the road once again, traversing the US on a brief tour that will take him to New York, DC, and Austin this spring.

“I myself thrive on the variety of music our world has to offer. The Alpine tradition is just one fascinating part,” says von Goisern. “I think in times like this, we need to have an ear for each other.”

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von Goisern grew up in a small Austrian mountain town, where Alpine music--the nationalist vibe, the folk schmaltz--was everywhere. He hated it. The radio offered a much-needed window into other worlds of rock, pop, and blues, the funkier sounds found on the European airwaves at the time.

Just listening wasn’t enough. von Goisern eventually wandered far and wide as a young man, taking in whatever musical elements he could along the way. His travels through South America and Asia for non-musical reasons led him to a revelation about his own heritage. “My fascination for other musical traditions developed during those times and made me question and reflect on my rejection of my own tradition. It was during my stay in the Philippines, that I decided to deconstruct alpine music and give it a new perspective. One of our slogans back then was: let's snatch the lederhosen from the Nazis.”

The Nazis didn’t stand a chance. von Goisern started wrestling with Central Europe’s peculiar past, wresting the wild, fresh sides from the cloying and tainted. He picked up the old accordion his grandfather had given him years before and forced all sorts of inspiring sounds out of the instrument. With a few like-minded musicians, von Goisern started Alpinkatzen, a group that tore apart folk music, only to rebuild it into something that struck a powerful chord with young Austrians, as well as with the music business. The band was busking in downtown Vienna, when a music exec from CBS Records heard them and offered them a deal.

“There was a craving for unburdened, uncaged music, for music that had a connection to our past, but without the shame,  for music without the sticky candy-sweetness so inherent in most folklore,” reflects von Goisern. “It was the desire for identity without the constrictions and demarcations that usually go along with traditions.”

The band’s second album sparked several major hits in German-speaking Europe and put von Goisern on the map. After several years of touring and regional stardom, however, the band played its last show.

von Goisern has not been content to rest on his pop laurels, however. He has worked on soundtracks for feature and documentary films (when not starring in popular documentaries of his own). He turned back to the world, to collaborations with artists from Tibet and Egypt (Mohamed Mounir). He turned a cargo ship into a floating stage and performed a series of concerts with local musicians from Linz harbor to the Black Sea, a two-year project exploring the European Union’s eastward expansion and regional traditions.The tour to celebrate the European spirit took von Goisern to nearly 15 countries, and he was joined by artists like Zap Mama, Rambo Amadeus, BAP, and Klaus Doldinger.

But the Alps stuck with him. After teaching at his son’s school, von Goisern dived into Austrian folk music once again, hearing it as a musical primer of sorts. “If you want to sing together, you need a pool of common songs, and folk songs are like the ABC of music. There were only pretentious and embarrassing folk music recordings available at that time, so I did one myself that didn’t feel that way,” he recounts. “Just for fun, I told my management to organize a few concerts in small venues to round things out.”

What started as a couple one-off shows became a tour of hundreds of theaters, concerts played to thousands. The tour ended in Timbuktu, at the Festival in the Desert, where Austrian traditions shared the stage with Tamashek, Malian, and all sorts of other musicians and music lovers from around the world.

Yet one of von Goisern’s earliest and most sustained musical loves has been the roots music of the American South and jazz, as well as new music innovators like Cage, Glass, and Bernstein. He traveled extensively in the States, looking for torchbearers to jam with, soaking up the sounds in context.

The result was Federn (“Feathers”), a glimpse at the unexpected intersection of Central European and American folk music.von Goisern catches that eerie connection between the honky tonk and the village fest, where pumping accordions (“Es ist wahr”) and raw brass (“I bin ganz alloan”), glittering lap steel (“So a Segen”) and Afrodiasporic riffs tangle (“Am hell-lichten Tag”). It’s witty and gritty, and somehow thoroughly American, though sung in Austrian dialect.

The sound that is both here and there comes naturally to von Goisern, and is part of what he’s dedicated decades to creating. “I am concerned by our Transatlantic alienation, and my experience is that music does indeed help build bridges,” muses the musician. “There is so much common ground, and it can be made audible.