Une Anthologie des Musiques Traditionelles
10-CD Boxed Set

Frémeaux & Associés FA 5260

Box cover picture This is not so much a review as a brief overview of this fabulous 10-CD set of the traditional music of France ... a French Voice of the People, as its compiler, Guillaume Veillet, described it to me a few years ago when he had just received the go-ahead on the project.

The ten discs - almost 300 recordings made between 1900 and 2006 - comprising this anthology enable listeners to hear more than twenty languages spoken and sung in continental France: the Iangue d'oc and the langue d'oil; Breton; Basque; Alsatian, etc.; and in the French Overseas Territories:Tahitian; the languages of New-Caledonia, creoles from Reunion, Guadeloupe, Martinique and French Guyana ...  All 10 CD's cover picturesThe sources also extend beyond political borders to feature the music of the world's French-speaking minorities in Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Canada and the United States.  And finally, there are some examples of traditional music arriving in the course of the 20th century from more recent immigrant populations who today also constitute a part of France.  As can be seen on the picture to the right of the 10 CD covers, the scope of the anthology is very wide indeed.

Despite all tracks being 'field' recordings, almost all are well recorded and well reproduced, and much of the singing and playing is just Sound Clip  Track 1 on disc 1 sets the standard, and may be familiar to some readers (sound clip: Antoinette Perrouin - Approchez pour entendre).  The booklet with each CD is fairly full and has the complete recording and performer details for each track, and a note about the song or tune ... however, there are no transcription of the song texts.  It's all in French, except for three and a half pages of 'General Introduction' to the series - which remains the same for each CD - and half a page relating to the specific CD.

CD 1 covers Bretagne (Brittany - shown orange on the map), an area which did not become part of France until 1532, and which has a kind of double identity - the western part speaking Breton, a Celtic language, and the remainder speaking Gallic langue d'oilMap of French provincesNaturally, the linguistic border has moved over time, but has always been permeable.  Most of the recordings come from the central areas where the two cultures meet and intermingle.  I found this disc hugely enjoyable, and not at all 'foreign sounding' - perhaps because we have become used to hearing Breton music via the 'world music' phenomenon of the end of the 20th century.  This CD also contains the oldest recording in the set, play Sound Clipfour gavotte themes played on the bombarde in 1900.  The recordings are mostly dance tunes (played or sung) and ballads - here's my favourite; Skolvan, sung by Marie-Josèphe Bertrand (sound clip).  Her passion and commitment overwhelms the language barrier effortlessly.

Rather surprisingly, CD 2, France de L'Ouest (Western France - shown pale pink on the map) does sound foreign to me - perhaps the fact that the provinces of this vast area, play Sound Clipfrom Normandy to Saintonge on the Atlantic coast, via Poitou, Maine and Anjou, are amongst the most ancient, has something to do with it.  Here's an example; Quand j'tiens la bride de mon cheval, sung by Joseph Grellard (sound clip).  The great size of the area inevitably provides us with a wide diversity of musical types and styles yet, play Sound Clipas before, dance tunes and ballads predominate, and many of the finer singers are women.  To avoid my preference of this genre becoming oppressive, here's a nice little dance tune (sound clip: Bal de Saintonge) played on the fiddle by René Doublet.

CD 3 covers Auvergne et Limousin (shown pale green on the map), the two mountainous regions in the centre of France with a Occitan culture, and home of the bourréeplay Sound ClipThis is born out by the fact that ten of the 31 tracks feature bourrées, while a further 12 are other kinds of dance tune - including a cantique, a French slow air (sound clip left: Louis Jarraud - L'âme entendit) on cabrette.  play Sound ClipThere's so much of interest here that I'm rather at a loss to select just a couple more examples to play you, but let's try a bourrée, (sound clip right: Lo ribatel) from accordéon player Roger Vaissade, who was 85 at the time of recording, and plays like a man half his age!  play Sound ClipAnd we'll finish with one of the few songs on the CD; Henri Bayle sings the charming Passant en Paris, a pop song from the 1930s (sound clip left).  This has definitely been the most interesting CD so far.

