Southeastern France or Provence is a former Roman province, located on the Mediterranean Sea and adjacent to the Italian border. Provence is bordered by the Alps and Italy to the east, the Rhone River to the west and the Mediterranean Sea provides the southern border. The principality of Monaco, Nice, Marseilles, Aix-en-Provence, Avignon, Arles are all important Provençal cities. Occitan is the language historically spoken in Provence and the Occitan regions of France, although the language has been losing its prominence. The language is also spoken in parts of Spain, Italy (Piedmont), Germany and even the U.S (Idaho and Oregon). The famed medieval troubadours penned their poetry and sung their verses in Occitan, which is a Latin Romance language.
The troubadours draw comparisons to the West African griot or the Irish bards. They not only sung love songs, they also traveled on trade routes bringing news to the various villages along the way. They might have honored a specific court or showed loyalty to a specific aristocratic family. Many of the so-called love songs possessed hidden messages and symbolism, definitely double meanings. After the Catholic church nearly wiped out the troubadours in southern France, the troubadours stopped singing about secular love or romance and started singing about their new obtainable woman, the Virgin Mary. But if you read between the lines, you will still find secular romance transported into this transformed poetry. I have even read that love songs to Mary Magdalene had been composed, although I have not found any of those songs in my search.
Provençal or Occitan music of France and Piedmont, Italy features hurdy-gurdy and bagpipes along with tambourines, other percussion, lutes and recorders. The more contemporary traditions also include guitar, accordion, bass and other instruments. The vocals come from the gut and are almost shouted and possess a lilting quality that bounces off of the tongue. I find the vocals to possess a rural folk sound. I call it gutsy, raw and lively. I find Provençal music to be immensely uplifting and spirited which is why I am taking the time to write this article.
This music comes from the Mediterranean with its citrus and olive trees, earth built houses, wineries, warm sun and small postcard villages. I have not visited Provence yet myself, but I have read countless books about both the history and culture of this region. Perhaps because I have not visited Provence, I am left with an idealized version of paradise with folks with old fashion values and preserving traditions I care about. I know that the cities in this region have their share of problems, crime in Marseilles for instance, that the region is incredibly expensive to visit, much less live and that many of the cities have become havens for millionaires and their yachts. Yet, the secular and sacred music from Provence, which includes gypsy flamenco of Marseilles, folk songs from the Alps or old lullabies that have been passed down orally for centuries, feed the soul.
The first recording I want to mention hails from Ashland, Oregon by the Early Music ensemble, The Terra Nova Consort. Renaissance en Provence (Dorian) features Provençal Christmas carols from the 17th century. Raw, powerful vocals sung from the gut join up with krummhorns, recorders, baroque guitars, lutes and hurdy-gurdy while power beats resonate from tambourines, wood blocks, castanets, shakers and other percussion. It's no wonder TNC has been cites as, "one of the world's great rock' n' roll renaissance bands," by NPR Host, Bill McLaughlin.
And similar to socially-aware rock musicians, the period musicians led by artistic directors, Pat O'Scannell and Sue Carney seem perfectly aware of Provençal history, even citing the Albigensian Crusade spearheaded by Catholic church authorities, cited by some historians as the first large massacre of its kind with hundreds of thousands of Occitan or Provençal citizens being whole sale slaughtered or burnt on stakes en mass. Pat describes the effects of the Catholic church's overall plan of domination on these 17th century Provençal carols.
