3. The groups and their perceived relationship to ‘the tradition’

It was perhaps inevitable that, as groups like Canta refined their musical skills, there was a shift away from a concern for conservation and propagation of the musical heritage towards an interest in generating new materials with stress placed both on contemporary contexts and socio-political concerns and on the creative development of the individual artist.  Canta had begun by seeing itself as ‘the apostle of a pure tradition’ (Turchini, 1993:204), but as the group matured a polarization became evident between the self-confessed ‘traditionalists’ and the ‘evolutionists’, the latter represented, for example, by Christophe Mac Daniel who felt that “the style was confined, cramped.  It was necessary to break out of it” (quoted in Turchini :1993:208).  The success that some groups were later to find in the international world music market led to further professionalization and subsequent distancing from insular structures, both aesthetic and operational.

This does not, however, mean that the evolutionist camp has simply abandoned any connection with, or concern for, traditional styles.  On the contrary, for many it remains a priority that they should both justify and safeguard their position as worthy heirs to the ancestral heritage and as overseas ambassadors for Corsican culture.  In the words of Benedettu Sarocchi of Voce di Corsica, the challenge is “to produce something original, while at the same time remaining within the tradition” (interview, 1995).

The central concern with retaining a ‘traditional’ or at least specifically Corsican identity is witnessed by the regularity with which groups define themselves in their disc notes and public statements as being rooted in the tradition.  The way in which this relationship operates in practical terms, however, can occur at many different points along a continuum and in some cases the assertion appears to function largely as a statement of a philosophical, moral or political stance with respect to the debate focusing on what Salini (1996:197) characterizes as “the ambiguity of the relationship (between) tradition and creation”.  Central to this debate are such questions as: what is the tradition? how is it best served?  what expression of the tradition is appropriate to the present age?  what is the role of the contemporary artist? 

The different positions adopted by the various protagonists in the ‘tradition-creation’ debate are intimately related to their understanding or rationalization of the concept of tradition itself.  The main positions adopted can be summarized by the following characterizations (with the understanding that there is inevitably a certain overlap from one position to another and that no one artist can necessarily be expected to fit exactly into any one category): 

  1. At the most conservative end of the scale, ‘tradition’ is viewed as something that remains relatively constant and is endowed with a timeless and superior authority: as such, it occupies a sacrosanct position shared also by the ancestors or ‘ancients’.  Both the origins of the repertoire and the secrets of vocal technique belong to ‘la nuit des temps’ or the proverbial mists of time: they are sited in the impersonal and inscrutable realm of cosmology.  This perception might be developed into the notion that the tradition must remain unchanged if its integrity is to be preserved and that any departure from the tradition is either inauthentic or a ‘betrayal’  -  a stance that is most likely to be adopted by those who are not themselves active at group level and who criticize the groups for having ‘changed the tradition’.  Many group members would nevertheless subscribe to the general sentiment, whilst simultaneously pursuing a more liberal path as far as their own practice is concerned. 
  2. Among those adopting a more progressive approach, the tradition is portrayed as something which should relate to the present rather than the past, an organic process with change or evolution as an integral part of its nature as opposed to a fixed entity which, from their perspective, cannot avoid eventual ossification.  This standpoint allows for the notion of tradition as something that is generated by individuals and their responses to a changing socio-cultural climate, rather than something which pre-exists as a product of some mythical collective ‘folk’.  The concept of authenticity here embraces the notion of being faithful to one’s own time and experience.
  3. A compromise between these two positions suggests that the traditions handed down by the elders should be valued and the integrity of the cultural heritage respected, but that at the same time the tradition needs to find ways of moving forward and developing contemporary forms of expression if it is to remain a living thing.   This is the viewpoint most commonly subscribed to by today’s groups and repeated, in various guises, in media accounts of the groups’ activities.  (A newspaper report of a concert given by the group I Chjami Aghjalesi in 1995, for example, stated: ‘The vocal group Chjami Aghjalesi ... represents both a solid anchorage in the ancestral tradition and an indispensable evolution, because movement is life and art should not be frozen.’  Corse Matin, 27.6.95) 
  4. A position slightly apart is occupied by those who are clear that they are simply ‘doing what they want to do’, rejecting any idea that they might be under a moral obligation to serve the ‘traditional’ cause.  Others have come to accept that there is a place for new work which springs from an individual’s artistic inspiration alongside more consciously traditionalist endeavours.  Jean-Claude Acquaviva of the group A Filetta, for example, was quoted in the 21.8.01 edition of Corse-Matin as saying: “While composing the songs for Mèdée, I was caught up for a long time with the fear of deforming, of betraying the heritage that we carry, and the music finally came in accepting this transgression”.

The second, third and fourth positions described above, which can all be classified as being more or less progressive, can assume a range of guises.  Statements made by different groups or individuals in their attempts to justify what might be seen as changes or innovations for which they are responsible  - whether  in their original compositions or in their interpretations of traditional material  -  tend to be articulated around a number of key concepts for which the following quotations serve as examples.

