The Strange World Of… France, La Nòvia & Friends

David McKenna goes deep with hurdy-gurdy powered drone giants France and the La Nòvia collective which has, for over a decade, been responsible for breathing new life into French folk music

France by Guillaume Morel

In 1984, Nice-born Valentin Clastrier released an album called La Vieille À Roue De L’Imaginaire – the hurdy-gurdy of the imagination. More familiar with cabaret clubs than folk balls, Clastrier had first picked up the hurdy-gurdy circa 1970 and his non-traditional approach radically expanded the expressive possibilities of the instrument, introducing new techniques and, thanks to a collaboration with luthier Denis Siorat, a prototype electro-acoustic hurdy-gurdy. I mention the album to Yann Gourdon, hurdy-gurdy player with mighty ‘drone-folk’ trio France and one of the founders of French folk collective La Nòvia, suggesting that its title might equally apply to his playing. It turns out the link is more direct than I had thought.

“Valentin Clastrier is someone who had an impact on my generation, he was a real reference for me when I was younger and I took part in several workshops with him. I was kind of overwhelmed at the time, he’s a really unique person, kind of in his own bubble. But if you manage to enter that bubble, he’s really very interesting.” Gourdon’s father was also friends with Siorat and when the young Yann expressed an interest in the hurdy-gurdy, Siorat provided him with one.

“My father was a violin player, he played a lot of traditional and folk music. He brought me to a lot of festivals so it’s an instrument I’d always been aware of. I liked its traditional, round shape. My first hurdy-gurdy wasn’t electro-acoustic, but it had a modern, flat shape and was a bit of a shock when I saw it. But when I started playing it, I was really taken with it and the character of the drone. The whole instrument is across your stomach and the sounding box vibrates against your body. There’s something really physical about it.”

Jennifer Lucy Allan has already provided a sterling introduction to the hurdy-gurdy on this site. The French version, the vieille à roue, has had mixed fortunes through the ages – according to the sleeve notes for La Vieille À Roue De L’Imaginaire (written by Alain Sauron), it was known in the 17th Century as “the beggars’ lyre, the instrument of the tatterdemalions”, gained favour with the aristocracy and bourgeoisie in the 18th Century thanks to “a fashion for shepherdesses”, before being “left to the people” again in the 19th Century. After Clastrier, Gourdon is helping to write a new chapter in its history. With luthier Joël Traunecker, and motorised ‘drone-box’ manufacturer Léo Maurel, he has created a hurdy-gurdy with a motorised wheel. Traunecker is also working on a completely electric, solid-body hurdy-gurdy, and Gourdon has ordered one with a card that’s programmable using open source Max MSP clone Pure Data. 

Gourdon played in his father’s group, Djal, while also beginning to experiment with amplifying the hurdy-gurdy. Discovering electro-acoustic music prompted him to apply to the ENM (École Nationale de Musique, Danse et Art Dramatique) in Villeurbanne, Lyon. “I discovered experimental music and I realised that the hurdy-gurdy lent itself really well to that, with the richness of its timbres and an impressive sonic palette that was interesting to use in that context.” Encountering the work of Alvin Lucier, John Cage and especially Tony Conrad was “a real lightbulb moment because I realised it was possible to work with continuous sounds over a long duration, which again is perfect for the hurdy-gurdy.”

Then at the Beaux Arts in Valence he met Jérémie Sauvage, who now runs the exceptional Standard In-Fi label, and drummer Mathieu Tilly. With Sauvage on bass, the France template was laid down quickly – a single, steady, mid-paced rhythm, which, as on the France Do Den Haag Church album, often goes "boom-boom-boom-tchak" and provides a bedrock for Gourdon’s searing, time-and-sense-scrambling explorations of texture, volume and duration.

“Mathieu said to me not so long ago, ‘I think I’ve understood how to play the rhythm properly’. Ten years later!” Sauvage tells me, chuckling.

The performance space is enlisted as a fourth member; each France recording is of a live show, with the trio responding to the acoustics of the place. Their discography functions as “an archive of moments” according to Sauvage, although nothing could ever capture the deliciously disorientating, hallucinatory experience of being in the room while the band are in full flow. 

