Long before there were multicultural, multilingual suburbs of Paris, bringing with them both a multiplicity of cultural experience and multiple difficult issues for French society to address, French folk music was primrily provincial. Each French province had its own character, in some cases its own distinct culture, and developed music in its own dialects in its own way. There are 22 French administrative regions located in mainland France (there are five more overseas) and we won’t visit them all, but let’s strap on our helmet-beret, hop on our moped (or some other stereotypically French means of transportation) and let’s take a quick jaunt around France. Look at this map of France’s provinces to get a sense of where we’re going.
Brittany is the Westernmost point of France, closest to the islands of the United Kingdom, and its traditional music shows it. Many old songs from Brittany are about ships and seafaring and feature Celtic melodies and even the Celtic language. Watch an awesome performance of Breton folk/rock by the apparently beloved band Tri Yann.
The folk music of Western France (the Pays de Nantes, the provinces of Vendée, Anjou and Maine, and the Poitou-Charentes region primarily consists of ballad-singing and fiddle-playing, often accompanying a baroque dance known as the maraichaine. Watch a maraichaine in action in Garnache.
In the 19th century, Paris-based musicians from the province of AUVERGNE (in southern central France), pining away for their home, held dances where they shared their provincial music. The instrument of choice in Auvergne is the bagpipes (musettes). Italian immigrants enjoyed the music, but didn’t know how to play bagpipes, so they learned music from Auvergne on their own local instrument of choice–the accordion. This mix of Auvergnat music with Italian instrumental flair resulted in the formation of a joint genre called “bal-musette.” Italians continued to develop the form, adding rhythms like the waltz and the polka. Auvergnat musicians maintained their local traditions, and soon there were three types of establishments where Parisians could hear bal-musette: bal des familles, where one could hear Auvergnat bal-musette, bal musette populaire, where one would go to enjoy Italian bal-musette, and guinche, or bal de barri (e accent) re, which were disreputable establishments that neither group would claim. Members of the French upper-class often found themselves visiting establishments where bal-musette was the music of choice, finding excitement in fraternizing with the rif-raff. [Enjoy some bouncy bal-musette accordion. Enjoy accordionist Gus Viseur performing bal-musette in his style, “swing musette.”]
Whether in reputable clubs or not, Parisians loved to dance to bal-musette. Internationally inspired bal-musette dances like the tango-musette, pasodoble-musette (referencing the dance of the Spanish matadors) and waltz-musette all became popular, as did a completely original musette dance called the java (and this couple does it well, or at least looks great while trying).
In Central France, folk music most often featured bagpipes, the hurdy gurdy and the bourrée, a dance that differed significantly in character and even time signature depending on where in the region it originated. In the ’70s the band Malicorne celebrated and reinterpreted Central French folk music, much as English bands Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span (which we met in our exploration of British music) re-energized British folk. Watch Malicorne perform in 1976 (the music begins at about 1:30) and in 1978. Want to see Malicorne’s Marie Yacoub play hurdy gurdy? Look here. Watch a revived and electrified Malicorne perform in 2010
In Rousillon (French Catalonia), in southern-central France along the Mediterranean, the sardana is the folk dance of choice. Folk music most often features oboe-like woodwinds like three varieties of Catalan shawm: the tible, the tenora (it starts at about 0:55) and the tarota. Watch a community-wide sardana dance in 2009–keep those arms up!
Provence is located in far southeastern France near Italy on the Mediterranean Sea. Long ago troubadours from Provence sang in Occitan, a language not so dissimilar from Catalan. Today the Provençal dialect of Occitan is nearly extinct as a spoken language, but still appears in traditional song.
Musically, the French-Mediterranean island of Corsica is best-known for its complicated form of polyphonic singing. Small group of men sing the songs together, breaking into dissonant parts that clash and then resolve triumphantly when the come back together. These guys will show you how it’s done.
If you want to learn about the music of provincial France beyond our very slight and superficial tour, you may actually want to start with the 1976 Smithsonian Folkways release, “Voix du Sol Français, Vol. 1: France: Songs of the Provinces” performed by Emilie George. George’s liner notes will take you province to province, introducing you to the musical traditions of each with much more depth than we’ll be able to do here–though with fewer links to YouTube videos.