CORSICA, 8 November 2004Corsica and Corsican singing is the story of
the Corsican people and their history, culture and traditions which go back ten
thousand years in time. Filitosa is four thousand years old, while in more
recent times, let's say from around 565 B.C., the fortified walls, bridges and
citadelles bear witness to the passage of the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians,
the Greeks, and the Phocéens who founded Aléria, the ancient
capital of Corsica. Then came the Vandals, the Byzantines and the armies from
Pisa, not forgetting the Genovese who left thirty-two towers scattered
throughout the island as their legacy.
The island itself,
breathtakingly beautiful, is actually a mountain rising from the sea with over
a hundred peaks, frequently snow-covered in winter, rising to above 2000
metres. Waterfalls cascade down past misty hill-top villages, while down below
forests of chestnut trees and sweet-scented larico pines give place to
pastures-land leading to towering cliffs dropping sheer into emerald seas. The
perfumed "maquis", that rugged scrub-style country-side of myrtle, thyme and
arbousier dotted by silvery-green olive trees, highly protected by the National
Trust, is fringed with unspoilt beaches. But most of all, there are the
Corsicans themselves, with their strong identity and their own language, and
their singing, rooted in the wild beauty and tumultuous history of the land.
After an emotionally-charged concert in the Church of Saint Dominique
of Bonifacio on a soft September evening, I spoke to the Corsican poet and
composer, Jean-Paul Poletti, whose work and research has done so much to
preserve and revitalise the island's rich musical heritage.
was celebrating the 29th birthday of tenor Mathieu Begue-Tramoni in the
colourful Hotel de la Poste. "Sacred songs are part of our way of life,"
Poletti told me. "Depriving us from singing would be the equivalent of
preventing us breathing. It's the way we are born and we sing of what we are,
of our joys, sorrows, hopes and dreams", he added. "The only way to get to know
the Corsican people is to listen to us sing. The concert we gave tonight was a
journey through Corsica in polyphony via the ancient songs; they are the best
image we can give."
Jean-Paul Poletti and the Choeur des
Hommes de Sartene
Photo: Patricia Boccadoro
"Polyphony," he explained, "was invented in the
monasteries, and dates back to the 9th century. Before that, singing was
monodic. Polyphony starts when you can hear two voices, although here we
usually sing with three. It tells of our daily life, of the events which happen
to each individual from birth to death, and of the times we spend in the
café or the church. You can feel the island in our music and sense the
Corsican soul because the emotion is paramount."
Jean Paul Poletti
began to sing in church at the age of nine and at ten was composing melodies,
accompanying himself on the guitar. He went to study harmony and choral singing
at the Schola Cantorum of Florence, and on his return in 1974, founded the
Canta U Populu Corsu together with Pedru Guelfucci and Minicale, a great step
forward in reviving interest in local culture. He taught music at the
Collège Saint-Paul d'Ajaccio, and then at the National School of Music
of Bastia, before settling in the beautiful Southern city of Sartene, where he
was appointed the head of what is now the Centre d'Art Polyphonique de la
In 1995 Poletti created a Men's Chorus in Sartene
made up of seven male voices, a classical formation composed of two basses, two
baritones and three tenors. They rehearse when they meet, about once or twice a
week, and now possess a repertoire of both sacred and secular songs, plus
Poletti's own compositions, songs which have something real to say. "Cantu di a
Terra", which they presented in Bonifacio, is now their sixth
"We sing anywhere," Mathieu Begue-Tramoni, who also gives
singing lessons, told me", but only three of us are professional singers. Tenor
Stéphane Paganelli teaches history in high school, while the Tramoni
brothers, extraordinary base-baritones, and, incidentally, distant cousins of
mine, work at the post office. As soon as two or three Corsicans get together
and feel at ease, we sing, and of course, hearing us sing for real is a totally
different experience than listening to a recording."
However, the choir
from Sartene is anything but a casual formation. They are a small group of
individually superb singers, whose interpretation of every song pierces right
through to the heart.
"We have a different cultural code", Poletti
commented. "What we want is to move into the 21st century while guarding our
own identity and culture. We have a past that goes back to prehistoric times, a
language, and a way of being and it's time that we are seen for what we are,
and not for what certain people want us to be. To be Corsican is to have been
the witness of the past, and to share that past with all the people one meets.
It is to deeply respect this land and all who live here. "
"Cantu di a
Terra" Jean-Paul Poletti et le Choeur de Sartene.
The previous evening,
I had heard a concert by Antoine Albertini, Julien Marcellesi, and Don-Mathieu
Santini, a professor in communication at the University of Corsica, Corte. They
were singing at the U Fuconu, a pretty outdoor restaurant in the centre of the
village of Figari. Posters announcing , "Ci sarà da bia a da manghja" (
food and drinks available) decorated the winding climbing road, and small
twinkling lights dangled from the overhanging plane trees as an expectant crowd
sipped glasses of wine from 'Domaine de la Murta'. An old Renault Express
trundled past, belying its name, while the waiters nipped across the street
with loaded trays for those seated on the other side. Getting some 70 or 80
people together in this tiny village, many of them local, at the end of
September for regular concerts is no mean exploit, but as Don-Mathieu, with his
rich, melodious voice began to sing, you understand why.
influence is there with the mandolin, but there is also a strong influence of
Bob Dylan, whom the Corsican singer greatly admires. He likes songs with a
cause, songs with meaning, and consequently works by Poletti come up again and
"Everyone sings here", Don-Mathieu told me "There are many
groups, and each is different. Personally, I need to communicate, but as is the
case with us all, it is the intensity of the emotion which counts."
Patricia Boccadoro writes on the arts in Europe. She has contributed
to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and is a member of the
editorial board of Culturekiosque.com.