La Votz deus Anjos: Polyphonies du Béarn des Pyrénées Gasconnes

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The French label Alpha, in addition to its marvelous series of releases of Baroque and Classical-era music, has issued various unusual discs devoted to indigenous European traditions that are little known among Americans. One was devoted to the tarantella and contained fascinating lore about the tarantula spider whose bite inspired that folk dance. La votz deus Anjos focuses on a type of improvised male polyphony from the Pyrenees mountain region. It's sung in bars and cafes, apparently often after sports events, and one imagines it as a kind of drunken harmony singing. Sports metaphors are natural enough in music, which fuses teamwork and individual virtuosity, but probably no one before the liner note writers on this disc has likened a musical performance to entering a rugby scrum, rugby's much rougher equivalent to the basketball tip-off. The singing is all-male, with no instruments. Each line of music consists of a rhythmically free series of notes ending with a single long note, rather like the lined-out hymnody of England and the rural southern U.S. These singers, however, do not enter antiphonally in the lining-out manner, but instead pick up on the melody and harmonize with it. Though the sound is quite unusual, each selection sounds much like the others, and a quick sample will determine the music's appeal for you, the listener. The texts, mostly old love songs, are in the Occitan dialect of southern France, and a noteworthy feature of the album is that Occitan liner notes are included along with French and English.

The vocal group Balaguèra does a good job of reproducing the rough texture of barroom singing, adding just enough control to make it sound more pleasant than real barroom singing usually is. One wonders whether they might have had singers drop out and enter more often, to produce more of an improvisatory feel. On the whole, though, this disc is a curious find that will produce curious questions at your next social gathering.

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