Moussu T e lei Jovents - Mademoiselle Marseille
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Moussu T e lei Jovents
Mademoiselle Marseille
Manivette Records/Le Chant du Monde

cd cover You probably wouldn't recognize Occitan if you heard it sung, although you might place the music "somewhere in France." Provence, the Mediterranean south to be precise, is where colonial expats from French North and West Africa and the Caribbean long have entered France as low-wage immigrant laborers. The French government does not recognize the language, but cultural politics being what they are, Massilia Sound System (Massilia is an older name for Marseille) was one of the first Provencal artists to sing and rap in Occitan. The group's founder, Tatou, a composer, singer and percussionist, has a new project, Moussu T e lei Jovents, a trio rounded out by fellow Massilia conspirator Blu (banjo, guitars, cavaquinho, viola, vocals) and Brazilian percussionist and singer Jamilson. They dedicate their debut "to Claude McKay and the heroes of his novel Banjo," plain indication of the cultural and political inspiration behind this charming, idiosyncratic music.

Jamaican novelist and poet Claude McKay described the immigrant milieu of Marseille in Banjo (1929). McKay, who also lived in Morocco for some time, knew Marseille well. A prominent Harlem Renaissance figure, his work influenced Aime Cesaire, Leopold Sedar Senghor and the Negritude movement that emerged in the French colonies after World War One. Interested in Marxist aesthetics and anti-modern in political perspective, McKay criticized the European colonial adventure (he left Jamaica in 1912, never to return), and as a committed internationalist (his work also won fans in the Soviet Union) he was an early opponent of the global economy's assault on local cultures.

Thus inspired, Moussu T and company carve out a space somewhere between nonsense and noir - Manu Chao, Tom Waits and Richard Crumb come to mind - mischievous caf´┐Ż music for rootless cosmopolitans. The album opens with a kind of sea shanty, sliding quickly into the title track, whose heavy metal intro sets up a loping guitar figure, with a whining bottleneck, jaw's harp and scratchy sandpaper sound straight out of the twenty-first century global Delta. Other tunes in this vein include "Pour de bon ils nous le font," which might pass for an Alan Lomax prison recording, and "Si j'allais en prison," quite possibly a transnational John Lee Hooker boogie.

"Maluros qu'a un trabalh" is a slippery blend of hand percussion, banjo, berimbau, guimbri and juke-joint exhalations. In "Lo gabian," true to McKay's critical spirit, the singer seems determined "to defecate on the heads of the merchants and the devil," while "Le cul sur le perron" is the first of some decidedly medieval tunes, with a darkly menacing modal layering of sounds. "Pour de bon" sets up a driving vocal call-and-response, a barbed critique of "the economic law" that consigns people to factories "in the land of tyranny" and treats them like "beggars," all "for the good." Contemplating the lives of "three ordinary men" who may well have passed through Marseille on the way to Apocalypse, the song named for them observes, "No, death is never beautiful, ah, Paul, Emile and Henri, Verdun, La Somme or Gallipoli."

Heading down to the docks, "Au boui-boui" marvels at the treasures unloaded in this "port of the world" from the other side of the sea, while sailors, exiles and the city's concentration of humanity all fend for themselves, abandoned by the devil himself. By way of compensation, perhaps, "Bolega banjo" is a snappy mento tribute to the port city, while "A La Ciotat" (another port near Marseille) affectionately observes, "If I had to live in the North Pole, Aix or Auvignon, in the South Pole, Bandol or Toulon, in Alaska, Katmandu or Borneo, OK, but I'd rather live in La Ciotat, my feet in the water, by the boats and the sea." Among the most compelling outings of 2005, with a nod to McKay, Moussu T's low-key musical misadventures, infectious insouciance and easy lyricism are welcome antidote to the bad taste, predatory grasp and widening desolation of contemporary global capitalism, RIP. - Michael Stone

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