Andrew McGregor takes a look at the Corsican polyphonic ensemble keeping this ancient form of singing alive
A Filetta will perform alonside Rustavi Ensemble on October 13 at the Barbican Centre.
Spot-lit in the cool shadows of a small church in Corsica, six men stand in a semi-circle, eyes half-closed, hands cupped over ears, voices keening, pirouetting, soaring around one another, raising hairs on the back of your neck with ringing sincerity and raw passion. This is the timeless sound of Corsican polyphony, voices that seem ‘to issue from the birthpangs of the world’ according to the island’s biographer Dorothy Carrington. And to get here you’ve probably followed one of the posters on a lamppost, phone box, or a tree that guide you towards Corsica’s ancient music. This is A Filetta, performing the traditional three-part pulifunie (polyphony) that faced extinction until the wave of Corsican nationalism in the 1970s that led to the riacquistu – the reacquisition of music and language that ignited the cultural renaissance of the 80s and 90s.
A Filetta are named after the Corsican fern, so well-embedded that it’s almost impossible to uproot. They were formed in 1978 by a schoolteacher and a beekeeper in Balagne in the north of the island. The ensemble’s early repertoire of songs with guitar included just a handful of polyphonic compositions. But the characterful voice and musical personality of Jean-Claude Acquaviva have been the key to their sound on a 35-year journey from nationalist fundraising concerts to major world music festivals, constantly revitalising and renewing their musical traditions through their own compositions and collaborations.
The ensemble developed a musical double life; it was already a fixture at the Easter Passions in Calenzana, and Acquaviva began stretching his compositional muscles in pieces for the Calvi Passion. By the late 80s A Filetta were placing liturgical styles from these village confraternities alongside the secular paghjella, the traditional laments and ballads of love and loss sung in three parts. A key example became their calling card: ‘A Paghjella di l’Impiccati’ (The Ballad of the Hanged Man), a tale of Corsican resistance to the French army in the 1770s. Acquaviva’s version began as a chanson, then freed itself from guitars as a capella polyphony of searing power. You can hear its evolution across A Filetta’s recordings, and the vocal style that’s come to define the ensemble’s sound – mellower, more sophisticated harmonising than the amateur ensembles, wonderfully fluid ornamentation, and an emotional and dynamic range that’s astonishingly aﬀecting.
In 1989 A Filetta helped organise the first Rencontres de Chants Polyphoniques in Calvi, an international festival of polyphony that throws open the doors to vocal ensembles from all over the world, and simultaneously introduces them to Corsica’s vocal heritage. Collaborations followed, with Georgian Voices and maloya singer Danyèl Waro. Acquaviva’s musical ideas were becoming more adventurous: his compositions for a theatre performance of Medea led to a series of collaborations with French film composer Bruno Coulais, and experimental combinations with Tibetan music, and even rap. It’s given A Filetta new musical confidence as well as a new toolkit; from being part of the island’s aural tradition, they now read music, and learn and compose in the digital environment.
Acquaviva’s recent Di Corsica Riposu, Requiem Pour Deux Regards explores the tension between ancient and modern that keeps the group’s musical batteries charged, drawing inspiration from other cultures as they reconnect with Corsican laments for the dead.
Two recent excursions have been into the world of theatre and dance with Moroccan-Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Apocrifu (2007) explores the idea of sacred texts and books with three dancers and A Filetta sharing the stage. And Puz/zle, created for the Avignon Festival in 2012, brought the Corsicans together with Lebanese singer Fadia Tomb El-Hage and has been reworked as a concert piece. Cherkaoui describes A Filetta as a “polyphonic group that sing with a single voice.”
So A Filetta not only represent the best of Corsica’s riacquistu on a world stage, but they have become a distinctive voice on the contemporary theatre scene. For Acquaviva it’s gone far beyond simplistic reverence for tradition: “Rather than a question of fidelity to one’s roots, it’s a question of having roots. Once you have them, you don’t need to prove that you are faithful to them.”
(Virgin France, 2002)
Intantu is perhaps A Filetta’s finest studio album, and it includes the most spine-tingling account of ‘A Paghjella di l’Impiccati’ (The Ballad of the Hanged Man).
(Olivi Music, 1996)
Award-winning recording of Christ’s Passion, the music performed during Holy Week in Calvi in the 90s.
(Virgin France, 2003)
Featuring arrangements and orchestrations by film composer, Bruno Coulais, who is a key collaborator.
Jean-Claude Acquaviva’s most ambitious composition to date. Here Corsican laments for the dead meet Georgian drones and bandoneón. Reviewed in #80.
Sketches of Corsica in which A Filetta’s intense harmonies meet the trumpet of Paolo Fresu and bandoneón of Daniele di Bonaventura. Reviewed in #77.
This article originally appeared in Songlines #102 (Aug/Sep 2014).
Photo by Didier D Daarwin