Vent Negru: traditional folk music from the Ticino

October 25, 2016 — No comments

Only a few miles from Locarno, a winding road leads through thick forests, narrow bridges and spectacular gorges into the Onsernone valley. Around sharp corners, I’m beckoned by glimpses of remote villages nestled on sunny terraces high up on the steep valley wall. They seem to touch the deep blue sky. Through centuries, the people living in this remote mountain area have made music as powerful as their landscape. Mauro Garbani’s passion is to play and preserve it. He is deeply rooted in this landscape.

Growing up in Auressio on a mountain farm – village population a handful families at the time and fewer now – he was exposed to traditional music from early on. Mauro recognized that these traditional songs were very old. In fact, his mother sang four hundred year old Ticinese folk tunes in an unusual tremolo technique that went back to the 1920s. While becoming a carpenter, Mauro spent every free minute and dime on music, acquiring traditional instruments and learning how to play them. Together with a friend and equipped with a tape recorder, he went up and down the valley to interview the locals and record their songs and lyrics. A passion was born and to this day, Mauro dedicates his life to preserve and play authentic Ticinese folk music.

Vent Negru is Onsernone dialect meaning the wind that pushes away the clouds to reveal the sun. In the mid ‘90s, Mauro Garbani, the quintessential Ticinese, teamed up with Esther Rietschin, who was born and raised in the city of Basel. The two had met and worked together at the Teatro Paravento in Locarno when Esther, a talented musician herself, felt deeply touched by this archetypal music. Mauro and Esther experimented by adding Esther’s rich saxophone sounds. It blended beautifully with the traditional music. For Esther as a ‘zucchina’ – a not strictly endearing term the Ticinese call people from outside their region – it took a long time to break into the closely-knit society. Today, partners in music and life, Mauro and Esther are applauded and esteemed far beyond their region. Their music touches the audience deeply and transports them into an enchanting world.

Mauro explains: “All folk music is added to and enriched in the passing from generation to generation. Esther and I express our understanding of the music and in these traditional songs. This does not change them so much as that it continues a natural evolution.”

He adds: “Part of the fascination of these age-old songs is their authenticity. The people in this valley were mouse poor. Life was hard, the environment harsh and the daily rhythm ruled by religion. It’s important to understand that these songs were played not so much for their musical value. They told sad or happy stories of daily life, described work, and expressed emotions for which there was no room or ability to express in any other way. Even though these songs are very old, we all recognize and are touched by their authentic voice.”

Traditional Ticinese Instruments

The piva is a very fine sounding bagpipe much different from its Scottish cousin, which dates back to the 15th century. The organetto is a diatonic accordion, the ancestor of today’s accordion. Mauro is a virtuoso in coaxing the most amazing sounds out of this instrument. His finger tips literally fly, dance, jump, hop and strike over the push buttons on both sides of the bellows, at incredible speeds. The twelve-hole clay flute that resembles the shape of a small hairdryer is called ocarina. All of these traditional instruments together with recorder, percussion, voice, guitar, and saxophone are what the two artists bring to the repertoire. They play public concerts and at private occasions; teach accordion lessons and hold folk dance and folksong workshops, always introducing their pieces with a brief background to its history and content.

Last Summer Concert

It’s Vent Negru’s last summer evening concert and I’m driving the winding road into the Onsernone valley once again. The fiery red sun is sinking rapidly behind the craggy mountains, spreading gold and crimson shadows over the hilly land. A burst of light flashes for a brilliant moment as a ray hits the glass window of a stone farm house dotting the landscape. It is darkening quickly and the air has a bite to it as I arrive at the chapel Madonna di Loreto south of Berzona, the village that Max Frisch, Golo Mann and other famous people called home.

I join a hand-full of locals and visitors as Mauro and Esther punctually open the chapel doors, greet every visitor as we walk through. As all churches in the area, the pale yellow stone walls are painted with frescos in blue; the dark woodwork of pews and altar are carved in simple patterns. The cool, peaceful stillness hushes us; candle light wraps us in a warm glow, and into this expectant silence, the duo plunges us into the rhythm and scintillating sounds of the region.

Joyous Dances d’Amore flood my heart with the memory of the rush of first love; traditional soldier songs from Lombardia want to make me march but with the twist that it’s about a young woman, dressed up as her father, following her lover into battle; an ephemeral waltz tune melts me to the core. The lyrics paint vivid pictures: “…the sky which tumbled into the lake this morning…”, “…oh, to travel afar, far away from the church tower, like the swallows beyond the ocean…”

Summer concerts or Riflessioni Musicali are dedicated to the people’s liturgy and traditional ballads which align in text and sound with the chapel space in which they’re performed. Traditional instrument and/or music of similar distinction is added  by the artists, for example Boeves psalm by the Swedish accordionist Lars Holmer (1948 – 2008), arranged by Vent Negru (sound sample).

Vent Negru

Resumada 2016 is Mauro and Esther’s latest CD, released to Vent Negru’s 25 year anniversary.  Resumada is the energy drink of old à la Onsernone: one fresh egg cracked into a cup, add a touch of sugar and a small tumbler of wine. The CD represents the best of their musical journey and is a work of artistic excellence. For more information, sound samples and Vent Negru’s up-to-date play schedule, check their website. To attend one of their concerts is a highlight to any trip into the Ticino and a tribute to the rich traditions of this region.

If you attend one of Mauro and Esther’s concerts, please be sure to say hello from me and leave a comment below!

Vent Negru

About Silvia and Swiss Wanderlust


Switzerland travel enthusiast. Cat lover, bicyclist and classical music fan. I prefer walking over running and enjoy a good Swiss card game of Jass with friends.  More about Silvia and Swiss Wanderlust »

Follow Us on Facebook

Additional Information

For the concert schedule, sound samples and to purchase CDs go to Vent Negru’s website:

Vent Negru

Enjoy Vent Negru’s authentic Ticinese music:


Sign up to Swiss Wanderlust via email and get the new articles for free. Your email address will never be shared.

Related Posts

Follow me on Facebook

Leave a Comment Below

Your email address will never be shared. Your comments make my day. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More from Swiss Wanderlust