Six man vocal and percussion ensemble Lo CÚr de la Plana, hailing from Marseille, featured at this yearís glorious WOMAD. CATHERINE BISLEYís words and images captured their performance.

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THE MOMENT Sarkosyís name passes my lips, Manu Theron and Dennis Sampieri wail and clap their hands around their ears. They fall to the ground and rock. You donít like Sarkosy? ďWe [h]ate Sarkosy.Ē And itís not just Sarko who gets it: ďThe French are shitĒ says Theron with considerable enjoyment. Marseillaise are well know for their rebellious streak.

Lo CÚr de la Plana (which translates as the heart of La Plaine quarter) is a six man vocal and percussion ensemble from Marselha (Marseille). Theron, the artistic director, performs with upper-bodied poise; he gesticulates enthusiastically, drawing the crowd into the often dark and humorous stories their songs tell. Around him, the group sing and clap and stamp, strike tamburello and bendir.

Lo CÚr sing in Occitan, the Romance language found in the area encircled by the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, the Pyrenees, the Alps and the Massif Central. The groupís use of language is politically motivated: in contemporary global culture, with its increasing homogeneity, the number of Occitan speakers is diminishing fast. Their myspace page states that they are devoted to ďthe systematic re-creation of the popular Occitan patrimony.Ē

Occitan didnít fare well under the French Revolutionís ideal of oneness explains singer, stamper and clapper Rodin Kaufmann. The list of setbacks is long. As with many minority tongues, Occitan faced official attempts to snuff it out; unlike Te Reo in Aotearoa, it has never attained official status from the French State. But itís hard to square the thought of a fading language with Lo CÚrís performance. They are vital and vivid, showing that Occitan language and culture is not a relic of the past, and in no way ready for preservation in a museum.

YouTube clips show Lo CÚr performing in pubs, churches, theatres and at music festivals. Its members come from a variety of musical backgrounds; the ensembleís music mixes the sacred and profane. High brow Hungarian composer Bťla Bartůk is listed beside pop culture influences such as fellow Marseillaise, Massilia Sound System. Thereís also the medieval heritage, heard for example, in modal melodies and the use of melismas.

Lo CÚr are also part of a wider Occitan movement; in the music scene thereís female chorus La Mal Coiffťe and electo-experimental folk rock group Familha Artus, or visual artsí Thierry Lagalla and poet Roland Pťcout.

Occitan holds a significant place in poetic history. It was the language of troubadour poets in the mid to late Middle Ages and consequently itís there you first find the idea of amour courtois (courtly love). Dante was indebted to the troubadours, and Ezra Poundís Cantos are anchored by their work. Their influence can also be found in Petrachís sonnets and through into the English love lyric. Lo CÚrís six could be seen as modern day troubadours.

A rapt young woman

ďI like rubbish, thatís my problemĒ says Theron. Dirty is a popular epithet for Marselha. New Plymouth Portís cranes and chimney stack, banged smack in front of that statuesque green beauty Moturoa remind Kaufmann of what theyíd do back home. Founded two and a half thousand years ago, Marselha is Franceís oldest city. Today, it is the second largest after Paris. A hub of Mediterranean trade, it was and continues to be a point where cultures converge. The cityís diverse cultural makeup is reflected in Lo CÚrís sound.

Theron describes how he is influenced by everyday life in Marselha. It could be a ball breaker on the street or the police; their latest album, Tant Deman, has tracks named Rompe Bassas (Ball Breaker) and Condes (The Cops).

In the more traditional vein, Fanfarnetta tells of Francesca, a girl who chooses to hang (as in noose) with her condemned lover rather than fulfil her parentsí wishes and marry a rich aristocrat. It is both a violent and tender song. Polyphonic, it repeats, often pausing on a single harmony; it decrescendos down to a dark and poignant end. Then there is the bawdy and vigorous La Vielha (the old woman), which tells of a young man who marries a rich old woman. She expires during the exertions of the wedding night and the newly rich young man is freed to pursue women his own age. The men use their voices percussively, exploring a thicket of timbres. The music is atmospheric, the emotional tenor of the narrative strongly expressed.

The group give the impression of performing not just for the audience but also each other: gasps and shouts and whoops abound; call and response is a recurring feature, the six voices move between blending and ricocheting off each other. And thereís a distinctive mix of spontaneity and regularity.

Dance is another vital element. Kaufmann describes how traditional dance rhythms are used in Nau Gojatas (Nine Maidens): ďIt starts as a traditional branle which is meant to be danced at a quite slow tempo, then, as the beat goes faster it turns into a farandole, and at the end, itís a pizzica from southern Italy.Ē He describes this approach as one that could irritate those with who take a purist line.

ďWhat I personally regret is that often freedom has been taken away from traditional dancers. They dance like some would play an instrument following a score. But when these dances used to be popular, in a true way, meaning danced by the people of a certain place at a certain moment, there was freedom, brutality and invention, a contest on who could be the most original.Ē

The crowd in New Plymouth picked up on the ensembleís dynamism. By the end of the first of Lo CÚrís three Womad appearances, everyone was on their feet and dancing in a more crowded, less naked, but equally energetic version of Matisseís pagan celebration ďDanceĒ.

Later, at their workshop, I had no choice but to ditch my camera, clasp a strangerís sweaty hand, and cavort around amidst the leafy purlieus of the Dell Stage.

In Lo CÚrís final appearance at WOMAD, Theron used the main stageís duck-filled moat to great polemic effect. Calling it the Mediterranean, he dared the audience to try and cross, dared them to aspire to the benefits of life in France. The group then mimed the welcome the French would give us, should we make land. Swift vigorous kicks. No one ventured across.

Lo CÚr De La Planaís performance left me with a strong sense of the Dionysian; an acknowledgement of the closeness of death which catches you up in a mortal frenzy, a medieval celebration of life. As 20th Century Occitan poet Marcelle Delpastre writes:

Díesser quela chalor. Queu sang. Quela bufada.

To be that heat. That blood. That breathing.

See also:
Ľ WOMAD 2009: In Images
Ľ WOMAD 2008: In Images
Ľ WOMAD 2007: In Images

Ľ Images by Catherine Bisley © 2009