Moussu T e lei Jovents
Great music's inspiration often stems from a time and place. With Moussu T e lei Jovents, that spot on the map is La Ciotat, a small city near Marseilles.
For the past decade, as part of the Occitan music revival, Moussu T e lei Jovents has been one of the most prolific, musically interesting and positive phenomena in the Occitan region (southern France). The band, which alternates in language between French and Maritime Provençal (a variety of Occitan), native to the region, is a partial spin-off of what was probably the area's best known, most successful and most emblematic group, Massilia Sound System.
That reggae group, now active for several decades, has launched cultural movements (the Chourmos), been featured in a series of police novels (J.C Izzo's "Marseilles Trilogy") and has spawned several musical spinoffs including Oai Star, Papet J, and Moussu T e lei Jovents.
Beginning in about 2006 two group members branched out into a new project more deeply rooted in the sounds and stories of the region. Vocalist Tatou (François Ridel aka Moussu T), and guitarist Blu, along with an expert rhythm section, explore different musical territory with this band; more local territory.
Moussu T e lei Jovents carry the identity of a mature, working class band from the Provencal docks, with Brazilian influences also; marking this territory most distinctively with the brilliant 2007 song “Camarada,” an ode to the victims of fascism in France and Spain. Thus also their attire, blue shirts and caps reminiscent of a working man's blue collar uniform.
2012's live release, Empêche-nous, was a look back at some highlights from their first five discs. The hallmark of this recording is consistency. Somewhat rockier overall than their earlier studio discs, Empêche-nous brings to light hidden gems such as "Lo Dintre," showcasing its groove.
The songs are performed in an informal, bluesy, café format, with Tatou's voice suitably raw and Blu's guitar showy and dominant. Percussion is lively and creative. The slow, languid rocker, "Sur la Rive," where Blu and Tatou conclude with vocals and guitar wailing away in sync. As for "Putan de Cancon," what it lacks in lyrical variety, it makes up in sheer energy. Blu gets another chance to rock in "O Que Calor," another tribute to the hot sun and sand of the region.
Another highlight, "Paul, Emile et Henri," is an ode to the working class war veterans of the region, opened by a lovely riff by Blu. World War I was tough on working people, particularly in France, and the band recalls the debacles at Verdun, Somme, and Gallipoli.
Punctuated with lots of patter in a mix of southern accented French, and Maritime Provençal, it's a disc that feels like a live album should, not simply an excuse to release something. Occitan (here known as Maritime Provencal) is very much a living -- if underground -- language and for those who don't know it, Blu and Tatou even offer a few tongue-in-cheek translation primers in the macaronic "Quand tu n'as que des Bons Amis."
While this live disc didn't go ignored, my sense is that 2013's release Artémis made many sit up and take notice, even internationally, (despite the English language listener's sometimes casual disregard for music not produced in their own tongue). It offers variety, quality, and a strong sense of musical and political purpose. The 13-song collection is a tribute to the Greek goddess of the same name, to the Greek founders of the port of Marseilles 2600 years ago, and to the strong leadership of women.
"Embarcatz" with its hummable refrain is perhaps the most memorable track: "Let us add our salt to this great salad bowl of life. Let us set sail.” Not forgetting the socialist roots of the region, “Mon Drapeau Rouge” has its own message of political commitment: “Pass me the red flag, and while you're at it, hand me the black flag as well.” So does “Tentacules,” a simple guitar based folksong, which could be read either as either politically pointed or personally retrospective.
“Occitanie sur mer” is a bluesy number with a memorable refrain -- "welcome home, to Occitania on the sea/ passports and visas have nothing to do with us" -- about a shipbuilding and port town on the Mediterranean, perhaps La Ciotat itself or Marseilles. The message is not one of exclusion but of inclusion.
There are songs of contentment, life by the sea, and other typical scenes of the laid back lifestyle of the Midi. This impressive collection concludes with “Monte vas Cançoneta” –a wish that these songs will flow like a river to the sea and have immortality.
Another take on the Provençal roots of this music is unveiled in Opérette, a musically more modest but nonetheless ambitious project. This is a classic collection of songs brought back to life from the archives of the Marseilles "operettas" of the 1930s.
While the songs conjure the lives lived and the sights and sounds of this period in between the wars, they at first listen lack the bite of some of Moussu T's originals.
Rather than rocking, the multi-talented and always enjoyable Blu can be found here more likely displaying his prowess on the banjo rather than the guitar. In other ways, this work is signature Moussu T. These songs date from the 1932-39 period and if the names René Sarvil, Henri Alibert and Vincent Scotto mean something to you, these are among the composers of the said operettas – comedy revue shows reflective of the rich culture of the area.
Such songs as the catchy “Adieu Venise Provençale” -- with Blu featured on banjo and slide -- and "Dans ma Petite Calanque," were clearly chosen for their ability to evoke both a time past and a place which still exists, the stunning coastline of the calanques, the stunning oceanscapes east of Marseilles.
"Entre Marseilles et Toulon" is a charming song that expresses exactly the southern viewpoint ("It's too cold in the North. Here I'm at home, I'm God, I'm king"). “J'aime la mer comme une Femme” is another in this genre, the singer is in love with the sea. Rather than dated, the songs sound fresh here, with lively percussion, sparkling moments from Blu, and of course, Tatou's evocative growl.
All three discs, different as they are, express a side of the Moussu T personality. On Empêche-nous, rockier, on Artémis more diverse, and Opérette more roots/retro. Each one, in its way, a gem. - David Cox
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