Sunday, June 14, 2009

Bring On The Oboes!

Ah, the Festun is over. It's quiet out there, and it'll probably stay that way all day. Now, I wonder what happened yesterday.

Not literally, really; I mean, if you read the comments on the last post, you'll see that late in the evening, Marie found a schedule. So at any given part of the day, I could figure out who was playing (if not where, since there were two stages in play). But that's just names. The real mystery is the meaning of this event.

A little background: I live in the region of France called Languedoc-Roussillon, which, as the hyphen indicates, is the fusion of the northerly and easterly Languedoc and the southerly and westerly Roussillon. This, in turn is subdivided into the departments of the Gard (up around Nîmes), the Hérault, which is where I am, the Roussillon, to the south, and the Pyrénées-Orientales, even further south, on the Spanish border. (I think I have this right, but I'm sure I'll find out soon enough). Now, these divisions aren't mere bureaucracy. "France" is very much an artificial construct, a country which came together over several centuries because its people realized that they had enough in common to override their many differences. Among the most obvious differences was language. According to Graham Robb's magnificent (and eye-opening) book The Discovery of France, "yes" was expressed, depending on where you were, by the words o, òc, sí, bai, ya, win, oui, oyi, awè, jo, ja or oua. You will note the second in that series: the region I live in was where the "language of òc" was spoken.

It's also where one of the biggest conflicts in the unification of this country took place. This was always a rich place, with its agriculture and wine and spice trade. It coexisted with the folks in Paris pretty warily, and then along came the Albigensian Heresy. This was a weird version of Catholicism whose followers were known as Cathars, and the religion spread like crazy down here. Much as I'd like to sympathize with medieval religious dissenters whose sect was finally ended after being roasted alive by the Inquisition inside one of their fortified churches, in Béziers, on July 22, 1209 (the leader of the campaign against them, Arnaud-Amaury, Abbot of Citaux, told a soldier who hesitated "Burn them all! God will know his own," which is where that lovely quote originated), the Cathars, from what I can tell, were pretty grim, combining extreme asceticism with a definite cult-like obedience to the local priest. After that, Paris -- and Rome -- made sure to keep a pretty high profile around here.

But the people continued to speak the langue d'oc, Occitan, until, in the name of national unity, they were forced to stop. Except they didn't: 150 years ago, regional languages still ruled the country. Mass media and education, I guess, finally brought in the Parisian French, but I've still heard some odd language in small villages, and it's not just the local accent.

There's another language around here, too: Catalan. A number of the streets and squares in Montpeller are signposted in French and Catalan, which is very close, sort of Spanish spoken with a French accent or something. This increases as you approach the Spanish border, of course, until you cross over into Catalonia itself and its ongoing language drama.

So what does this have to do with yesterday's Festun? Well, for starters, you won't find the word "festun" in your French dictionary, that's what.

There were groups of booths set up on the Comédie, each with its theme. Some I just didn't get. When I got down there, there was one where there were bags of flour, sugar and eggs and a bunch of women in black dresses and very weird old-lady masks, with a huge hank of white hair hanging down behind. Brandishing long skinny sticks, they lit out from the booth and disappeared. Later, they were back at the booth, surrounded by little kids delightedly learning how to make what looked like flour tortillas. There was a group of tables representing traditional sports, ranging from tambourín (which appeared to be frisbee, only with a large, jangle-less tambourine as tossed object), to human tower building (I arrived just as one of these, a good three stories high, was dismantling) to bullfighting (lots of that around here, actually; one thing that makes Montpellier unusual is that it doesn't have any tauromachy). Booksellers sold books in Occitan and Catalan, and a lobbying organization to have each taught in the schools shared space with private language institutes.

Local agriculture got surprisingly little space, although there was a lot of expensive olive oil for sale, a place where you could get local oysters (and a glass of Picpoul de Pinet, the perfect oyster wine), and a display of local potatoes. And there was a wine booth, where wine was being served, but none was on display, nor was there a price list. For ten euros, you could sign up for the evening's banquet, which would be large:

(This, incidentally, shows only one of the two rows of tables.) The menu was "salade catalane," some sort of stew, and a peach dessert. I never got to photograph the stew (and I passed on the meal after seeing 16kg of canned mushrooms being added to it), but here's the rig in which it was cooked:

The little brown things are one of my favorite local delicacies, tielles sètoises, pies filled with cuttlefish cooked in a spicy tomato sauce.

