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Thanks for checking out The Aix-Files, my

blog postings inspired by my time in and around

Aix-en-Provence and the Vaucluse. The spot includes travel tips,

discoveries of local food and wine, recipes,

cultural events, interviews and historical

tidbits about Southern France. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


There’s a standing ovation. . . we must be in Winnipeg.

In fact, we’re on the island of Corsica. It’s the opening night of a music festival, Rencontres de Chants Polyphoniques de Calvi. This is a festival of (mostly) vocal music hosted by one of our favourite Corsican groups, A Filetta, whose recordings we discovered many years ago. When I started presenting the show Northern Lights, I played them often, and each time I did, I was overwhelmed by the response from listeners. Their music has a power and intensity that just gets under your skin, in the very best sense. We’ve known about this festival for some time and finally had a chance to attend it.

Getting to Corsica involves an overnight ferry ride from Marseille. Leaving the harbour at sunset
is quite a sight to behold. As we set out, we admired the vast old port full of boats, the mountains behind, the lonely Chateau d’If just off the coast. For some reason, everyone else on the boat seemed to find the upper deck too cool. So we hardy Canadians enjoyed the breeze, our picnic of chicken-salad sandwiches, views of the impressive coastline and the gorgeous sunset all to ourselves – how romantic.

Now for the music: in a concert setting, performers of Corsican polyphonic music usually stand in a tight semicircle so that they can hear each other clearly. They often cup their hands behind their ears to verify their pitch and sing with eyes pinched shut and a facial expression that is a cross between anguish and ecstasy. Frequently they demonstrate their camaraderie by draping an arm over a neighbour’s shoulder. Clearly, this is an intimate affair. We, as auditors, feel privileged to participate. We heard A Filetta perform over five nights. And they always dressed in black.

We were surprised to find a Taiko drumming group from Japan as part of this vocal festival. The Kodo Ensemble, which has been around for many years, is one of the best groups in
the genre. I must admit I can find an extended evening of Taiko drumming a bit tiresome, although the big bass drum solo performed by a drummer in a g-string was most impressive. I don’t think I have ever seen a pair of such well-developed muscles working so hard on a pair of shoulder blades. His performance was magnificent.

I was sceptical about a collaboration between A Filetta and Kodo. Would they perform together?
What would they possibly have in common? As it happens, A Filetta has been working with
Kodo for a few years now and they have developed a repertoire together with them, finding a
common ground. A Filetta are harmonically-oriented, melodic and intimate. Kodo are loud,
dramatic and intense. And it was the intensity that united them. A Filetta incorporated more
rhythm in their sound, Kodo added some melodic instruments, such as flute, almost Indonesian in nature. All in all, it was very satisfying.

The concerts in this festival took place high up within the walls of the old citadel of the city of Calvi. They say Christopher Columbus was born here. Looking over the ramparts, we were treated to a splendid view over the harbour, with yachts filling the marina, the palm tree-lined coast sweeping around gracefully, with pastel-coloured houses and awesome rugged mountains behind. The concerts were held either in the beautiful old Cathédrale St-Jean Baptiste or outside on the square where people in the know brought pillows and blankets for comfort.

The festival included an astonishing variety of music. On other evenings we were treated to some very traditional village vocal music from Puglia, Italy, as well as accordionist Ricardo Tesi, also from Italy, accompanying a fine singer, Francesca Breschi. There was also a Balkan trio and a band from Georgia, The Shin, with a jazzy feel. A group from Mongolia really blew us away. The woman, Baadma, sang in a very high, nasal voice. She changed costumes three times (I don’t know how she managed to wear such elaborate head-gear and all those layers in that un-air-conditioned church!) and her two partners, Naranbaatar Purevdorj and Nasanjargal Ganbold, were true masters of their instruments, the morin khuur, or square-shaped horse-head violin. They also sang in that incredibly deep, gravelly fashion that you hear in that part of the world, incorporating harmonics, which gives the music an unearthly character. Some of their repertoire was surprisingly bouncy and melodic, other pieces, called “long songs”, were more improvisatory.

I was intrigued to see a Canadian singer-songwriter on the bill. Even more surprising, just this
past year I actually had the pleasure of helping out on the creation of a musical project with
Kyrie Kristmanson with Manitoba composer T. Patrick Carrabré, but we had never actually met
in person. So here was my chance not only to meet Kyrie, but also to hear her perform - live in
Calvi, Corsica. It was all a bit surreal. And she did Canada proud. Dressed in a furry white hat
(again, in that un-air-conditioned church) with her guitar and a co-musician, she charmed the
audience with her original material. Interestingly, she has recently been spending some time in
southern France looking into the songs of the medieval troubadours. Also, I notice she’s continuing to tour in our area of Provence, so I hope to catch her again in concert!

We definitely got our money’s worth at the festival in Calvi. Over the course of the five days we heard 12 concerts in all. The last concert of each evening lasted more than two hours, usually taking us to midnight. A plus was that the musicians hung out in the old town, so we often had a chance to chat with them.

When we weren’t attending concerts we took in the splendour and beauty of the island. Because
of Jim’s bad knee, we had to forgo the big hikes that were on our list, and were forced to lie on
the beach and sample food at the nearby fish restaurants.

One of my new goals now is to discover the best soupe de poisson (fish soup) in southern
France and Corsica. I shall not offer a recipe, as the dish is so ubiquitous-- it’s available at all of the restaurants in this part of the world-- that I haven’t bothered to try to make it myself. But I can describe it. It’s made with small rockfish, which have been cooked with enough tomato, paprika and saffron to turn it a rich ochre colour. The mixture is put through a food mill to make it smooth and thick. At the table you are given an empty soup bowl, a terrine of the rich reddish-brown soup, and a platter that includes crisp croutes, fresh garlic cut in half, and a sauce rouille. Rouille is basically a garlic mayonnaise made red with cayenne or other red pepper and saffron.
Here’s how the soup works: you take a little croute (small toasted slice of baguette), rub it with
garlic, smear on some rouille, and then lay it in your bowl. You do this two or three times. Then
you ladle in some soup. You stir it a bit and wait for the bread to soften, and then dig in: one of the original DIY dishes. By the way, the soup is always served with a little bowl of grated gruyère cheese, but purists refuse to add it. Cheese and fish do not match, is the rule. I know, because when we sat at the Poissonnerie restaurant in Cassis, I pointed out to monsieur next to me, Cassis-born, that he had forgotten his cheese (he actually hid it behind the bottle of water), he assured me that it was not a mistake, that he never mixes cheese and fish. As a local, he was also very proud of his wines of Cassis. He and his family enjoyed a Fontcreuse, but spoke highly of the Paternel that we were sipping.

Part two of Corsica to follow.

A bientôt,

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