  1. Evolution and identity; evolution as a natural process. Patrizia Gattaceca of Les Nouvelles Polyphonies Corses evokes the notion of evolution in drawing an analogy with the way in which languages evolve: “It’s like a language.  A language evolves, but it is still a language.  Song evolves, it’s still the song of a country”  (interview, 1994).  In a lighter vein, Jean-François Bernardini of the group I Muvrini, arguing that some people refuse to accept in music the type of change that they happily accept in other areas of life, comments that girls who wear jeans are still Corsican: they have simply adapted to changing times and fashions  (interview, 1995). 
  2. The tradition as a living entity. Patrizia Poli (Les Nouvelles Polyphonies) states unequivocally that ‘the tradition is a living thing’ and, as such, is something ‘which renews itself’ (interview, 1995).  Polyphony in particular has been harnessed by groups like A Filetta  ‘... in order to give voice to a culture in movement, in the manner of a living people’ (promotional literature, 1994).
  3. The need for music to reflect contemporary experience; the need for relevance.
    Patrizia Poli says, ‘we sing polyphony as we feel it today’ (interview, 1995),  while Jean-François Bernardini claims that people want  ‘a music that belongs to today, to now’ (interview, 1995).  Speaking from the perspective of the performer, he introduces the notions of right and duty:  ‘Personally, I have both respect and disrespect for the tradition, because we have the right and the duty to bear witness to our own experience.’  He goes on to say: ‘We have to invent our language, a new language, within the language which already exists, that’s our mission.’  In a similar spirit, the disc notes to the album A Capella by the group Tavagna, after presenting the group as ‘the memory of those who no longer have a voice’, include the comment:  ‘But because this group wishes to see itself equally as the voice of life, its members compose and interpret on this same disc some very beautiful new songs.’  The members of E Voce di u Cumune, meanwhile, aim to bequeath to future generations ‘a Corsican music of the end of the 20th century’ (quoted in de Zerbi & Diani, 1992:96).
  4. The right to individual creativity and the inevitability of new creations.
    Jean-François Bernardini again speaks from the standpoint of the artist when he says that:  ‘My mission is not only to search in my  attic to see what is there.  My mission is also to search here (tapping his head), in my imagination, in my creativity, to see what is there, in my individuality, and to share it with others.’ (interview, 1995)  As an artist, he has both his own destiny to fulfil and a recognized role within society.  Artistic creativity is not even a matter of choice: ‘It’s a spring. ... It emerges naturally.’  For Ghjuvaní Petru Godinat of the group Cinqui Sú, it is important  ‘... to do whatever one wants to do ... people must be left free to their desire to express themselves’ (interview, 1995).  This is qualified by the assertion:  ‘It’s not calculated.  It’s just how it happens.  It doesn’t result from a specific intention.’  Iviu Pasquali talks of how a group of singers will sometimes experiment with new effects simply ‘for fun, to give ourselves pleasure’ (interview, 1994).  It is possible, he explains, to become saturated if they restrict themselves to the same limited repertoire and manner of interpretation.  In his view, such experimentation is natural and “a form of evolution”.
  5. Tradition is a process. Jean-François Bernardini counters any suggestion of betraying the tradition by arguing that it has always absorbed foreign and innovatory elements:  “People ... have integrated, have appropriated things and with time, with talent, with force, that can become traditional in the sense that it can be shared by the greater number, it can be integrated.  And I believe that today, with different instruments, we are doing exactly the same thing. ... Musics are not born traditional, they become traditional, with time. ... Today, are we in the process of creating the traditional Corsican music of tomorrow, of three hundred years from now?  That's the dialectic that we are trying to bring to life quite naturally.”  (interview, 1995)

While many of the above formulations are valid both with respect to the nature of tradition and as arguments in support of the creative artist, they are in essence more philosophical than practical and allusions to the tradition itself remain largely imprecise and unqualified.  Fundamentally, they evade the question as to how exactly any new development might be seen as a natural and logical evolution of what has gone before.  Analogies such as those quoted under the theme ‘evolution and identity’ can be formulated very liberally and fail to emphasize that the present must nevertheless be seen to be related to the past if it is to lay claim to such ancestry: the core or deep structure must be recognizable beneath the surface.  The view expressed on one occasion that “roots are no good to trees if there are no flowers” might perhaps be qualified with the reminder that it makes little sense to simply graft on a flower that bears no relation to the tree itself: one might just as well plant another tree elsewhere.  Hence Salini’s words of caution:  “... while there is no question of impeding progress, the fallout should certainly not be underestimated. ... [A culture] can of course take part in today’s world, adopt a new language, a new instrumentarium, different forms of writing, but it is indispensable that its archetypes should remain.”  (Salini, 1996:207) 

Singers at the more cautious end of the tradition-creation debate stress the importance of absorbing the traditional indigenous musical language and then using this as the basis upon which new compositions can be built.  As Iviu Pasquali expresses it, “in order to create a polyphony, it is necessary first of all to be anchored, rooted in the old, old polyphony.” (interview, 1994)  Thereafter, one must periodically return to the wellspring of the tradition so that any new development will be “a logical continuation”.  For Mighele Paoli (one of the longest standing members of Canta u Populu Corsu), whatever form new music takes, it is important that it should be in some way representative:  “it is important that people can identify with this music: if not, ... it’s not worth the bother, it’s failed” (interview, 1995).

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