Review: Transported by Song: Corsican Voices from Oral Tradition to World Stage

This review originally appeared in Popular Music 27:3 (2008): 492-94.

Transported by Song: Corsican Voices from Oral Tradition to World Stage. By Caroline Bithell. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2007. 344 pp. ISBN 0-8108-5439-2

Caroline Bithell’s monograph on the development of Corsican polyphonic singing is billed as ‘the first English-language treatise on Corsican music’, thus bringing the island’s fascinating traditions to a new audience. At the same time, Bithell applies the sensitivity and theoretical awareness of contemporary European ethnomusicology. The result is a rich account of music-making in Corsica which conveys the complexity of Corsican identities and the tensions involved in negotiating the overlapping contexts to which Corsican music belongs, but still evokes the ‘transcendental experiences’ of performing and listening to polyphonic song. Detailed descriptions of the evolution of musical practice are constantly related to political, social and technological change. More than a decade’s worth of observation of Corsican music, and interviews with many of the leading figures in the polyphonic singing movement, make for a convincing methodology fleshed out with insightful analysis of the meanings of tradition in today’s Europe.

Transported by Song builds on the promise of Bithell’s several recent articles on Corsican polyphony, including two contributions to earlier Scarecrow publications in the same Europea: Ethnomusicologies and Modernities series. Its broadly chronological structure begins with an introduction to Corsica’s multi-stranded history before presenting the oral tradition of polyphonic singing in an ethnographic present. The rest of the book historicises Corsican song by relating the decline of traditional practices and the rise of French-language chansonnette between the 1920s and 1950s, the politically engaged riacquistu of the 1960s and 1970s (epitomised by the music of Cantu u Populu Corsu, the leading revivalist group), the ‘polyphonic renaissance’ of the 1980s and the confluence of Corsican singing with the ‘world music’ scene – the movement ‘from oral tradition to world stage’.

Gender remains an important theme throughout Bithell’s account. The polyphonic singing of the 1970s derived from a masculine-gendered oral tradition (whereas female polyphonic singing had been associated with particular ritual contexts, largely superseded by urbanisation and its resultant changes in the village way of life) is a male domain; however, the prospects for female singers increased in the late 1980s to the extent that – perhaps ironically? – one of the most successful Corsican groups on a wider market (Les Nouvelles Polyphonies Corses) depended on mixed male and female vocals. The impetus was apparently provided by ‘the example of the Bulgarian voices’ (p. 174) – that is, of Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares, which had proven the marketing potential of polyphonic song (one of several points of convergence between this book and the musicology of south-east Europe). On the one hand, an opportunity for women to take a greater part in the exhilarating experience of polyphonic singing is to be celebrated – even if the power of the market to transform tradition might seem troubling in another context.

The potential ‘others’ in discourses of Corsican identity are (perhaps inevitably) not treated with quite as much depth as Corsican music itself – with the exception of the French state, where Bithell clearly shows the effect of politician Jack Lang’s cultural policy on the Corsicans’ ability to gain French and international attention for their music. Corsica’s immigrant population, we are told in a footnote (p. 14) is for France a high 10 per cent, ‘with half of these coming from the Maghreb’. The Maghreb has sometimes been introduced as an ascribed origin for the not-quite-Western features of Corsican singing, such as ‘the level of timbre and voice production’ (p. 61). The question is: do the island’s real Maghrebis play any part in singing activities? And if not, what characterises their own musical life? In addition, how have Corsican musicians responded (if at all) to the presence of a local Maghrebis? Answers to these questions would introduce yet another set of interactions into an already complicated picture, but would deepen our understanding of the cultural contacts which underlie Corsican music-making today.

Another set of unanswered questions arises from a reference to French Eurovision Song Contest entries in the early 1990s which reflected the Langian emphasis on cultural diversity. Thus we are told about singers from the Antilles and Tunisia in 1990 and 1991 – although not about the French representative in 1993, Patrick Fiori, who performed a song called ‘Mama Corsica’ (largely in French, with Corsican lyrics in the chorus). How did Corsican musicians and journalists receive Fiori’s participation: was his authority to represent Corsican culture contested? Were any parallels drawn between Fiori and Tino Rossi, the symbol of chansonnette? We do not know, but the answers would surely be illuminating, and would justify a brief excursion from the central topic of polyphonic song. The ‘other’ of French-language popular music recurs in the talent show phenomenon – which, Bithell argues, tends to attract girls (not least after a woman of Corsican origin won the first Star Academy in 2001), while boys have ‘a plentiful supply of other young males with whom they can form a group’ and pursue polyphony (p. 257). Although almost an aside in the text, the talent-show observation reveals the continued and changing impact of the France/Corsica dynamic.

A review of this length cannot do justice to the full nuances of Bithell’s arguments, which draw on her extensive knowledge and fieldwork in Corsica. Her detailed discussions of the developments in musical practice show how musicians have acted as ‘agents of their own transformation’ (p. 261), and how they have negotiated the opportunities of state and European cultural policy in making an international product out of music which continues to make local sense. The book’s concluding three vignettes, from a fair, a feast-day mass and a small singing festival, anchor the narrative in direct experience and point to the continued relevance of polyphonic singing in Corsican life. Even a brief excursion into this book will indicate that the notion of ‘authenticity’ is necessarily problematic, of course; but Bithell is extremely well placed to explore it.

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