1. Introduction

“Musics are not born traditional”, insists Jean-François Bernardini of the group I Muvrini, “they become traditional, with time” (interview, 1995).  Most of us, I fancy, have a box labelled traditional music into which we are happy to put some sorts of music but not others, and we would probably agree that contemporary or recently evolved styles and genres do not feature nearly so prominently as those of past generations.  We would probably also recognize a certain irony in this, and we might from time to time ask ourselves what, out of the hurly-burly of musical expression characterizing our own day and age, might find itself occupying the ‘traditional’ box two generations hence.  This is a question that has inspired many an impassioned debate in Corsica in recent years, prompted in part by the development of the ‘group’ phenomenon which, with its associated dialectics, is one of the central focuses of the present paper (1).


2. Aspects of ‘group’ activity in Corsica

As in many other parts of the Mediterranean region, traditional music in Corsica was subject to a process of increasing decline during the middle decades of the 20th century. (I use the term ‘traditional’ here to denote the kind of material that would, in the not-so-distant past, have been considered worthy of the attention of an ethnomusicologist or folksong collector largely on account of its rural, pre-modernized and hence supposedly uncontaminated status.) In particular, monodic songs which were associated with specific occasions or rituals and which were often extemporized in response to the circumstances of the moment were heard less and less as many of their erstwhile ‘performers’ embraced a more modern and quasi-urban lifestyle, although polyphonic songs by contrast proved to be more tenacious, both by dint of the greater independence of their original performance contexts and through their subsequent adaptability to new contexts in which they were able to acquire new meanings (see Bithell, forthcoming).

A general process of ‘modernization’ and urbanization such as one might find in many other parts of the world does not, however, account for the particular direction taken by musical developments in Corsica during the past 30 years. One of the most significant phenomena during this period has been the appearance of a remarkable number of formalised groups descended from the seminal group Canta u Populu Corsu which formed on the back of the autonomist movement and played a significant role in the cultural regeneration or riacquistu which it fuelled from the early 1970s (2). Almost thirty years on, there are now two generations of groups dedicated to varying degrees to the promotion of the cultural cause, with new groups constantly appearing on the scene, and over one hundred titles featuring groups who have become established since the 1970s can currently be found in Corsica’s record shops and supermarkets (3). There are those who might, perhaps, be tempted to disregard the activities and output of such groups as merely ‘revivalist’ and, as such, ‘inauthentic’ or at least suspect. What has happened in Corsica, however - and one must remember that this is an island of only 240,000 or so people, with the population of some inland villages dwindling to twenty or less in the winter months - is that many of the sons of the chief village singers heard on field recordings made prior to 1975 - that is, the direct inheritors of quite specific village traditions - now sing in some of the most professional groups. Jean-François and Alain Bernardini of the group I Muvrini, for example, are the sons of Ghjuliu (Jules) Bernardini, one of the core ‘traditional’ singers from the village of Tagliu who features prominently in the field recordings of Quilici, Laade and others made between 1948 and 1973 and who is still very much revered (posthumously) as one of the anchors of the tradition. The group Voce di Corsica includes a number of singers - Petru Guelfucci, Filippu Rocchi, Benedettu Sarocchi - who are members of the main families of singers from the villages of Sermanu and Rusiu which have also taken center stage in field recording collections (4). Indeed, some of these younger singers have themselves featured on field recordings in their teenage years, singing with their fathers and uncles.

This circumstance has two important implications. Firstly, these singers can legitimately claim to have grown up in the bosom of the tradition and to be among its most authentic exponents (even if some of their fellow group members are more recent converts). Secondly, if we were to excommunicate these groups for the purposes of our assessment of the present state of the island’s musical life, we would be hard pressed to find many young singers operating purely in what we might think of as the traditional mould and our conclusion would have to be that the ‘tradition’ is to all intents and purposes dying out with the older generation. It should also be noted that, while for the most professional of these groups concert tours and the preparation of the next CD may well have become a way of life, others manage to operate in the dual worlds of global market and local community in a way that makes it impractical to attempt to dissociate the ‘living’ or grassroots tradition from the activities of the groups.

The group Voce di Corsica rehearsing  for their appearance on a television programme being recorded live in the grounds of the citadel at Corte, home to the Musée de la Corse (June 1995).

Many of the groups include in their repertoire a combination (in varying proportions) of material from the island’s oral tradition and original compositions, and here another blurring of the boundaries occurs. From the perspective of non-Corsican audiences (whether it be of live performances or of CDs), it is often either impractical or irrelevant to discriminate between arrangements of traditional pieces and newly composed pieces, particularly when the latter are in an idiom not far removed from the traditional musical language. In many cases, therefore, the repertoire as a whole is identified as the Corsican ‘sound’ or style (5). I have elaborated elsewhere (Bithell, 1996) on the way in which traditional material has evolved in the hands of the groups.In the present paper my intention is to examine the way in which representatives of some of the most prominent groups formulate and articulate their sense of continuity with ‘the tradition’ with respect to their own compositions.
Paghjella singing on the Feast of the Assumption outside the village bar at Rusiu, including members of the group Voce di Corsica (August 1994)

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