Les Mediterraneennes, Argelès-sur-Mer, France

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The Independent Culture

The concept of a Mediterranean music festival, such as the Europe in Union mini-series starting in London this weekend, isn't new. The Barbican staged a fine example a couple of years ago, and the region itself has several. Since 1996, Les Méditerranéennes, now sited outside the town of Argelès-sur-Mer in French Catalonia, has been prominent among them. As a location, this is as appropriate as they come: the 15th-century Catalan kingdom was so extensive - Montpellier, Sicily, Naples, bits of Greece - that the Mediterranean was known as "the Catalan lake".

The concept of a Mediterranean music festival, such as the Europe in Union mini-series starting in London this weekend, isn't new. The Barbican staged a fine example a couple of years ago, and the region itself has several. Since 1996, Les Méditerranéennes, now sited outside the town of Argelès-sur-Mer in French Catalonia, has been prominent among them. As a location, this is as appropriate as they come: the 15th-century Catalan kingdom was so extensive - Montpellier, Sicily, Naples, bits of Greece - that the Mediterranean was known as "the Catalan lake".

The Château de Valmy overlooks the lake from hills north of the Spanish border. A white turreted building surrounded by vineyards, the château was built by the makers of Job cigarette papers, appropriately enough in view of the joint consumption of fans listening to Le Peuple de l'Herbe, the latest French dance sensation to hit Argelès. Intra-Med cross-fertilisation is no fusty musicological thesis, as the coachloads of French clubbers who cross the border to the raves of Lloret De Mar show.

Les Méditerranéennes itself is starting to foster interesting new creations. One of the most fascinating of this year's acts was the duo of Pascal Comelade, a French composer resident in Barcelona, and Roy Pachi, a Sicilian trumpeter in the ambit of the world-music star Manu Chao.

Comelade and Pachi met at Argelès last year. They returned to open the bill with a quirky new five-piece group sounding like a hybrid of Erik Satie and Fred Buscaglione, the 1950s Neapolitan pop crooner and wide boy known as L'uomo dal whisky facile. Led by Pachi on muted trumpet and exaggerated Fifties pop-crooner voice, with Comelade on grand piano, toy piano and much else, the quintet romped through a medley of pop esoterica, leaving the audience in a state of simultaneous awe and bemusement.

The festival opened and closed with contrasting Marseilles-based acts: the traditional male choir La Cor de la Plana; and Massilia Sound System, the pioneers and now stars of Occitan-language rap. The trend was for fusion. Only the Portuguese fado singer Katia Guerreiro (not strictly a Mediterranean artist) purveyed a pure traditional genre. Barcelona, constantly strengthening its status as the regional music capital, offered flamenco-dub-rock from Ojos de Brujo and Barcelona street sounds - mainly reggae, it transpired, from the collective Colifata.

The North African contingent was on paper a touch weak: just Souad Massi, a pleasant young folk-rock singer from Algeria via Paris, and the current darling of European world-music festivals. But the Maghrib was represented, albeit at a dramatic historic distance, by the most remarkable act of the weekend and the most wholly representative of the Mediterranean. Enrico Macias is a French chanson-pop star of the Sixties, relaunched on a platform of nostalgia and roots re-discovery. So far so predictable, although his story is extraordinary. An Algerian Jew from a musical dynasty, he fled Algiers with the exodus of Franco-Algerian pieds-noirs in the chaos of his former country's independence in 1962. The repertoire he performs is a brilliantly timely mix of the Arabo-Andalous music his family excelled in, touches of jazz, and French and Spanish pop and chanson, all performed by a superb 11-piece orchestra of strings, percussion and guitars.

Among the audience were elderly locals whose emotion was clear. Argelès is a stronghold of pieds-noirs, many of whom arrived at nearby Port Vendres. With music of this power and complexity, the Mediterranean looks more and more like a destination for music, not just sea, sun and sangria.

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