"I think that these carols prove that the Crusade's goal to establish theological orthodoxy was less successful. These carols seem quite secular in tone--they're not at all 'churchy,' but instead present the very down-to-earth view of the common people. Listening to one of these carols is more like hearing a great story-teller than like hearing a liturgical reading, and the focus in always personal, on individuals and their feelings, rather than institutional." (liner notes)
The carols are gutsy, folksy and you cannot help but visualize people dancing to the more livelier songs. And if you enjoy this recording, you might also want to take a listen to Corou De Berra's collection of Christmas carols from southern France and sung in the Nicoise dialect on their recording, Noel Provencaux Et Nicois (Buda Records, France). These carols hail from the 18th and 19th centuries and feature polyphony of mixed voices (men and women). "Recorded for the first time, this forgotten music lives again thanks to the work of Michel Bianco and his friends. It forms the counterpoint on which poetic Christmas carols bloom. These melodies in their vernacular language were created, adopted or transformed in the Nice County, from wandering sources in Piedmont, Liguria or Provence-itself sensitive to French influences." (liner notes)
I am drawn to the Provençal and Occitan region for several reasons, but one of them revolves around the mysteries of Mary Magdalene and her connection to southern France. Try as I might, I have not found many recordings honoring Magdalene. But I have read numerous books on the topic, Margaret Starbird's The Women with the Alabaster Jar, the best among many. And ever since I read Starbird's book which not only chronicled the arrival of the three Marys upon the shores of what we now know as France, but also mysteries surrounding the troubadours, the Knights of Templar and the Cathars, a gnostic sect of Christians, so controversial that the Catholic authorities launched crusades and inquisitions against the sect, its leaders and royal supporters.
I did unearth one song, Sara Kali off of Barrio Chino's Mediterra Chino (Tinder Records) which reflects on Sara, an Ethiopian servant that traveled with the three Marys to southern France. She has also been connected with Durga/Kali from India and is the Black Madonna that is marched through the streets of Marseilles every May. Another song, Magdalena off of Lo'Jo's Mojo Radio (World Village) also caught my attention. Sung in Spanish, with the ear-catching phrase, "Magdalene of a liberated nation," I cannot help but wonder if this song reflects on the mysteries of Mary Magdalene. Certainly I hear the song with that in mind.
Another draw of Provençal or music of Occitan revolves around the troubadours, wandering minstrels that bent the ears of unobtainable queens with their sensual verse. There are plenty of web sites featuring troubadour history and poetry so I won't go into it here even if I am fascinated with the tradition. However, you will find this tradition appearing on numerous recordings hailing from Italy and France. And you can find this tradition on Orlando Consort's The Rose, the Lily & the Whortleberry (Harmonia Mundi). That particular recording features an all-male a cappella choir singing both monody (plainsong chants and troubadour songs) and renaissance polyphony. The sensual text might prick your ears and stir heart embers.
On the other extreme, Gai Saber out of Piedmont, Italy marries the old troubadour tradition to modern beats and electronics on their recordings. La fabrica occitana, (Felmay), featuring lush vocals sung in the Occitan dialect set amongst traditional instruments of that region including, harp, melodeon, hurdy-gurdy, records, bagpipes, various percussion. Unfortunately, and I am a lone voice of dissent, feel that the electronica element detracts from the lush vocals and musical texture of the traditional instruments. However, I enjoyed listening to the first three tracks. Although I am not a fan of electronica, (I cringe when I hear it), the good news is that the Occitan language and culture of this Italian region does reach a wider audience. And possibly some folks hearing the music will seek out some of the elders still speaking this language and performing traditional folk music.
Moving on to the final recording I would like to mention, the French-Italian trio, Paroplapi's La Finestra Dell'Ultimo Piano (RadiciMusic Records--Italy). Now I know little about Paroplapi except that the group formed during this century and features some Provençal songs on their recording. If it Sings, Monday Smoke, Le Paillon Chante and the final track, Dante e Arnaut are all Provençal or Occitan. The final track reflects on troubadours, Arnaut Daniel (1150-1250) and Dante (1265-1321) as well as the connection between France and Italy.
Again we hear gutsy raw vocals belting out lively melodies, including love songs and lullabies, as well as, the children's song that opens the CD, sung by the musicians' (Samuela Gallinari, Gael Princivalle, Giorgio Albiani) children. Chitarra, percussion, bagpipes, diatonic accordion, guitars, spoons, barrel organ, hurdy-gurdy are some of the instruments heard on this recording. Electronics are also credited, but the effect is subtle if even detectable. This enjoyable recording brings to life many sung-stories and also provides listeners with plenty of Mediterranean folkloric songs.
This archival article originally appeared on Cranky Crow Whole Music. Graphics from Wikipedia