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By Patricia Boccadoro

BONIFACIO, CORSICA, 5 JANUARY 2010 — Corsica is renowned for its breath-taking white sand beaches and crystalline water, its exuberant forests and magnificent mountain ranges, with peaks rising to over 2,700 meters, but they are wonders which do exist in other, privileged corners of the world. What makes this extraordinary Mediterranean island unique are the people and their history which  goes back some 9,000 years to the Dame of Bonifacio, the skeleton found in the grotto of Araguina-Sennola near the Southern town of Bonifacio. Guide books even suggest that man arrived there as long ago as 60,000 B.C..

The island has been invaded over time by the Vandals and the Goths, the Romans, the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians and the Greeks as well as by the Byzantines, the Genoese, the armies of the Pope as well as by those of Napoleon Bonaparte. Even the British have had a go. And yet, nature and the Corsican soul have remained untouched. It is what can be found and felt in Corsican song, in music which goes back to the beginning of time and reaches out to grasp the listener by the heart.

The church of Saint Dominique in Bonifacio is one of the rare examples of Gothic style in Corsica. Built in 1270, it possesses several superb wooden sculptures, many 18th century Italian paintings, and a splendid altar in white marble. With its exceptional acoustics, it proved a worthy setting for a concert of popular, polyphonic and traditional Corsican songs given by Don Mathieu Santini, Jacques Culioli and Jean-Charles Papi.

Don Mathieu Santini, Jacques Culioli and Jean-Charles Papi
Photo: Yves Boccadoro

I spoke to Santini, whom I had last heard singing in a restaurant several years ago amidst the barking of dogs, the clatter of plates, and the loud voices of people arguing over their stuffatu of veal.

"Yes, of course it is a privilege to sing in this church", Don Mathieu Santini told me, "but I love singing wherever it may be. I enjoy singing with Jacques and Jean-Charles whom I’ve known for many years, and we formed our "choir", Arapa", 6 years ago, after a hill situated between Bonifacio and Porto-Vecchio. We get together from time to time and also sing in solo, in twos, or in larger groups and not always in traditional capella. We naturally sing in Corsican, our aim being to represent our homeland in all its aspects. "

It was Jean-Paul Poletti, Guelfucci and his son, Petru, who at the beginning of the 1970’s, parallel to the nationalist movement, created the Canta u Populu corsu, a polyphonic group of people from different social origins. Their express intention was to rediscover Corsican history and culture which was in danger of being lost, and their influence on young singers and on education was enormous. Now, at the University of Corte, where Don Mathieu Santini is Vice-President, the Corsican language, the base of which is Latin, has been taught since 1974, and only last week a school Festival of Theatre given in the Corsican language  was held for the second time at the Palais des Congrès in Ajaccio.

Dui arburi nati qui
Dui arburi nati si
Da la so tarra liati
A la radica da fa

are the words of the beautiful song, "L’arburi Frateddi" included in the concert by Arapa, which tells the story of two trees growing side by side. The Corsican people are proud of their heritage and their songs often reflect the magnificence and mystery of the nature around them. They are a journey into the past. At other times, they are simply a slice of life, maybe just a grandmother talking to her grandson.

The concert, a mix of images, sounds and emotions, also included compositions that the three men had written themselves, a creation by Poletti, and a song inspired by Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s last work, Citadelle, which is a dissertation on power, freeing the people, and creating civilizations by the promotion of the arts.

One of the most powerful songs was "Hosanna in Excelsis", sung by Jacques Culioli, which won the joint prize of both the jury and the public at the Eurovision competition for "minority" languages in Sweden last year, in which eighty regions of Europe took part.*

Culioli, whose grandfather was the Corsican poet, Ghjuvau Audria Culioli, was born in Chera, a small village outside Bonifacio founded by his family in 1763. Now 45, he began singing at the age of 12, in solo and with groups, but unlike Santini, sings mainly in churches.

"I don’t really think that Corsican music should be heard in restaurants where people are busily supping their soup. Our music has to be listened to; we have something to say, and I find it very difficult to be simply background noise. People come to listen to us in churches."

Singing to Culioli is a way of life, and he possesses a varied repertory, singing at burials and memorial services, weddings and other festive occasions.

If, when not singing, Jacques Culioli supplements his income by driving a taxi in Figari, Jean Charles Papi, who has founded another group called, "Novi",** teaches French at a school in Porto-Vecchio. He was at school himself with Santini, and the two men often sing together…..in restaurants.

"It teaches you humility," Don Mathieu told me. "And, well, there are no concert halls here where we can sing. In restaurants, we can reach out to people who otherwise might not come to see us in a church, tourists, for example. It’s not so much the words that count, but the sound, particularly when there are three voices. We share something. We need to dream for a different present. But then, I just enjoy singing. All Corsicans do."

"Music can light up the star within your heart," added Jean-Charles Papi..


Artist website and available recordings on CD: www.culioli.net
Headline photo above: Jacques Culioli from his CD entitled "Eternisula". 


Patricia Boccadoro is a culture critic and senior editor at Culturekiosque.com.  She last wrote on the Paris debut of Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel.

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