Moussu T: A troubadour for today

Occitan was the poetic language of 12th-century Europe - and it's good enough for him too, Moussu T tells Philip Sweeney
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Aperitif time at a Marseille music festival. The four members of the combo called Moussu T e lei Jovents (Mister T and the Youngsters in Occitan, the original language of the South of France) arrive in the hospitality tent. They resemble an amiable group of after-work artisans, and pastis and conversation are soon flowing. "There's always plenty to drink when we're around," says François Ridel, alias Tatou, alias Moussu T himself. Yet another reason to give thanks for Moussu T, in addition to a capacity for musical entertainment that is gaining them fans way beyond their Provençal home.

The Moussu T story began a year ago, with the release of Mademoiselle Marseille, a set of songs in a neo-traditional Southern chanson style, peppered with references to Jamaica, Brazil and the Mississippi Delta, sung in Occitan and French, and soaked in the atmosphere of the rough cosmopolitan port of Marseille. "We wanted to focus on the multicultural seafaring aspect of Provence, rather than the rural cliché version - lavender fields and cribs," says Tatou. "Marseille was always a lively, mixed city, and it had its own popular-music scene - the Marseille opérette of the Thirties, for instance. Vincent Scotto was from Marseille."

The vestiges of Marseille's heyday as a musical centre to rival Paris are still visible, just. Beside the Vieux Port, there's a bust of Scotto, the composer whose 4,000 songs were made famous by stars from Maurice Chevalier and Tino Rossi to Josephine Baker, and whose opérettes, comedies larded with songs, played to crowds of both locals and Parisian toffs. Nearby, the Alcazar music hall still has its elegant façade, though nowadays it's a cheap clothing store. The old red-light district of Le Panier, up the hill towards the cathedral, is largely gentrified, and the boui-boui on the rue Torte, memorably evoked on Mademoiselle Marseille, is long gone.

"The German army blew up the rue Torte as a reprisal for the Resistance," says Tatou, going on to define a boui-boui as "a bar you wouldn't want to go into", and sympathising with my disappointment at the demise of a centre of debauchery once so famous that guidebooks to Marseille's "closed zone" circulated among crewmen from Hong Kong to Buenos Aires.

It's 20 years since Tatou first began imbibing the history of Marseille, having just moved to the area. Not actually to Marseille, but to La Ciotat, the shipbuilding town along the coast, whose shingle beaches, empty factories and idle cranes furnish the Moussu T canon. It's a surprise to learn that this pastis-drinking Occitan speaker was born in the Parisian suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine. "I came to Marseille because of the Occitan language," says Tatou. "I had a grandmother and an uncle in La Ciotat, whom I visited as a child, and a Gasconne nanny who spoke to me in Occitan, so I started early. Very few old people still speak Occitan. But there's a new generation like us who choose to speak it."

The language is clearly enriched by its new champions: "M'atubi lo babolin e zo, tòrnidins lo liech" - I light a joint and hop back into bed - from a Mademoiselle Marseille song is not the sort of phrase found in the works of the 1904 Nobel Prize-winning Occitan poet Frédéric Mistral, whom Moussu songs none the less quote. Nor of the troubadours who made Occitan the main poetic language of 12th-century Europe.

In spite of its light touch, Moussu T's work has a serious aesthetic backbone, and is the latest chapter in the Occitan revival movement, which became prominent in the post-1968 student rejection of centralised élitist Paris culture. In the mid-Eighties, a handful of Southern groups arose, following the writings of the teacher and thinker Félix Castan. Chief of these was the Fabulous Trobadors from Toulouse, whose leader Claude Sicre continues to be a one-man vortex of music, theory and cultural activism.

In Marseille, meanwhile, Tatou formed the group Massilia Sound System, which achieved considerable success with a curious Occitan-Jamaican blend referred to as "trobamuffin". He explains: "We were trying to find a modern popular sound that would go with our lyrics. Claude Sicre observed a similarity between the fast song-duels of the Northern Brazilian repentistas and emboladores, and the verbal jousting of the troubadours, and we felt the same about the Jamaican toasters."

However, the real strength of Moussu T's new work is its diminution of the tropical element in favour of a deeper exploration of a Marseille sound. Diminution, but not elimination, because Moussu T has also come up with a more powerful underpinning for the multicultural approach. Its inspiration was a novel, Banjo, by the early-20th-century Jamaican-American writer Claude McKay, set in the dockside stews of the 1920s Vieux Port, and featuring the adventures of a gang of Caribbean deckhands. The novel's effect on the Moussu T aesthetic was so profound that the opening pages of the book are posted on their website, and the then trio engaged a Brazilian percussionist as their fourth member.

Moussu T are now ready to release their second album, Forever Polida. It is "more joyous, more festive", according to Tatou. More romantic, too, including the title track, polida being Occitan for "pretty". Indeed, Moussu T's love songs are a delight, affectionate rather than torrid, capturing an old-fashioned working-class tenderness.

But for all their musical accessibility, Moussu T's songs do rely for maximum appreciation on lyrics. Is this not a problem in their new international career? "Not really. Foreign audiences relate to the general feeling of our music," says Tatou, and finishes his pastis.

'Forever Polida' is released on 4 September