For a week in September, the Corsican city of Calvi is soaked in music. It’s the Rencontres de Chants Polyphoniques. Locals and guests unleash the soulful, traditional Corsican chants in every nook and cranny of the historic town including in its most beautiful edifices……the cathedral St Jean-Baptiste and the Saint-Antoine oratory.
The festival was created in 1989 to share Corsica’s musical heritage with the world; today the Rencontres are one of the major events on the island. Polyphonic ensembles from all over the globe (Mongol, Inuit, Tibetan, South African, Cuban, Sardinian, etc.) come to Calvi to add their voices and heritage to the five-day festival.
It would be hard to imagine a more evocative setting for the Rencontres than the thirteenth century Citadel, Calvi’s ‘upper town’. When I visited one September, music seemed to seep from the stones as local and invited a capella groups rehearsed each day and performed each afternoon and evening in the Cathedral, in the oratory, on the roofs and balconies of tall stone houses.
Corsican polyphonic singing employs human voices to produce something like the sounds of an organ, independent drawn-out lines sung simultaneously in dense, horizontal harmony. Very little of it,either sacred or popular, is written.The singers, a minimum of three, traditionally stand in a huddled circle, cupping an ear with one hand.
The final night of the Rencontres, a thousand spectators stood leaning against the walls or sat, quiet as the stones themselves, on the steps of the cobbled street leading to the Place d’Armes. The Citadel was in darkness, the moonlight flickering on and off, turning the distant sea from black to silver as the clouds swept by. At 9:30, the first riveting notes of a Paghjella, the traditional polyphonic song of Corsica, rose like an ancient cry from six quite ordinary looking men spot lit on an improvised stage. This moment alone was worth the journey.