PAZNAUN PEOPLE: GOTTLIEB JEHLE, ZITHER PLAYER

Gottlieb Jehle is 71, and not for nothing is he known as the “Zither God”: for almost 45 years he has performed with his instrument, in Paznaun as well as in Arlberg, in Switzerland, South Tyrol and Germany. We invited him to pose for us. You have lived your whole life in Pazaun, how has it changed over the years?
Community life in the village has stayed the same since my childhood, tourism hasn’t changed anything there. Clubs, festivals, customs and traditions are still very important for us here. The only thing that is different these days is the appearance of the landscape. What do you mean?
When you look from one side of the mountain to the other these days, you see more houses in between, but less farmers. If the mountain slope is left unfarmed, it doesn’t protect us from avalanches any more. And it’s a shame, too, that we don’t maintain the old handicrafts and agriculture any more like we used to.
You said that community life in Paznaun is still very strong, stronger than in other places. Why do you think that is so?
I think it is due to the special weather conditions, the mountains. We need each other, you see that every time an accident happens. Helping each other is the normal thing to do. Yes, I think the hard winters brought us together. I can still remember when we were trapped for three weeks during my childhood, because the snow lay several metres high. It was normal for us, we just had to put up with it. How was it for you back then? Did you sometimes get scared?
No, not at all. As a child, you’re carefree. I always felt very safe in our house. The whole family ate together in the living room. There was always enough to eat and every morning we had fresh cow’s milk, we didn’t need anything else. It was actually a wonderful time.
Today you are the most famous zither player in Paznaun, known as the “Zither God”. How did that come about?
I have done a lot of things in my life. I worked in an abattoir after my military service, then as a lorry driver for two years, and I worked on the building of the Arlberg tunnel. Then one evening, I was in a pub in St. Anton, the Rosannastüberl. And there was a zither player there. He was so good, he fascinated me so much, that I wanted to be able to play, too. And then I practiced every single day. Every day. My wife was often on the point of throwing my zither out of the window, but I really wanted to do it. What happened then?
Once when I was performing at an afternoon tea in Zür, a hotelier spoke to me. He wanted me to play in his hotel, once a week. And then it carried on like that, I got more and more jobs until I became the Zither God. I played everywhere, in the South Tyrol as well as in Switzerland and in Germany. Back then, though, I was lucky, zither playing was very modern and hotels were desperately looking for players. Sometimes I had more than one performance a day. And you also kept bees and had a farm on the side. That sounds like a lot of work.
I had a lot to do, it’s true. But I’ve been lucky enough in my life to have only done things that I really enjoyed. Music on the one hand, which connected me with people, the attention when I performed. And then the work with animals on the other hand. It kept me grounded. When I’m with the buffalos or the bees, I feel connected to my surroundings and to nature. Over the years I have even been able to build a relationship with them. In what way?
The buffalo, for example, follow me at every turn. And whether you believe it or not, even the bees fly after me in summer when I open the bee hives. Every single one of my buffalos has its own character, just like people. That’s what makes it so hard for me to slaughter them,
You’re playing on a very beautiful zither, by the way.
Lovely, isn’t it? It’s a Meinel, which is a bit like a Stradivarius in the zither world. The one I am playing hasn’t been available to buy for 30 or 40 years now. The best zither makers, incidentally, were in the former Eastern Germany, in Klingenthal, where they kept the really old wood especially for making zithers. And how did you get your zither?
It’s a funny story. I was playing many years ago in Switzerland, in Engelberg, for three days. And on the final day an old woman came up to me and said, “I heard you playing, I have a very beautiful Meinel zither which I would like to give you for a good price. None of my family play the zither, and they would just throw the instrument away. I don’t want that to happen.” I drove to her house straight away and bought the zither without a moment’s hesitation. And I’ve never given it away since.