Corsica is renowned for a populace as rugged as its terrain. Indeed, the popular view of Corsica was captured perfectly within the hugely popular graphic novel Asterix In Corsica, wherein the super-strong ancient Gaul found a Mediterranean island inhabited by mountains, chestnuts, wild boar and swarthy locals suspicious of outsiders while busy fighting one another. Fast-forward into the 21st century and things appear not to have changed greatly—road signs in French are painted over, graffiti calling for independence is daubed on every building, restaurants offer wild boar in chestnut sauce and the locals, while friendly, definitely give the impression that it’s best to keep your distance.
Beyond the clichés, Corsica holds many surprises, not least that one of the Continent’s most popular bands is Corsican. I Muvrini (Corsican for the local wild sheep) has existed for 22 years and in that time has had almost as many adventures as Asterix: they’re widely credited with reviving traditional polyphonic singing on the island and they’ve fired a pride in Corsica’s indigenous language and culture.
Their popularity has found 80,000 Corsicans (a third of the population) turning out to see them play a single concert and the French authorities banning them from radio and stage during a period of civil unrest. Most surprisingly, for a group singing in Corsican, is their popularity across France, Spain, Italy and Holland, where they fill stadiums and sell hundreds of thousands of albums. So famous are they that Spain’s most venerated living painter, Antonio Tapies, designs their album covers and Sting chose to record with them.
Organizing to meet I Muvrini in the Corsican port city of Bastia, I’m told they want to do the interview at 7.30 a.m. This band obviously keeps shepherds’, not musicians’, hours. Upon settling in a local cafe I find one of the reasons for their early rising: I Muvrini does pretty much everything themselves. EMI may distribute them internationally but in Corsica they run their own label and recording studio, book their own tours, handle their own publicity, and even sell their CDs village to village. Bandleader Jean-Francois Bernardini explains that self-reliance is a Corsican trait.
“There’s no infrastructure for music in Corsica so it’s natural that we take care of things ourselves. When we started out no one wanted to spend money on us so we organized everything ourselves. Even now when we tour Corsica we take our own stage, lighting, seating—everything!”
The devotion Corsicans show to I Muvrini comes, in part, from the band’s dedication to touring the island every August. This 20-date tour finds them not only playing the cities and beach resorts but also mountain villages where live music almost never reaches.
“There aren’t many CD shops in Corsica so we take the CDs with us and sell them as we tour,” explains singer Martin Vadella.
Jean-Francois and his brother Alain began training as polyphonic singers in the 1970s. Polyphonic singing appears to have once been a popular form of music making across much of Europe—musicologists believe it was a major influence on Neapolitan song (the roots of Caruso). It still survives in parts of the Basque Pyrenees and the Alps and remains especially s