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Local Music for Global Action: Massilia Sound System's Political Intervention

Paul Cohen
Promo shot for Massilia (2014)

Massilia introduced new themes into the repertoire of French left-wing music, exhorting listeners to confront postcolonial realities, embrace the increasingly multicultural character of French society, and combat the global neoliberal turn.

Encouraging Multilingualism, Accommodating Difference

Massilia Sound System’s commitment to the regional culture of the French south, and especially to Occitan, the distinct Romance language that was widely spoken across meridional France until well into the 20th century, represents its most distinctive feature. The group conceives its use of Occitan as a militant act, a contribution to broader campaigns to save the language. Such efforts first took shape in the 19th century, when Provençal notable, Occitan poet, and winner of the 1904 Nobel literature prize Frédéric Mistral founded the Félibrige movement to promote the idiom’s revival. Profoundly conservative in outlook, the provincial elites who animated the Félibrige and its analogues saw in Occitan the authentic expression of a rural, hierarchical, and Catholic society menaced by industrialization, urbanization, state centralization, and Republican values. This outlook pushed many to collaborate with German and Vichy authorities during the Occupation, and regionalist movements across France emerged from the Second World War discredited.

Massilia's music represented a smart, self-conscious reinvention of occitaniste cultural politics, calibrated for a brave new world which had lost faith in grand ideologies and utopian projects.
Inspired by the Resistance, a new generation of occitanistes founded the Institut d’Estudis Occitans (IEO) in 1945 to breath new life into the regional ideal, rapidly making it the principal postwar occitaniste organization. Marked by the Algerian War, opposed to the Fifth Republic’s technocratic centralization, and swept up in the vibrant left-wing counterculture that took shape in May 1968’s shockwave, they reimagined occitanisme as a radical cultural and political movement. Drawing on Marxist and anticolonial thought, occitanistes theorized Occitan as the idiom of a nation conquered and colonized by the French state over many centuries. They conducted research to better understand Occitan’s internal linguistic structures, uncover a forgotten corpus of Occitan-language literary texts, and reconstruct the history of a nation denied. They lobbied the government to incorporate Oc into public school curricula, sought common ground with labor unions and other social movements, and called for political decentralization. Contesting Occitanie’s very place in France, some launched autonomist political parties. No figure looms larger in occitanisme’s history than Robert Lafont (1927-2008), a tireless polymath who wrote Occitan-language novels, poetry and drama, published pioneering works of Occitan history and literary criticism, introduced the American school of sociolinguistics to French linguists, trained several generations of Occitan specialists as Professor of Occitan at the University of Montpellier, dictated the movement’s political positions in works like Décoloniser en France (1971), fought for Occitan’s place in public life, and even ran for president in 1974.

Musicians played an important role in the Occitan revival. They spent time in rural communities in order to learn and preserve traditional folk music, borrowed from the medieval troubadour repertoire, and composed new work in Oc. These experiments coalesced in the '70s in Nòva Cançon, an Occitan-language modern folk music movement part Joan Baez concert, part soixante-huitard street protest, and part fireside peasant veillée. Mixing old mythologies with new, their songs deplored the alienation of modern life, evoked a more authentic past, and called for national liberation. Nòva Cançon’s most important figure was Claude Marti, a primary school teacher, Communist, and committed occitaniste from the Aude who still performs today. Marti’s lyrics drew from the occitaniste stockhouse of commonplaces: songs commemorated the Albigensian Crusade as the medieval starting-point for France’s colonization of Occitanie; others celebrated more recent episodes of local resistance like the 1907 Languedoc winegrowers’ revolt; still others demanded freedom for “Un pòble, conflat / D’esser colonizat, vençut, matracat.” (A people fed up / With being colonized, vanquished, bludgeoned). Like many regionalists in the '70s, Marti equated Occitan’s cause with contemporary Third World struggles. Che Guevara’s portrait graced the cover of his first album, the 1969 Occitania!, whose final song is entitled “Occitania Saluda Cuba” (Occitania salutes Cuba). The IEO played a crucial role in promoting Nòva Cançon (coproducing Marti’s first record for example), making it the official musical voice of occitanisme in all but name.

