I get too excited about world music. When something is brought to my attention that I’ve never heard before, I slap my hands to my head and squeal with glee. My new discovery? Corsican folk music.
The Island of Corsica: a territory of France since 1768 (even though it’s closer to Italy), and the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte. And according to the Google image search, it’s always sunny there.
Sweet, sweet tourism.
Briefly how I found it: I have been playing saxophone pieces by French composer Henri Tomasi, and one of these pieces (“Ballade”) uses distinct Gaelic melodies that could have originated farther south, like France. When Wikipedia told me Tomasi had learned traditional Corsican folk songs from his grandmother, I wondered if this was the source. Turns it, it wasn’t. But what I found is spectacular.
No one really knows how this music came to be, since it was not documented. Records of singing groups date back to the 12th and 13th centuries, though it all but vanished since then. A wave of Corsican nationalism in the 1970s revived it, and YouTube has brought it to us. Hooray.
Moving along. What you’re hearing is polyphony; “poly” meaning “many,” which you probably know. It means that several melodies are being sung simultaneously. The opposite is monophony, with a single melody. The middle voice is the lead voice, while the upper provides ornamentation and the lower provides the bass, usually as a drone. There is also a fourth voice, which is considered the voice of the angels—when the three singers are consonant and harmonics resonate as a result, magically appearing. (In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful part of music.)
There are many types of polyphony from this region. What you heard is the oldest, called paghjella. It varies across the island, but typically accompanies work or family and town gatherings. Some think this polyphony was heavily influenced by Gregorian chant that may have crossed the region in the Middle Ages. Sure, maybe. I also hear a strong Middle Eastern influence. Whatever the source, it’s beautiful stuff.
So next time we hang out, let’s cup our hands to our ears, lean our heads in close, and sing away.