Songs of Guernsey, Ancient and Authentic The Harp Consort has produced a new CD of ancient songs from the Isle of Guernsey: Les Travailleurs de la Mer. Director Andrew Lawrence-King, a native of Guernsey, tells Sheilah Kast about the project.
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Songs of Guernsey, Ancient and Authentic

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Songs of Guernsey, Ancient and Authentic

Songs of Guernsey, Ancient and Authentic

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(Soundbite of music)

SHEILAH KAST, host:

Eight centuries ago, the residents of an island just off the Normandy coast of France pledged their allegiance to the British crown, but for the people of Guernsey, allegiance certainly did not mean giving up a colorful and vivid cultural identity. To this day, islanders remain proud and fiercely independent and they have kept alive a unique local language, Guernesiais or Guernsey French. A new CD features ancient songs from the Isle of Guernsey performed by the Harp Consort led by Guernsey native Andrew Lawrence-King.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PAUL HILLIER (Baritone): (Singing in Guernesiais)

KAST: We spoke recently with Andrew Lawrence-King, who joined us from the newsroom of BBC Radio Guernsey. He says he borrowed the title of his CD collection, "Les Travailleurs de la Mer," or "The Toilers of the Sea," from the novel by Victor Hugo. Hugo lived in Guernsey for some 15 years, and Andrew Lawrence-King says Hugo played a decisive role in the culture of the island.

Mr. ANDREW LAWRENCE-KING: By writing about the daily life of Guernsey people in a novel that became famous all around the world, Hugo made Guernsey people realize that their lives had artistic meaning and that the beautiful place names, the island traditions, the rich folk culture and their own island language and its traditional poetry had literary value. And so people began to write down things that previously had only been passed down in the oral tradition.

KAST: Was Hugo interested in the music?

Mr. LAWRENCE-KING: Hugo actually detested music, but he was interested in the local folk customs and the local poetry. And so he not only inspired it but also helped it.

KAST: It's amazing these songs survive to this day. How did you go about collecting and researching them?

Mr. LAWRENCE-KING: The words are quite easy to find because there's a great revival of interest in Hugo's time. We're talking about the late 19th century, and so the books were published and they're available in the original editions in the island's libraries. And so my first step was simply to read through all these Guernsey poems and choose some of the best of them. For the music, it's much harder. The music was only written down much later, in the 20th century, and only a very small amount of the island's traditional music actually survived so long. Some was handed down in the oral tradition, as singing games, as dances or as songs, but a lot was lost, and that's had to be reconstructed by looking at some of the music from Normandy, from Britain, even from the south of England.

(Soundbite of music)

KAST: The very first cut on this CD has such an amazing beat. It really swings. What is it that gives this ancient music such a modern feel?

Mr. LAWRENCE-KING: I think the secret of the rhythmic swing of some of this music lies in the particular poetic meters that the poets used and these are dictated by the Guernsey language and the subtle ways in which it's different from continental French and especially from modern French. Guernesiais, Norman French, Guernsey French, is essentially the medieval language of northwestern French, unchanged since the days of William the Conqueror, and those medieval rhythms sort of issue like more jazzy, more clipped and much more irregular than the rhythms of modern or romantic French verse.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CLARA SANABRAS (Soprano): (Singing in Guernesiais)

Mr. LAWRENCE-KING: That was one of the big problems for me in trying to find suitable melodies for those poems where no island melody survived because the Guernsey rhythms are distinctly different from the rhythms of mainland France. What I did have to do was to look and look very hard through hundreds and hundreds of plausible melodies from the time, from the surrounding areas of Normandy and Brittany, in order to find just the one or two that would fit these very strong Guernsey rhythms.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SANABRAS: (Singing in Guernesiais)

KAST: These songs are performed by the English baritone Paul Hillier and soprano Clara Sanabras, who is from Normandy. And there are some fascinating instruments being played as well, exotic instruments like the shawm and the chifournie. What are these instruments?

Mr. LAWRENCE-KING: Well, the shawm is the precursor of the modern oboe.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LAWRENCE-KING: It's a slightly sort of, if you like, less polite version of what the oboe became. This was the instrument that was played throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. It actually originally came from the East. You'll hear the shawm on the third track on the CD, "Les Filles du Cate." Cate, in English Castel, is the parish on the west of Guernsey where George Metivier, the main Guernsey poet, lived most of his life. It's also where I grew up. And according to the words of this poem, the girls of the Castel like the shawm, but they prefer the fiddle because the fiddle really makes them dance. And you hear the shawm playing at the beginning and then the tune is taken over, of course, by the fiddle.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SANABRAS: (Singing in Guernesiais)

Mr. LAWRENCE-KING: The chifournie again is an ancient medieval instrument. It's actually a hurdy gurdy. You turn a handle at one end and that turns a wheel. And the wheel rubs against the strings. So if you like, it's a kind of mechanized violin which gives a sort of fiddle sound but constantly turning, and this medieval instrument was still being played in Guernsey in Victor Hugo's time, when these poems were written down for the first time. One of the most beautiful poems is actually called "Ma Chifournie," "My Hurdy Gurdy." This was actually the poem that began the whole project. A copy of the poem was given to me by my next-door neighbor, Darryl Ogier, who is a historian and is now the island's official archivist. And he gave me this poem, which is about an old man looking at this old hurdy gurdy next to him and saying, `Oh, my hurdy gurdy, you and I have both seen better days. Your wheel is now rotted, even though you used to play lively dance rhythms, but now we've both come to the end of our days. Goodbye, old friend.'

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HILLIER: (Singing in Guernesiais)

KAST: Do you have a favorite song in the collection?

Mr. LAWRENCE-KING: Yes. I think it's probably the lullaby that ends the program. It's a very, very simple tune, just a couple of notes, and with a touching text that--it's a lullaby but a lullaby about fishing, of course. On Guernsey it would have to be. So it says, `Lullaby, lullaby, Grandma has gone fishing. If she catches something, we'll have some. And if not, we'll just have to do without.' And then at the end, `Lullaby, lullaby, Grandma has gone fishing. If she catches lots, there'll even be enough for the cat, but the very best is for the little girl of the house.'

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SANABRAS: (Singing in Guernesiais)

Mr. LAWRENCE-KING: Every time I hear that lullaby, there's a kind of lump in my throat and a tear in my eye.

KAST: Interesting to me because when I heard that before I'd read the lyrics, I thought it was a funeral song.

Mr. LAWRENCE-KING: It's quite haunting as well, and I think there's also something always a little sinister about lullabies. In ancient culture, lullabies were not just a way to send a child sweetly to sleep but were a kind of spell that would put you to sleep. And there was the awareness that this was the nightly sleep, but it was a cousin to death. And so a lullaby is always something a little bit haunting, a little bit sinister as well as calming.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SANABRAS: (Singing in Guernesiais)

Mr. LAWRENCE-KING: Guernsey's own culture is still very strong, and actually in many small ways, islanders are now getting more in touch with the ancient language. Whether or not they speak it fluently every day, little sayings, little snippets of the language are still alive and in regular use. And I think the language is--it's got its fingers dug in there and it might be hanging over the edge of the Guernsey cliff, but it hasn't let go yet, not by a long way.

KAST: Andrew Lawrence-King is director of the Harp Consort. Their new CD, "Les Travailleurs de la Mer," ancient songs from a small island, is on Harmonia Mundi. He spoke to us from the newsroom of BBC Radio Guernsey. You can hear more music from the Harp Consort on our Web site, npr.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Liane Hansen returns next week. I'm Sheilah Kast.

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