Founded at around the same time, a little over a decade ago, La Nòvia is based in the town of Le Puy and now counts 15 members across the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes in southeast central France and beyond, including musicians, two sound engineers – one of whom is Ernest Bergez, who records as Sourdure – and Gourdon’s partner Elodie Ortega, who acts as production manager and works on the collective’s visual identity. The musicians appear in various configurations across the collective’s releases – solo, in duos, trios or in groups that each have their own particular characteristics while remaining coherent within La Nòvia’s aesthetic. The first release was by La Baracande (“the best doom band in the world” according to La Tène’s Alexis Degrenier), but Toad, featuring Gourdon, Guilhem Lacroux and Pierre-Vincent Fortunier, are its ur-group, spearheading the marriage of experimental music with traditional forms and local folk repertoires. 

Although France fall outside the purview of La Nòvia, the two have more in common than Gourdon’s hurdy-gurdy. Many of the musicians I spoke to were clear that process, more than improvisation, is fundamental to their output. And although some, like Lacroux, are comfortable with discussing the music in terms of psychedelia, the word "ivresse" (drunkenness or intoxication) recurs more frequently. Gourdon maintains that while he’s not really sure what the term psychedelic means, he is keen on the idea of “losing your bearings” as both a musician and a listener.

La Nòvia and France also share a discreet but keenly felt political outlook. The notion of the collective is political in itself of course but, according to violineuse Perrine Bourrel, there’s also “a real political commitment that a lot of people don’t necessarily see because it’s not dramatic and direct. What I’ve been aware of for a while now is that these songs haven’t been passed on through schools and institutions, but by people. It’s the music of autodidacts.”

Faune’s self-titled 2017 album, featuring Auvergnat folk songs reverse-engineered from orchestral arrangements by composer Marie-Joseph Canteloube, points to another common cause. Canteloube worked with the collaborationist Vichy government in Nazi-occupied France, producing the Songs Of France radio broadcasts that helped to popularise his takes on the region’s folk music; Faune’s album releases the songs from their capture at the service of a nationalist and xenophobic ‘traditionalist’ project and returns them to a folk idiom. And when Gourdon, Sauvage and Ortega were casting about for a band name, “at some point we said we’d like a name that sounds really French and Elodie said ‘How about France, then?” Gourdon recalls. “I was really unsure but Elodie said it can also be someone’s name, a lovely name, detached from all the nationalist meanings it could have. What I really like is the discrepancy – when I talk about France it has nothing to do with the country, it’s France like a first name.” According to Sauvage, “I wanted it to be one word like Suicide or Love. And then people can take the name how they want. We’ve been criticised or had people asking why we chose the name, but always before people have seen us, not afterwards.”

But the La Nòvia groups’ innovations were not well-received initially by folk audiences, even after people had heard them. Lacroux’s recollection is that “we really ran up against the conservatism that’s there in the scene. People would cut the power, they called the police, a La Baracande show ended in a fight.” As Gourdon points out, “the notion of traditional music is complex. For me it’s something that is perpetually being reinvented, so everything that we do in France and La Nòvia is aligned with a tradition, but a tradition which is in permanent movement.”

Bremaud agrees that while the folk scene is what forged his identity as a musician, “in La Nòvia we don’t look to what was done before as a validation for what we’re doing now.” 

Is it possible that this music was ever played the way the La Nòvia groups play it? “There are no recordings obviously,” says Bremaud, “but there are written accounts from the 19thh Century describing a kind of dance called la gognade where there was a sort of drunkenness that overcame the participants and the dancing become much more demonstrative, less controlled. And you can imagine that the music in those moments might bear a resemblance to some of the things we do.”

The one link Gourdon didn’t want to sever is the connection between folk music and dancing. “That means keeping in touch with that community because that’s where you’ll find people who will attend folk balls. It’s an integral part of music, and you find that with France too, even if people don’t dance the bourrée to it, but there is that bodily dimension.” 

At least it seems that there has been something of a détente since those early days. “Now we realise that what we do has made its way out into the world and the ideas have spread through that community. There are groups emerging now with an aesthetic that just wouldn’t have worked 15 years ago.” 

NB: The albums selected below have either been released by La Nòvia (sometimes in collaboration with other labels) or on Sauvage’s Standard In-Fi, with the exception of La Tène who feature two Swiss members (Cyril Bondi and Laurent Peter) as well as, on their most recent release, several members of La Nòvia. I have focused primarily on the groups rather than solo, duo or trio releases.