In phase with the zeitgeist of '70s France, Nòva Cançon resonated with a certain public suspicious of authority and hungry for cultural authenticity. So it was that Marti and other occitanistes joined local sheep farmers and a vast constellation of left-wing groups on the Larzac plateau to protest the extension of a military base, in what represents the most spectacular of France’s post-1968 happenings. Amalgamating disparate cultural, political and social aspirations, protesters rallied to battle cries in Occitan: “Gardarem lo Larzac” (We will keep the Larzac) and “Volem viure al païs!” (We want to live in our country!. Rescued from the linguistic ash heap of history, Occitan, it seemed, now had a bright future as an idiom for eminently forward-looking pacifist, anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist, ecological, small-is-beautiful, back-to-the-land-ideas.

* * *

It was only a few years after the last protesters came down from the Larzac, having won their fight, that Massilia Sound System’s Jamaica-infatuated members stumbled on Occitanie more or less by chance. Ridel grew up in the Paris area and only moved to Marseille as an adult, but he had been exposed to Occitan as a child thanks to a nanny from the southwest, sparking an abiding interest in the southern tongue. Sensing sociolinguistic parallels between Jamaican Patois, the English-influenced Creole in which much Jamaican reggae is sung, and France’s “patois”, as its regional languages were often referred to dismissively, Ridel saw in Occitan a useable folkloric vehicle that would marry fruitfully with reggae. He convinced his fellow MC René Mazzarino, an electrician from Marseille who joined Massilia in 1985 (and whose various stage names include Papet-J, Jali, and Lou Jalet), to try their hands at writing and performing a handful of songs in Oc.

But it was Claude Sicre, a musician, neighborhood activist, and lifetime ethnomusicology grad student from Toulouse a full decade older than they, who inspired Massilia’s Occitan turn. The group met Sicre after giving a concert in Toulouse in 1987, beginning a long and fruitful relationship. The Toulousain was on a mission to use music as a means to rebuild social relations on more fraternal foundations (to the same end, he also invented the now widely-imitated practice of “street meals” in Toulouse’s working-class Arnaud-Bernard neighborhood). Sicre had also long been engaged with Occitan culture, studying the troubadours, cutting folk records, and providing musical accompaniment to the Occitan storyteller (and future IEO president) Robert Marty in performances for rural audiences across Toulouse’s hinterland.

Sicre introduced Massilia to the writings of Félix-Marcel Castan (1920-2001), a schoolteacher, Communist, and occitaniste from the rural southwest. A founding member of the IEO, Castan parted ways with Lafont and his allies over their overt politicization of the movement, and in an internal quarrel characteristic of the fierce infighting that has long plagued occitanisme, they engineered his exclusion in 1965. Eschewing regionalism, which in his eyes amounted to no more than a nationalist replication in miniature of the French Jacobinism he despised, Castan saw in Occitan, by virtue of its history as an oppressed tongue and its long coexistence alongside French, an effective vehicle for promoting pluralism, encouraging multilingualism and accommodating difference.

Shortly after meeting Massilia, Sicre joined with Jean-Marc Enjalbert (stage name Ange B) to found the Fabulous Trobadors, conceived as a laboratory in which to put Castan’s ideas into musical practice. For the new project, Sicre drew inspiration from coco de embolada, a musical genre associated with the Nordeste region of Brazil, in which two singers engage in debate while beating out time with tambourines. Just as Ridel had detected affinities between Jamaican reggae and Occitan, Sicre heard in coco echoes of the medieval troubadours’ verbal jousts known as tensons. As the Fabulous, Sicre and Enjalbert laid down rap-like spoken word (in both French and Oc) atop Nordestão rhythms, privileging live performance and improvisation, in songs equal parts political intervention and absurdist wordplay. Sicre hoped the Fabulous would provide a model for cultural and social action that audiences could appropriate and make their own, a training ground for a “cultural democracy” open to pluralism, popular engagement, and grassroots creativity. group’s reliance on rudimentary instrumentation, simple musical forms, and dialogic lyrics were intended to incite others to embrace music as a collective, conversational, and critical medium.

