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Organic Intelligence XXV: French Acid-Medieval Folk Revival
Jennifer Lucy Allan , October 13th, 2023 09:06

In this month's injection of our antidote to the algorithm into our subscriber's inboxes, Jennifer Lucy Allan guides us through the Medieval-inspired French folk revival, featuring Los Deu Lavarth (pictured) and the Gallic answer to Tangerine Dream

How do we listen to music that tells stories, when we don't speak the language? I have often grappled with this in recent years, feeling increasingly frustrated by language as a barrier to cultural understanding. A lack of linguistic capabilities has meant that for years much of the Japanese music I listened to was illegible to me – I had a mere inkling, for example, of just how bawdy Japanese folk singer Kan Mikami can be. More recently, this mystery has been amplified further, by a deep dive into the jangly (or should I say, jongleur) world of French and Occitan folk revival, much of it leaning medieval.

How to dive into a scene whose songbook escapes you? The diversity of languages is described as a divine punishment in the Bible story of the Tower of Babel, and it certainly feels it when scrying for meaning in narratively driven folksong. Without language, the words must become melodies, or we must interpret emotional context through tone or expression. It is highly likely, for example, that the Occitan songs of Los Deu Larvath will remain forever elusive to me. There are no two ways about it: I experience this music in mysterious ways: am partly engrossed in it because I do not understand the words, with any cheesiness or boorish lyrics escaping my ken.

I present this selection with the caveat that this is a fresh dig, with a number of dead ends at time of writing. I couldn't find a full album in any digital format by Rene Daudan, for example, and heard too little to shell out for the import taxes. Also not included here, but which ought to be mentioned nonetheless, is a recent reissue of Breton harpist and folk singer Kristen Nogues' first album Marc'h Gouez on the label Souffle Continu, who also released hurdy-gurdy player Emmanuel Parrenin, both of whom would be included in any extended version of this list.

The go-to index for this scene appears to be an unobtainable book that might be French folk's answer to Patrick Lundborg's Acid Archives titled The French Folk Magic Time Guide, by someone who I'm sure is legally named Phileas Folk. It boasts a horrendous cover, with monstrous curly font and grotesque cartoons, and it is unobtainable at time of writing. While I continue to hunt for that, these five recommendations are a current deeply personal selection, that might be characterised as being more likely to be found in muddy animal-hide booties and drinking a farmy perry than twirling around a drum circle in floaty skirts propounding the benefits of herbal tea.

Los Deu Larvath – Coneguda Causa Sia (self-released)

The centrepiece of my deep dive is Coneguda Causa Sia by Occitan troupe Los Deu Larvath, about whom I can find out very little. The name means 'the ten maggots' in Occitan, but think freak-folk group Trees and you're getting warmer. It's pastoral but not flouncy and the choral motifs in the opening track are seriously earwormy. I did a double take on the cover, which at a glance looks like the Motorpsycho poster, or a Finders Keepers Giallo soundtrack reissue, but is actually the original 70s artwork. Those involved don't seem to be connected to many other groups at all, and when I contacted Dizonord Marseille (who reissued the essential Regrelh album mentioned below and usually know something about this scene) they had to ask around, too. I am drawing an English-language blank on this album I've had on heavy rotation, awaiting further infos.

Regrelh – Cants Dels Trobadors: La Douceur D'Un Son Nouvel (Dizonord)

Previously Creel Pone'd, now with an authorised reissue, in my opinion this is one of the greatest private press records we know of to date: a conceptual Middle Ages Occitan troubadour album weaving spoken word, unaccompanied song, and heavy, minimal gurdy drones, with light touch synth and electronics. What's not to like? Regrelh was the beginning of a sub section of my record collection built around music that sounds like sci-fi literature, specifically books that build an alternative future from the past, like Riddley Walker, Hard To Be A God, and PK Dick's short story 'The Crack In Time'. French group Sourdeline count in this vein, but I'm not including them in this list because in the cut and thrust I just do not enjoy the occasional long skirt-ery of the vocals.

‘En Mes Pays Quand Me Trouve En Repos’ by Avaric from Avaric (Oxygene)

A bunch of lads from Bourges setting writing by Lorca, Katherine Mansfield and the 15th century Duke of Orléans to music, as well as pulling from the work of 13th century troubadour Colin Muset (although I find the recorder breakdown in Colin's ‘Je Suis Jongleur De Vielle’ far too heavy on the jongleur, creeping Blackadder-wards). Sonically it's quite an in-aspic approach all round, but the gathered male voices sing together in gorgeous papery choral harmonies. ‘En Mes Pays Quand Me Trouve En Repos’ is almost a banger, relatively speaking, and could be a soft medieval precursor to some Catherine Ribereiro and Alpes songs.

‘Eko Yégoung’ by Valentin Clastrier from La Vielle À Roue De L'Imaginaire (Auvidis)

Regular readers of Rum Music or listeners to Late Junction will know I've been banging on about hurdy-gurdys for ages. My current vielle-a-roue number one is Valentin Clastrier, whose albums I imbibe daily, and who dances fitfully in a micronation he's carved out between avant-garde gurdy playing and traditional repertoire. I find Clastrier's pieces more inventive; more vibrant than almost all his folk-revival compatriots, which is not just about him arriving on the scene a little later than them. It is like he finds small knots in his instrument or a song, and works around its pits and whorls, to excavate, smooth, repeate until the ideas and sounds are untangled. Musically I find him easier to compare to modern French folk musicians from the La Novia collective, or even Laura Cannell's work, than the folk revivalists from the 1970s.

Gabriel Et Marie Yacoub – Pierre De Grenoble (Barclay)

The beginning of much bigger things, the duo of Gabriel and Marie Yacoub formed in the early 70s, and after the release of Pierre De Grenoble they almost immediately morphed into Malicorne who effectively dominated the scene, with one Discogs commenter describing them clammily as "occupying a warm moist hole in the ground all of their own". The Yacoubs, and then Malicorne, were pretty square folk revival by all accounts, but with a definite flair and velocity, with notable juice coming from the addition of elements like Hughes De Courson's electric guitar on Malicorne. They escaped many of the pitfalls of traditional repertoire, neither over-egging the pudding nor becoming flaccid or flowery. They took from traditional songbooks of knights and damsels, and sung ballads to the moon, largely sourced from various traditions across France and in French Canada. Marie Yacoub's vocals are often an anchor, with a sinewy strength that keeps the shadowy narratives of folksong in play, even when lost in translation. Pierre De Grenoble was where it began (with unforgivably awful artwork) but it's worth starting from the beginning and working your way through, at least to their best-known album, Almanach. Notably, there's 20-odd pressings of all their 70s albums, most of which can be snagged for very little. The Tangerine Dream of French folk revival, at least for the discerning collector.