French ensemble makes old new again

Boston Globe, October 3, 2008

The notion of reviving an obscure linguistic tradition by means of six-part vocal polyphony might sound like an austere and dreary exercise. But one glance at the cover art of “Tant Deman,” the recent album by the Marseille-based vocal group Lo Cor de la Plana, should be enough to dissipate that impression.

It shows a red chair that looks comfortable enough until you realize that it has only two legs. Like a painting by Magritte or Dali, it contains an optical illusion and a playful acknowledgment of absurdity.

This is fitting because even though Lo Cor de la Plana, which appears tonight at the Somerville Theatre, has made it its mission to present both traditional chants and new compositions in Occitan – the medieval language of the southern half of France, relegated under the modern republic to rural isolation – the group does so in a way that is just as likely to alienate the purists of cultural survival as it is to satisfy them.

To the legacy of abbots and troubadours the group has added, among others, laconic spoken statements with a strong hip-hop intonation; rhythms that can come directly from reggae; ecstatic passages that draw on Arabic music. There’s tape of “found sound” from street recordings, and even Bartok is cited as an influence.

All this in a joyous fusion that – in another repudiation of neo-medieval purism – eschews melodic instruments like harps and violins in favor of claps, stomps, and hand-held percussions, with particularly abundant use of an Algerian frame drum called bendir.

The effect is unexpected and compelling. Listen to “Tant Deman” (which means “Maybe Tomorrow” in Occitan) and you feel a provocative juxtaposition of ancient sounds that seem related, in structure and delicateness, to Gregorian chant, with the bursting energy of a modern-day jam session, likely fueled by large volumes of pastis. Dancing, which the band highly encourages, at a certain point feels necessary.

The combination – which has earned Lo Cor an enthusiastic following on the European traditional-music scene – certainly didn’t come about by chance, as the group’s founder, Manu Theron, explains. For one thing, none of the six members grew up speaking the language in which they now sing.

“A few of us heard it around us, but none of us spoke it,” he says from Montreal during a tour stop. “It was out of the question to learn it at school. We all had to wait until we were 18 and out of school to finally learn to speak it.”

This is because the French educational system has long ignored regional tongues (other examples are Breton and Corsican) in favor of a homogenous national identity. Although as many as 2 million people may still speak forms of Occitan, the language survived in the shadows. In recent years, though, Theron says, it’s experienced a renewal, with nonprofits and schools sprouting up.

But Lo Cor’s agenda is not linguistic preservation, Theron says. “This isn’t about survival; this isn’t mouth-to-mouth resuscitation of a language. We just want people to realize that in this language are solutions to lots of things that we don’t understand anymore.”

By this he says he means the “cosmogony and mythology systems” of Occitan: In other words, the way the language creates its own system of meaning. As an example, he says, the sense of humor is different between French and Occitan. “French humor is more sideways and ironic; Occitan humor comes from the violence of contrasts.”

All this might be lost on the listener who speaks no French – let alone Occitan – but that’s where Lo Cor’s other, and probably larger, agenda comes in. What the group is most intently conveying is not an ancient, fading culture, but the dynamic multicultural life of its hometown, Marseille, today.

The band’s name means “choir of La Plaine,” the bohemian area where Theron lives and where much of this gritty port city’s cultural renewal has taken place. This was where the group members used to run into one another while playing reggae, rock, or folk music on the Marseille music scene, before deciding to form Lo Cor in 2001.

And by embracing influences from across the Mediterranean basin – from Spain and Italy to Algeria and the Balkans – the group expresses Marseille’s authenticity today as a working-class port city built by centuries of immigration. So doing, it rebels against any forced loyalty to the capital.

“We’re affirming our cultural belonging,” Theron says. “We’re not in a jealous, frustrated dialogue with Paris, but an open one, full of wonder, with the rest of the Mediterranean.”

By doing this in Occitan, Lo Cor is expressing the new Marseille in the city’s onetime lingua franca. Implicit is a very modern claim about the relevance of tradition. The paradox is that they’ve had to reject more conservative ideas of tradition in order to better embrace it.

And that’s a healthy thing, says Theron, who says he feels more affinity with the organic expression of punk rock than he does with “traditional music” as a canon or curated entity.

“We don’t know what tradition is, and we couldn’t care less about it,” he says. “And I think that every traditional musician should think that way.”