play Sound ClipCD 4 covers Centre France (shown blue on the map) and, Oh God! the task of finding just a couple of tracks to play you gets more and more difficult ... you really need to hear almost everything on this disc!  And it's another one which hardly sounds at all foreign; try this schottische by Joseph Fleuret, one of the best players of the cornemuse in the area (sound clip right: Scottish à Fleuret).  play Sound ClipThis could so easily be an English tune!  Much of the CD contains dance music of one kind or another, but there's some lovely singing, too.  Marcel Thibault displays all the subtlety of a Harry Cox in this fine, and long, song about a nightingale play Sound Clip(sound clip left: Rossignolet de bois).  Finally, we should not leave the area so famous for it's vielle à roue (hurdy gurdy) players without something from Gaston Guillemain, reputedly one of the best players.  This is a once-through-each-tune go at a Quadrille berrichon, which shows off his extraordinary staccato style to the full! (sound clip right)

play Sound ClipCD 5 covers Sud Ouest (the Southwest - shown yellow on the map), a large area which is mainly Occitan, with the exception of the Basque Country, most of which lies in Spain.  The five main Occitan-speaking areas are: The Pyrenees, famous for polyphonic song; Gascogne, whose rondeau is the most emblematic dance (sound clip right: Léa Saint-Pé, accordeon - Rondeau); the Agenais area, a land of singers; the Haute-Languedoc; and the Quercy and Rouergue provinces, play Sound Clipwhose culture is similar to the neighbouring Auvergne - the bourrée is danced there.  Here's a schottische from there which is either very similar to an English tune, or one which I've heard played here (sound clip left: L'aiga de ròcha), played by Gilbert Garrigoux and Marcel Lavergne on accordions.

Almost everything on this CD is lovely - and so diverse that just a few sound clips couldn't do it justice.  play Sound ClipParticularly, the Pyrenees region seems to have the most interesting material ... I truly love polyphonic singing, where ever it occurs, and here it seems to be especially fine and abundant.  I'll therefore pick out an example which particularly interests me; it is from Bénac in the Hautes-Pyrénées, where Bernard and Bastien Miqueu sing Era cançon de Grangèr brilliantly (sound clip right), and in a style not so very far from the Copper family.  This is high-order stuff; they modify the melody from verse to verse, change the harmonies dramatically and - I think - swap the melody and harmony parts about between these two brothers.  You can't beat family singing!

CD 6 covers Méditerranée (the Mediterranean coast - shown bright pink on the map).  This CD reflects the broad range of cultural influences which have come to this area, both from neighbouring Italy and Spain, and from further afield via the Mediterranean Sea, play Sound Clipnot to mention the Occitan influence from the north.  This means we find singing in French, Italian, Piemontese, Catalan, Spanish, plus many dialects of Occitan.  I'm pleased to say that many of the tracks are by women singers, so I can return to my favourite genre and play you a little of Catarina Philip, from Val Varaita, play Sound Clipwhich actually extends into Piemont, Italy play Sound Clip(sound clip right: Par mon chemin je recontrais).  At the extreme other end of the area we find what is essentially a Catalan brass band, Cobla Cortie-Mattes de Céret, playing Mosaïque roussillonnaise absolutely wonderfully (sound clip left).  And lastly from this amazingly varied CD, a bit of Hebraic cantor song by André Taïeb (sound clip right: Kol manabot).

CD 7 covers Alpes, Nord et Est (shown darker green on the map), and could very well have been titled 'And the Rest'.  According to the notes, this area was not much studied in the surge of collecting during the '70s and '80s, although that is now changing.  Like the previous disc, there are several labguages to be heard here: Franco-Provencal, Alsatian, Flemish and even the langue d'oil called Walloon.  play Sound ClipConversely, we also hear some songs in French actually recorded outside of the country; in the Val d'Aosta in Italy, the Swiss Romandy and the Walloon part of Belgium.  play Sound ClipTrack 1 is one of the oldest recordings, J'ai fait une maîtresse, sung by Cesarina Gérard, Marie and Romana Glarey in 1954, in Val d'Aosta (sound clip left).  Staying in areas beyond the French borders, here's a lovely song about Les misères du marriage, sung by Philomène Gehlen, from Liège in Belgium (sound clip right).

play Sound ClipReturning to France proper, we find a man who lives up to his name, fiddler René Joly from Savoie, playing several parts of the Quadrille d'Héry in fine style (sound clip right) ... great dance music!  I'm forced to pick more tracks from this particular CD because it's so varied and interesting, but I do have to say that I'm not that keen on some of what's on offer here, play Sound Clipprincipally the last few tracks which are all from Paris ... and I tend to prefer rural music to urban.  That said, here's a Marche nuptiale d'Auvergne, played by Antoine Bouscatel (cabrettte), Léon Célestin Guéniffet (vielle) and Jean Sanit (accordion), recorded in 1930, in Paris (sound clip left).

