SWITCH colleagues Frank Herberg and Thomas Weller are both passionate about music, but in very different ways.
Thomas: Making music runs in my family. My parents always encouraged it. I started by learning to play the accordion, then later the organ. That gave me a good grounding for my development as a musician later in life, so I'm very grateful for it now. I really enjoying making music. I mean, if you put your heart and soul into it, it can be a great release. How did you get into making music?
Frank: There's no family history in my case. I'd always been very keen on music, and I wanted to do something with percussion. I started taking djembe lessons while I was a student in Darmstadt. My first teacher was an African from Togo – a griot, meaning someone born into the musical caste. As a result, I learned quite a lot about West African culture at the same time. Did you take a different musical direction later in life, or have you stuck with the accordion and organ?
Thomas: I've done a few things. I worked with synthesisers and samplers for a long time because I was fascinated by the technology and the range of sounds that were possible. Then I taught myself the guitar and discovered a passion for signing. I sang in gospel and acapella choirs for a long time. But the accordion always stayed with me. I played in a duo and jammed with various bands. Do you play any other instruments? Frank: Yes, other percussion instruments. After my lessons with the griot, I took courses at the Wiesbaden School of Music and Arts for more than ten years, learning other drums and a wide range of styles. In the eight years I've been living in Switzerland, I've played less on hand drums and more on the hang because there's no way I can practice on loud percussion instruments in my flat. Thomas: The hang's a very special instrument. How did you come across it?
My first teacher was an African from Togo. As a result, I learned quite a lot about West African culture at the same time.Frank Herberg
Frank: I discovered it about 12 years ago in a music shop in Wiesbaden. Funnily enough, it's actually a Swiss invention. Put simply, two steel drummers from Bern turned their instrument on its head and started playing it with their hands rather than with mallets. The word «hang» in fact means hand in the Bernese dialect. Thomas: So, have you taken hang lessons? Frank: No, nobody was offering them back then. The inventors wanted people to find out for themselves what they could do with it, so the idea is to think up your own compositions. Do you compose your own pieces? Thomas: Yes. For a long time, I recorded my musical ideas digitally. I'd play all the instruments and sing on individual tracks and piece them all together with a software sequencer, then I'd set about fine-tuning the whole thing. I put a lot of effort into saving up for my first gear. It consisted of an Atari computer running Cubase Audio software and a Korg M1 synthesiser. I learned a lot musically from home recording, but after a while I started to miss just playing music. These days, the accordion's my first choice again. I can play entire pieces on it or improvise, depending on whatever harmony or rhythm pops into my head.
Frank: I can totally identify with that. As a child, I was also fascinated by musicians like Jean-Michel Jarre, Tangerine Dream and the like. I thought synthesisers were the way forward for me too. Of course, I couldn't afford one at the time, and I realised later that I wanted to feel a direct connection to the instrument. I get much more enjoyment from simply banging on goatskin. That said, I have the greatest respect for people who create moving music with synthesisers. What kind of music do you play on your accordion? Thomas: From folk to pop and rock – whatever takes my fancy. At the moment, I'm trying my hand at the French style of playing as well as Klezmer and traditional music from Finland, Armenia and the Balkan. I like the unfamiliarity of it. Do you practice on your hang?
What I enjoy most of all is being part of a band that plays my kind of music. That sense of togetherness is inspiring and fun.Thomas Weller
Frank: Yes, I do at the moment, about 15 to 20 minutes a day because I'm doing some gigs. I'm starting with the djembe again as well after finding a drumming group in Zurich, but I have no idea how I'm going to practice. Unfortunately, there are no decent electronic hand drums I can play with headphones on. Those things just ruin your hand action. Thomas: I practice for 45 minutes on average. I can plug headphones into my digital accordion, and it feels just like a normal one to play, but I prefer the sound my Hohner makes. Where can people hear you play the hang?
Frank: At readings, vernissages and christenings, for example. People find the hang interesting and ask me after the show if I can play for them too. Obviously I get a buzz out of people liking my music. Playing gigs gives me something to work towards, and that motivates me. Thomas: I'm the same. I like playing at private events. What I enjoy most of all is being part of a band that plays my kind of music. That sense of togetherness is inspiring and fun.