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Jean-Paul Poletti:

Jean-Paul Poletti And The Men's Chorus Of Sartene:
Corsican Songs With A Cause

By Patricia Boccadoro


BONIFACIO, CORSICA, 8 November 2004—Corsica 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.

The choir 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
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 région Corse.

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 recording.

"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.

The Italian 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 again.

"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.

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