CD 8 covers Corse (Corsica, shown white on the map), and stands out starkly against the previous six discs; firstly because the Corsican culture is not French to any degree; the island having only become French in 1769, and secondly because the singing is not in French, but in the Corsican language - which seems to me to owe far more to Sard and Italian.  Indeed, I was stuck by the similarity between many of the tracks found here and some Sardinian examples I have heard.  This should not be too surprising, since the two islands are only about 8 miles apart - far closer to each other than to either France or to the Italian mainland.

play Sound ClipAs a very broad generalisation, the singing displays a higher degree of technical virtuosity than that found on the preceding French discs, and almost always has a pronounced melismatic quality.  A fine example is A mort de Filicone, sung splendidly by Pierre Grimaldi (sound clip right).  Musically, the songs seem to have rather less chordal complexity; the melodies rarely resolve themselves in a way familiar to northwestern European listeners.  This seems a little odd, since the instrumental items on the CD do not appear to share this characteristic.

play Sound ClipOf particular interest to me are several tracks which seem to be direct Corsican equivalents to the Sardinian cantu a tenores and coro traditions.  The first is from the paghjella tradition, which uses three voices as opposed to the four of the tenoresplay Sound ClipHere are Andria Olivi, Tomasgiu Cipriani and Anton-marcu Campana with Vularia chi la mia pelle (sound clip right).  The Sardinian coro of the semi-religious confraternite, usually also comprise four voices, whereas this example of a Holy Week song, Suda sangue, sung by a similar confrérie, uses seven singers; musically, they are very similar (sound clip left) ... and very lovely!

CD 9 covers France d'Outre-Mer (French Overseas Territories - not shown on the map).  To quote the brief booklet notes:

There are more than three million French people living in the country's overseas territories, which are divided into four regional départements (Guadeloupe, French Guyana, Martinique, Reunion), six overseas collectivités (Polynésie Française, Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, Wallis-et-Futuna, Saint-Martin, Saint-Barthélémy and Mayotte), and also Nouvelle Calédonie, a collectivity with separate statutes.

It's a seemingly impossible task to devote a single record to presenting an insight into the music-forms practised in such a vast, heterogeneous ensemble where each territory has its own particularities. In the French overseas territories, traditional music is extremely alive and it is constantly evolving.

Too true!  And this CD, like the Corsican one, stands out starkly against the mainland French discs, as the cultures represented are almost wholly African in character.  play Sound ClipAs a lover of much of the African music I've heard, I was greatly surprised to find that I didn't really enjoy much of this disc.  Again, given the booklet quote above, play Sound ClipI was surprised to find how similar most of the tracks sounded.  But here's one that didn't - Séga Taquet, played by the Orchestra Toussaint de Sainte-Rose from La Réunion (sound clip left).  Another, entirely different example, this time from Mayotte, is Chant d'appel à la prière, sung by Ahmed Abdou (sound clip right), a relic of an Islamic call to prayer, now part of the secular repertoire.

play Sound ClipExamples of the quadrille are to be found all over the world under the influence of European colonisation, and this Figure de quadrille, from Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, played by Alain Orsini and Robert Vigneau on accordion and fiddle, play Sound Clipis as enjoyable as any I've heard (sound clip left).  To finish, we'll go to Polynésie Française to hear what the booklet tells us is based on the hymns brought here by English protestant missionaries before the area fell into the hands of France.  This is Himene, sung by the parishioners of Parea (sound clip right) - and very exciting it is, too, even if it's a pretty bad 1963 recording.

CD 10 covers Français d'Amérique (French America - not shown on the map).  Maybe a little bit of a history lesson is called for here, and I couldn't do better than to quote in full the booklet notes:

The first French settlements in North America actually date from 1604 in Acadia, then 1608, when Samuel Champlain founded the city of Québec.  In the course of the l7th century, using Québec as a base, the French created a genuine empire - stretching from the Great North to the Gulf of Mexico - which they called Nouvelle-France.  Despite the immensity of these lands there were very few colonists, a few thousand at most, and the majority were grouped around Quebec.  A handful of 'backwoodsmen' crisscrossed the great plains of America, trading with the country's first inhabitants, the Amerindians.  The 18th century was marked by the Anglo-French struggle to dominate North America; more specifically, wars fought on European soil were transposed onto the American continent, where Nouvelle-France bordered the thirteen English colonies of the East Coast.  In 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht conceded most of the coastal Acadian regions to the English.  Then in 1763, at the end of the Seven Years War, the Treaty of Paris sealed their fate.  France, in defeat, salvaged something from the wreckage in Europe but lost its North American possessions.  For a time.  Napoleon Bonaparte recovered Louisiana from the Spanish, but in 1803 he was quick to sell it to an emerging nation called The United States of America!

So from that date on, with the exception of the archipelago of Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, all the French-speaking peoples of North America were either subjects of the British Crown (in today's Canada), or else were American citizens.