France – Do Den Haag Church (2014) originally a CD-R 2009

Jérémie Sauvage (bass): This one is atmospheric. It was incredibly cold in the church, minus two degrees. The recording is down to luck, there were 30 people there, maybe fewer, and we had put the Zoom H2 recorder on the floor near the audience and asked an Italian friend to hit the record button. We’ve played in other large places – a lot of people have put us on in very resonant spaces in a bid to recapture what we did on Do Den Haag. But in fact it sounded a lot less atmospheric in the church. The dry sound was really important as well, there’s a great blend of the two (on the album), and where we’d placed the recorder sounded great and captured the reverb well – if we’d put it five metres further forward or a metre higher it might have sounded like garbage. 

Jericho – S/T (2015)

Jacques Puech (vocals, cabrette): I’m from Cantal, a region where the cabrette (a type of bagpipe from the Auvergne) was still widely played in a traditional style when I was little. My grandparents pushed me to learn how to play. It was quite a strange position to be in because I was at a music school, with the conservatism that goes with that, but I was playing this instrument and performing at bals (folk balls) as well. 

The cabrette is a relatively new instrument, from the end of the 18th and 19th Century. It was invented in Paris within the Auvergnat community. It was extremely popular in those circles, and for the bals, which were like the nightclubs. The guys doing it developed to a really high level technically, it was really competitive in Paris between the different styles as they were trying to attract the most people to their establishments. We’re lucky to have recordings because it was the early days of recording, and this was fashionable music.

Violineuses – S/T (2015)

Perrine Bourrel (violin): I’ve always played violin, since I was eight years old. When I was 20, I came across a collection of folk songs by violineurs (male violin players) from the Southern Alps, where I live. One that really made an impression on me was Emile Escalle, who had a very specific repertoire, with a dance called a rigodon which isn’t played in the same way anywhere else. From that point I dove into this music which comes from an oral tradition. But I felt pretty alone in the way I approached it. When I discovered the work of some of the musicians from La Nòvia it was a shock because suddenly I felt much less alone. I suggested to Mana (Serrano) that we become a duo after I saw her at a festival, and I appreciated the energy of her violin playing and the fact she was a singer too. I felt like we were in the same place musically. I don’t know of any other violineuses where I grew up, I’ve heard about one in Auvergne. I think it was very rare. Why? Because women didn’t have the leisure time to learn an instrument. But women sang, because they could carry on looking after children and doing the washing while singing. So calling ourselves violineuses is showing that it’s possible for us to do it today. It means more than just what the word means.

Omertà – S/T (2017)

JS (bass, guitar): Romain Hervault (bass and harmonium) and I would provide the sound and visual artist Florence Giroud would write or use texts to read over the music. She was really good at arranging partnerships, so we had instruments we hadn’t played before, xylophones, timpani… She had all these really beautiful lyrics that had been written for her by a close friend of hers Raphael Defour, who she’d been in a relationship with, about a summer spent in Corsica, a teenage thing like that. He wasn’t credited at the time because he was in a relationship and he didn’t want to cause problems, even though it was beautiful writing. I asked Ernest (Bergez) who had already worked with Tanz Mein Herz to help record it, and his impact through the mixing was extraordinary. It took about a month, because the initial recordings were pretty scrappy. It was our attempt to do proper songs anyway!

Ernest Bergez (recording, mixing and mastering): I’m not always sure what I bring of myself to different projects, but I know I want things to be clear, for the listener to be able to grasp what’s at stake in the music. But it can have completely saturated or degraded sound. I love a lot of folk music, with very raw sounds, but I also listen to a lot of rap, reggae and dub, where the bass is powerful but it doesn’t overwhelm things.

La Baracande – S/T (2017)

Basile Bremaud (vocals, violin): La Baracande’s repertoire is very particular, very focused on vocals, and it’s not really for dancing, it’s what we call "complaintes" and based on songs collected in the 60s by a singer called Virginie Granouillet [aka La Baracande]. They’re songs in a very literary French register, even though her native language was Occitan. Complaintes are dramatic songs, which could be about love but often they’re an account of real-life events, crimes or murders that really captured the imaginations of people in the 18th or 19th Century. These were transformed into songs, which allowed the stories to be spread far and wide. And there were people whose job was to tour markets selling sheets with the words to the songs but also singing them for people who couldn’t read. 


Faune – S/T (2017)

Guilhem Lacroux (guitar, lapsteel etc): This is the group which most sounds like the US or UK folk rock of the late 60s, early 70s.

