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La Mal Coiffée
Sirventes (

La Mal Coiffée, five women from the Aude and Hérault regions of France, enhance their legacy of Occitan polyphonies and syncopated percussion on L'Embelinaire, their fourth album in seven years.

The group (whose name means The Bad Hair or The Badly Coiffed) has had success across France, and in particular, Occitania, (a language region that reaches across Southern France, from the Pyrenees to the Alps, and includes small areas of Spain and Italy). Their particular Languedocien variety lives on, not only in every day speech but in the Calandreta schools, in music, and in literature.

Their three previous discs have shown progress, maintaining the five-female-vocalists-and-percussion format; the most recent, Òu! Los Òmes, had some standout tracks such as "Lo Gat" (The Cat) and "Prenètz lo bon temps filhòtas" (Girls have a good time) that showed a fun-loving approach to music.

L'Embelinaire is a very special project based on nine poems by Joan-Maria Petit (Jean-Marie Petit) and three by Léon Cordas (Cordes), venerable Occitan poets, both from the Hérault region, a viticulture-based department with urban centres such as Beziers and Montpellier. Tunes are composed and arranged by Laurent Cavalié. The texts chosen here are literally a “return to roots” reminding us that Occitan has survived as primarily a rural language.

La Mal Coiffée - Hélène Arnaud, Karine Berny, Myriam Boisserie, Marie Coumes, and Laetitia Dutech - all sing, and most perform on a variety of percussive instruments. There are no guitars, violins, hurdy-gurdys, just voice and percussion. The twelve tracks are performed with energy and lightness. These polyphonies take skill, and the five are impressively up to the task.

Compared to Òu! Los Òmes, which I saw as a step forward for the group, this disc is in some ways a more understated achievement, but significant for the texts chosen and the fine harmonies and polyphonies as this group develops and matures.

L'Embelinaire is a magician who re-enchants the world – as these poets and their interpreters bring back the enchantment of Occitan. The texts evoke rural life, not so much in its harshness but in its beauty and grace, the sowing of seeds, the harvest -- think of American poets such as Wendell Berry who similarly evoke a pastoral ideal. While the lyrics evoke a serene beauty the treatment by Cavalié and interpretation by La Mal Coiffée is joyful but respectful of the texts, which explore the relationships between men, women and the soil that nourishes families.

While some of the tracks have almost the energy or rock, others are more meditative. In "L'Ora" (The Hour) and the exceptional third track, "De Femna e d'Òme" (Of man and woman), the percussion is used to rollicking effect. In the latter, the group concludes: To the caress of the moment, all was ready, the sky the sun and the moon, and the proud man working the land, pushing back the limits of the field.

"De Femna e d'Òme"

In "A la Fèsta del Cirque" the singers approach with a more meditative pace while the lyrics evoke a simpler time: Christ is on the cross, dressed in red wool, he will descend tomorrow and lead the children to the circus.

Rural life is hard work, no doubt about it, and without that work the consequences are severe: In "De la Nuèit a la Nuèit" (from night to night) they sing We have brought the land on our back, to sow the chickpeas and the small lentils, to escape the old fear of the hunger bringing wind.

The flow of Occitan lends itself well to this treatment: the simplest songs take on a strength and complexity, while the language itself, even to non-speakers, and reveals itself as a troubadour's tongue. In 'Tèrra Doça', the man tired from his work, has found the caresses of his wife and the land becomes sweet. Or in Occitan: Arroit de trabalh, l'ome avia retrobat, las caranchonas de sa femna.. The evocative Occitan word “caranchon” meaning caress appears in a number of these poems/songs.

"La Nuèit de las Estelas" seems to evoke a pilgrimage:

     Sèm montats a la Nauta Faja
     Al mai naut de la bruga roja, que se i toca l'estelam, era una nuèit de julhet,
     ne tornarem transparents..e quand lo jour aparaguèt
     ne ploravèm de solesa.
(We went up to the mountain, higher than the red heather, where we could touch the stars. It was a July night, we returned transparent and when the day appeared, we cried from loneliness.)

In "Bòria," the group concludes the disc with another ode to rural life there were olive trees along the road and vines before the door which greeted the morning, the white farmhouse that we built.

The Occitan of the Languedoc is close to Catalan, having some elements in common with French and Spanish also. In this disc and the other work of La Mal Coiffée, a peasant tongue is restored to its former glory and the language of the troubadours. Lyrics provided in both the original Occitan and a French translation in the booklet assist the non-local listener with understanding. - David Cox

You can find the ensemble on Facebook.

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