So what we had here was a cultural celebration of a culture I know little about, and I felt frustrated. Maybe, I thought, the music would be a way in. At the start of the afternoon, a band called les Diables de la Garrigue was playing in and around this hot-rod, with percussionists and oboists playing what might be traditional melodies over beats being created by a guy at a console that was literally in the belly of the beast.

At the other end of the square, a group of "tenores" held forth with lovely acappella stuff, mostly, from what I could tell, in Occitan, although there was one piece where they showed off (and who wouldn't, if you could actually execute it?) with a Corsican piece with its telltale microtonal ornaments.

All too many of the groups which followed them, however, stunk of subsidized folklore. One band was essentially a so-so jazz outfit which trotted out its bagpiper and/or oboist to interject some folklore before sinking back into le jazz tepid; another was a standard-issue rock band with an electric hurdy-gurdy player. Most followed the fast-is-more-exciting formula, and who's to day, given the venue, that they were wrong?

It was very hot -- around 90 F -- so I headed back to the apartment, aware that I could be at any action in seconds. Around 8, there was a very loud commotion in my street itself, and I emerged to find this bunch of guys (and one very intense gal) kicking out the jams in front of the bakery:

Oboes and drums. If you look closely at the oboes, you'll see they don't really resemble the orchestral ones at all, in configuration of the holes, the bore, or the reed, which is really wide. Having seen them in use before, I'm very curious about them, but a desultory web search brought up nothing except offers to teach me Languedocian folk-dancing, which I'm afraid is a very lost cause.

I'd like to learn more about this stuff, but I don't know where to start. Fortunately, there'll be more of it, and this will happen again next year. Maybe this broke-ness will lift and I'll be able to get out to the Spanish border for a couple of days. I have to keep reminding myself I've been here barely seven months, so it's just natural that I haven't met people who can explain this stuff and point me to more of it.

The music went on til just after 1am. Much of it sounded like the Pogues with oboes, except with the DJ took over and it sounded like house with oboes. There is a long-standing piece of folklore among orchestral musicians that double-reed players are crazy because the internal pressure in their heads, combined with the angle at which they're obliged to hold their instruments -- they literally blow their minds. Maybe I should keep this in mind while dealing with the locals, eh?


  1. Oh dear ED .............

    You've upset folks in Pyrenees Orientales (who don't know where the alps are) and you've probably upset people in the Alps. More importantly, what has happened to Lozere and Aude ?

    I'd keep your full address secret !

    Info on the Regions,Departments, Prefectures and Sous-prefectures here :


  2. Okay, I fixed that weird mistake -- made even weirder because I was looking at the tourist map I picked up yesterday even as I mistyped it. As for the rest, I really do need to get into a car and driving around this place! Thanks: I knew the mistake wouldn't stand long.

  3. I think the nearly 10 million Catalan speakers would probably take exception to a description of their language as "sort of Spanish with a French accent", but it's a good description if you've never heard it spoken.

    I think you'll find the bilingual signs and inscriptions around town are in Occitan - Montpellier was never a Catalan-speaking city (too far north).

    Yeah Graeme Robb's book is essential reading, sometimes I wish that more French people had read it. In many ways modern France is a colonial construct, and you only have to scratch the surface to discover how strong the regional identitities still are.

  4. Paul O'sullivanJune 14, 2009 at 8:20 PM

    The oboes are called "Hautbois" in French. Do a Google search for "Languedoc hautbois" & you'll find a load of stuff

    They look very like what is called a bombarde up here in Brittany

  5. Odd; I knew the word hautbois and did my last search with it and never once stumbled on any of that!

    I'll admit, though, that my interest is a bit more musicological than the pages I just found, although I'll go back and look some more when I've got time. Thanks, Paul.

  6. I didn't know there were so many languages (or dialects) still in use in France. I knew about Alsatian, but I figured that could be attributed to the region's rather shorter and more contested French governance. "Langue d'oc" is a lovely paleologism.

    I love Alsatian wines, but my knowledge of the wines of the rest of France is woefully inadequate.

  7. Très intéressant. Les petites tortillas sont des "oreillettes".....


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