GL: Yeah. Sometimes I think there is a link between the music of Cantal and American music. And it’s a more song-based project. The sound of each group is always down to who’s participating in it, we’re not interchangeable. But the idea at the beginning was to take pieces by Canteloube, a composer born at the end of the 19th Century who was a pretty disgusting character, who took folk collections, transcribed them, said that he had collected them and then arranged them for an orchestra. So we wanted to take these songs and bring them back to a folk music aesthetic. We don’t have collected versions of these songs, so we reversed the process – there’s an eating song, rather than a drinking song, which is quite rare. Otherwise I think the aesthetic of Faune is to do with ‘holes’, space, without the drones.  

Sourdure – Mantras (2017)

EB: It started with a commission from the Échos festival in the Hautes-Alpes, on the site of the Faï farm which is on a slope, facing a crescent-shaped cliff. The way everything is laid out makes for a pretty impressive echo. The festival had arranged for the musicians they’d invited to be there in residence for a week, but I was invited quite late on, so I had a week to write everything and get a performance ready. So it was a really accelerated process, and very spontaneous. There are three giant horns facing the cliff, for the bass, mid and treble, but it’s a mono system so if you want to have things coming out of a different horn you have to play with the frequencies. And you have to write for the system, for the echo, because it’s so eloquent in itself, it’s a collaboration with the place. I had already been to the festival, and I challenged myself not to make pieces based on drones, but more cyclical, rhythmic ideas.


Toad – S/T (2018)

GL (12-string guitar, bass pedal): For this album we said that the music was based on traditional Belgian songs because the SACEM (the French equivalent of the PRS) was bugging us about rights so we just said that they were folk songs. For my part in it, it was influenced by a singer who was collected/recorded in the 70s called Jean Vacher, who sang and played a guitar he’d found somewhere, he tuned it and played drone-like things which are quite loose. So I wanted to have this drone-y bass that was both tuned and untuned. For me, psychedelia is a desire to alter people’s sensory perception. That’s what interests me, to play with the sense of time, for people to feel like something is moving through them, whether it’s calm or a state of excitation. To allow people to have another experience of reality. And the link to folk music is that you have that when you’re dancing, or playing it, with themes and variations, there is this change in the experience of time.

La Tène – Abandonnée/Melaja (2018)

Alexis Degrenier (amplified hurdy-gurdy): I was a percussionist originally, and then I had an accident that left me needing to use a wheelchair. But I studied classical and jazz percussion, and piano as well. I became interested in ethnomusicology and percussion from the Arab world, Indian music… but I’ve been fascinated by the sound of the hurdy-gurdy since I was very young. My mother told me that when I was little, the drones from hurdy-gurdys or organs were the only things that really calmed me down. When I was at music school, I met Yann Gourdon for the first time, and then again later thanks to my musical obsessions. In France he has a much coarser sound than I do, while in La Tène there’s something more melancholy and sombre. It’s why, curiously, we’ve had articles on black metal blogs in the US. 

I prefer the term "obsédant" (obsessive or haunting) to trance, because for me trance is a term for something that you can’t really see or hear in Europe. It’s linked to things that are a bit more profound, like the music of Iranian Sufis which is much more spiritual. We work more with tension and release. But everyone feels these things differently. When people see me, they say it looks like I’m in a trance. I can fall asleep playing the hurdy-gurdy. It happened to me once on stage! Since the beginning (with La Tène) we’ve had the idea to make tracks that would be the length of a side of vinyl, with a process that is: for "x" number of minutes we do this, the drums will change at this point, the hurdy-gurdy will do that at this point… sometimes changing together, sometimes independently. The hurdy-gurdy is the instrument with the biggest margin for change within the repetition. The names for all the tracks come from hamlets, particularly in Switzerland, tiny places on a map but where there isn’t really anything. 

Tanz Mein Herz – Quattro (2021)

JS: I’m really attached to this album. We had the full line up of Tanz Mein Herz on it. There have always been musicians dropping in and out and here it’s like we managed to get everyone that we’d worked with in the past together, or that we had wanted to work with – Alexis (Degrenier) was the new member. It was kind of open to anyone to present their idea of what this group is. Before it was just a thing between friends, nobody wanted to step on anyone else’s toes.


GL: There’s still this pleasure of playing together, the way it circulates – as there are quite a few of us, the arrangements, in real time, are really about when each person plays or doesn’t play even though the structure remains flexible. So it’s about playing or not, and what people play because in Tanz Mein Herz everyone can play at least two or three instruments. 

This is the most imposing, ambitious TMH album

GL: Yes I think that’s right. We said to ourselves that it was both heroic and erotic!

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