One province was to remain mainly French-speaking: Québec.  The Québécois, who were both Catholic and French-speakers in a Protestant Canada where English was the official language, seemed condemned to assimilation, but it didn't happen.  The continent's other French-speakers were mainly Acadians.  The latter originated in the Maritime Provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, where many French-speakers still live today), and many were driven out by the English during the 'Great Expulsion' of 1755.  Some of them, after a long and exhausting voyage, finally settled in the bayous of Louisiana, then a Spanish possession, where they encountered black slaves who'd been emancipated and converted to Catholicism.  They became known as 'Cajuns' (a corruption of 'Acadian').

The traditional music-forms practised by the French-speaking peoples of America grew from the seeds of that history.  Greatly inspired by the heritage of France's western provinces (particularly its songs), these are crossbred music-forms which also drew inspiration from all the music that arrived with other immigrants settling on the American continent.  Dance music from Quebec and Acadia, especially, owes much to British and Irish influences, with the Cajuns of Louisiana borrowing their accordions from central European immigrants and their rhythms from the descendants of slaves and the Amerindians, among others ...

In marked contrast to the previous disc, this one displays a veritable cornucopia of styles and musical types - play Sound Clipmany of which will be familiar to most readers.  Accordingly, I'm going to ignore tracks from several 'big names' like Carignan, Falcon, Ardoin, Arsenault, etc, and let you hear some gems you've probably not encountered before - though it's impossible not to include the Balfas with one of their Dad's songs called J'ai fait l'amour chez l'onc Bab which, play Sound Clipbeyond it being in French, could be any old American country song (sound clip right).  Lovely!  The track following it is amongst the strangest in the whole set; play Sound ClipReel turlutté is sung - yes, sung - by Lederie Saint-Cœur from New Brunswick (sound clip left).  Just astonishing vocal dance music.  Another thing you'll not have heard before is this Anglo-French-Waloon maccaronic, I went to Market, from Alfred Vandertie (sound clip right).  Between 1852 and 1860, some 7,000 Wallons from Brabant and Namurois set up a community on the shores of Lake Michigan, in the north east of Wisconsin - this is one of their songs.

play Sound ClipAlso from New Brunswick is 80-year-old Allan Kelly; of Irish ancestry, but he sings many French songs.  This one is the old ballad la blanche biche (The White Hind), in this version called Margueritte est dans sa chambre, play Sound Clipand I think it's absolutely lovely (sound clip right).  From Nova Scotia comes Joseph Larade with this rarity (in this area), a singer accompanying himself on fiddle.  Derrière chez-nous il y a un joli bocage (sound clip left) is most enjoyable, and guite different from what one might expect from Nova Scotia.  Finally, from Québec, we have another old ballad, Lisette qui allait s'y baigner, here called Par un dimanche au soir, play Sound Clipand sung by Jean-Paul Guimond.  This is part of the important Guimond family tradition, sung in the ancient style; although here, surrounded by family and friends it sound quite modern, and typifies the 'food-drink-music-song' traditions still found in much of the world ... except, perhaps, the UK.  Possibly my favourite track in the whole set (sound clip right).

As with the British Voice of the People set from Topic Records, the problem of how to organise a large number of music tracks into several discrete CDs raises it head.  Topic used a thematic approach; Frémeaux has used a regional one.  Both have their strengths and weaknesses, but the overall difficulty remains - should you aim for an educative approach, or to present (20 or 10) of the most enjoyable-to-listen-to discs?  Inevitably, by using either the regional or the thematic approach, any particular purchaser will find that some discs appeal strongly to him/her, whist some others will be less pleasing.  This was the case with the Topic set, and sales figures for each CD varied quite markedly.  Commercially, this may be less of a problem for Frémeaux, since I don't think they will be releasing any of these CDs individually.  Nonetheless, one may wonder if the entire set would have been an overall 'better listen' if Guillaume Veillet has chosen what he felt was the best possible 300 recordings from the pool he had available, and arranged them into ten perfectly programmed sets.  Were there any wonderful and interesting tracks which were left out of a particularly strong regional disc or, conversely, any less interesting ones included in another, to make up a full CD?  We will never know the answer to that and, probably, it doesn't matter too much, given the generally high standard of what's on offer here.

I must stress that, as I indicated earlier, these sound clips are of tracks which particularly appeal to me.  As with the Topic Voice of the People, another reviewer would doubtless find an equal number of completely different tracks to play you; the variety of material presented here being so vast.  For anyone with an interest in French traditional music, this set is a 'must-have'.  And anyone who cares about traditional music at all will find interest and inspiration a-plenty in this splendid publication - which is available at: for just €80 with free shipping worldwide.  And you can find full details, track lists, etc at:   It's available online right now, but not released to shops 'til April.

Rod Stradling - 19.3.10

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