Infected by Sicre’s enthusiasm and Castan’s ideas, Massilia’s members got to work. Papet-J enrolled in Occitan classes. He and Ridel attended IEO meetings, thus operating an unlikely junction between serious-minded occitaniste militancy and Massilia’s rasta sensibilities (Martel reports that Mazzarino and Ridel would sit in the back, smoking and kibbitzing loudly). Now joined by Bruno Martin (alias Goatari), the group released its first album in 1992, whose title, Parla Patois (Occitan for “Speak Patois”) and mix of songs in Oc and French trumpeted their linguistic commitments. Ever since, the group has consistently inscribed its music under the occitaniste banner. They sample a Claude Marti song on Parla Patois. On their 2002 album Chourmo they include a recording of the Occitan writer Yves Rouquette (founder of the principal Nòva Cançon recording label, Larzac veteran, founder of the calendretas network of bilingual Occitan-French schools, and leader of the populist putsch that forced Lafont and other university teachers out of the IEO in 1981) reciting a poem by the medieval troubadour Piere Vidal. And Castan is omnipresent in their work, celebrated in lyrics and liner notes, his voice repeatedly sampled in their songs.

Massilia’s and the Fabulous’s commercial success is often invoked as evidence of an Occitan ‘revival’, in the same breath as the calendretas (which today count 60 elementary and three middle schools). But the stubborn fact that the biggest Occitan-language musicians since Marti learned Oc as adults, or that they both write and perform songs in French as well as the southern tongue, read more like signs of waning linguistic fortunes. The son of Provençal farmers, Mistral didn’t need to study Oc as an adult; when Lafont and Castan founded the IEO, native speakers of Occitan still numbered in the millions. By the time Massilia and the Fabulous were making a living from their music, it was becoming increasingly clear that Occitan was headed for language death (or, at the very least, a confidential linguistic existence as a second language amongst an educated urban middle class who send their kids to calendretas). The audiences whom Massilia exhort to parla patois are in fact less and less capable of speaking regional languages at all.

With hindsight, and for all its luminous promise, the Larzac clearly marks occitanisme’s cultural and political high-water mark. The occitanistes who pinned their hopes on Mitterrand and his commitment to promote regional languages in 1981 soon joined others on the left disappointed by unkept promises and the turn to austerity. More broadly, the Marxist-inflected, tiers-mondiste narratives of the long '60s that underpinned occitaniste platforms, cracking under the ugly weight of the Gulag Archipelago, the Vietnamese Boat People crisis, and Mao’s Great Leap Forward, steadily lost their conceptual purchase in France.

However, it would be a mistake to dismiss Massilia as the last gasp of Occitan lyric nationalism. Their music in fact represented a smart, self-conscious reinvention of occitaniste cultural politics, calibrated for a brave new world which had lost faith in grand ideologies and utopian projects. Drawing liberally from the revolutionary imaginary of the '60s, Massilia fashioned a whimsical separatist mythology all its own: its albums’ liner notes thank various fictive “liberation fronts”, their song “Vive le PIIM” celebrates the Parti Indépendantiste Internationaliste Marseillais, and its 2002 album Occitanista gestured to any number of Latin American liberation movements. The group did not intend anyone to take their Situationist-like play on postwar regionalism too seriously. Instead, they used their attachment to Occitan to articulate a powerful case for pluralism and solidarity within French society -- promoting Oc stood in for celebrating religious, ethnic and cultural difference and defending the poor and marginalized.

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