France: Une anthologie des musiques traditionnelles
Published by Frémaux & Associés, France
This definitive anthology of the folk music of France, collected under the direction of Guillaume Veillet, is comprised of 10 discs and almost 300 tracks. It is quasi-encyclopaedic in representing the traditions not only of French-speaking France, but remarkably, also those of both non-French-speaking France (Brittany, Corsica, Basque Country, etc..) and those of French speaking parts of the world outside of France (Belgium, New Caledonia, Guiana, Martinique, North-west Italy etc).
What this collection isn’t is high-fidelity roots music aimed at the casual listener. It’s aimed more at the serious collector, the folklorist, or for the musician looking for new old roots material to draw from. These discs, divided regionally, consist of archival and field recordings made primarily in the 20th century, and up to about 2007 at the latest. Seven of the discs cover mainland France and one each is devoted to France’s overseas possessions, to Corsica, and to Canada-United States.
What is clear is that the selections were chosen for exemplifying the many forms of music across France rather than for the content. The musicology is more interesting than the sociology here. There are few materials such as war songs, protest songs, work songs, political songs, that one might find on a similar disc from the British Isles or English North America.
Most tunes are either instrumentally sparse, or songs by a lone singer. The sung music, surprisingly, is in perhaps a dozen languages, belying France’s image as a monocultural nation state. We hear music in dozens of languages: Breton, Gallo, Alsatian, Occitan, Gascon, Basque, Franco-Provencal, Walloon, Flemish, Corsican, Langue d’Oil, and others mostly scattered around the corners of the ‘hexagon’. There are many traditional tunes including dances from the regions. And we also hear sound bites of the paysage sonore, soundscapes perhaps, of daily life in these areas.
The interior lands such as Auvergne and Berry reflect a strong traditional cultural Frenchness, with their chants, and bourées (a kind of square dance popular in central France) played on the violin or cornemuse. On the Auvergne-Limousin disc representing this south-central district, the opening ‘pot-pourri’ on this disc by violinist Michel Meilhac is one of the more interesting and invigorating tracks. The Centre-France disc covering the Berry, Boubonnais and Nivernais also features a rich seam of song, harmonica, accordion, and violin. ‘Tes moutons ma bargère’ has entered the repertoire of Gabriel Yacoub, among others. But the vielle à roue or hurdy-gurdy appears to be the instrument of choice in this region.
At the same time, the border and coastal districts present a wealth of diversity. The Mediterranean region disc, for instance, features songs in numberous languages, from Catalan and Occitan to Italian and even Hebrew. By contrast, the disc representing the music of Western France, from Bordeaux to Le Havre (excluding Brittany), presents less linguistic variety yet shows the roots of a diversity of musics, many of which have been exported in some form to the Americas. An entire disc is devoted to the thriving folk heritage of Brittany, with songs not only in the Celtic Breton tongue but also in French-related Gallo.
The collection from the wide Alps North and East area also proves eclectic. We move from a religious parody in Alsatian (German) to a Flemish song. Shortly afterwards, we hear the children of Liege, Belgium with a medley in Walloon (French). Then another song in the same language about the miseries of marriage. Finally there is a section of 1930s recordings from Paris featuring soloists with choir and orchestra.
As for the South-West region, it is historically a Gascon (Occitan)-speaking area, with the exception of the Basque tradition in the extreme South-West, represented by the final four tracks. In particular we are fortunate to hear the traditional Basque bertsolaris Mattin and Meltxor, in this improvisational rhyming duet.
Musically Corsica does seem a land apart, with its traditions rooted in Mediterranean polyphonies, among many other lesser-known sounds the island produces. The paghjella sung by Andria Olivi, Tumasgiu Cipriani and Anton-Marcu Campana, recored in 2009, is a good example of the three-voice polyphony with modern sound associated with Corsica. But the Joseph Figarelli suite for diatonic accordion suggests that other sounds are found on that island as well.
On France d’Outre Mer, the ninth disc, we encounter the music and culture of the widely diverse French overseas colonies and possessions that admittedly don’t have much culturally in common (Reunion Island, Wallis and Futuna, Martinique, St. Pierre et Miquelon), other than being the last tiny remnants of the once-massive French empire.
For North Americans, the final disc, Français d’Amerique, provides a look into the roots of some of today’s popular music, including as it does the Cajun two-step and "Allons a Lafayette," and the vocal ‘turlutte’ here performed by Lederie Saint-Coeur from the Province of New Brunswick. "Par un Dimanche au Soir," a song made famous by La Bottine Souriante, is sung here by an ensemble from the Eastern Townships. Perhaps surprisingly, the disc also includes a macaronic song (alternating French and English) by Belgian immigrants living in the state of Wisconsin.
Typically for this kind of collection, there is uneven quality both in the sound and the actual performances as these are for the most part amateur performers and these are field recordings often made on the equipment of an earlier day. While the notes for the series and individual discs are useful in identifying the performers, their location, and their musical forms, lyrics and any translations would also have been helpful.
What is remarkable is the achievement itself – to bring all of this material together in one package that allows us to take a really close look at the musical and cultural roots of France. - David Cox
CD available from cdRoots
CD available from cdRoots