CORSICA, France — When I first heard the thrilling sound of Corsican singing on a French radio website, its unbridled emotion immediately captivated me. I felt compelled to know more about it. Nothing in my experience of Western choral music had prepared me for its raw power.
Virtual reality can only take you so far. So now here I am touring Corsica’s high country, talking to singers, listening to them sing — and attempting to discover the roots of this wild, haunting music.
No one knows how this chanting began; it is a tradition passed from father to son. “We learn it in our mother’s arms,” says Antoine-Barthélemy Comparetti, a singer I meet. Although the origins of the music are lost, I am convinced that traveling the island will bring me closer to its source.
Known by tourists and locals alike as l’île de beauté, Corsica sits in the Mediterranean Sea 100 miles southeast of Nice and half that distance from the coast of Italy. Everyone from the ancient Phoenicians to the soldiers of Genoa’s medieval city-state has tried to tame Corsica and claim the island. Arguably, no one has succeeded. The soul of Corsica lives in its music.
Corsica has been part of France since 1769. Today’s tourists, most of them Europeans, flock to the island for the hiking, the scenery, and the beaches.
As I swoop up and down the mountain roads in my rental car, I am inspired by the sight of unyielding peaks. It is easy to imagine the singing rising up from these grand mountains.
Philippe Rocchi agrees. “It’s a chant from the mountains,” he says.
Rocchi, a member of the group I Chjami Aghjalesi, grew up in the mountain hamlet of Rusio.
“Any occasion was good for singing,” he says. In church. After church. While working in the fields. At gatherings in the village square in the evening. And especially on the feast day of Saint Cervone, the patron saint of shepherds.
At the village of Vescovato, perched on a hillside south of Bastia, I meet members of the Confraternity of Santa Croce, a church choir dating to 1480. Comparetti and his son Joseph, 19, have arranged for the group to give me a private concert.
Besides the Comparettis, two other singers, Orsu-Paulu Vergellati, a farmer, and Jean-Toussaint Garelli, a vegetable grocer, will perform.
As the group gets ready in the tiny chapel of Santa Croce, Vergellati tells me that liturgical singing is not only a form of prayer, but a way of paying tribute to “our ancestors in the village who passed the tradition to us.”
They begin with a performance of a Good Friday lamentation. I can see the emotion on their faces and hear it in their singing. For half an hour, their voices soar, full and strong.
Then they take me to a cafe in the village square for a Cap Corse, a Corsican fortified wine that packs a wallop. I chat with the senior Comparetti, whose passion for singing belies his background as a retired French paratrooper. We sip our drinks and enjoy the soft summer evening, then he and Joseph give me a tour of the upper village. I look down on a sweeping view of the Mediterranean. Rising from the horizon like an apparition is the island of Elba, where Napoleon, Corsica’s most famous son, was exiled.
In the final days of my trip, I attend a concert in the seaside village of Ghisonaccio given by the professional group Barbara Furtuna, which spends most of the year touring internationally.
“We bring our island with us wherever we go,” says Jean-Philippe Guissani, the group’s spokesman. “Our island identity makes us feel fragile but strong,” he says. “The universality of the music is our force.”
He speaks of the “tears and blood” of Corsica’s tormented history with its successive waves of invaders.
“The singing is marked by tragedy, we joke among ourselves about how tragic it is, yet it is our tradition,” Guissani says. “Our music is tragic but beautiful because it carries so much emotion.”