WORLD MUSIC / Too fabulous Toulouse: The Fabulous Trobadors prefer to rap in an old French dialect. Philip Sweeney cornered them on the street in Toulouse

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The Independent Culture
IN THE worldwide spread of rap and ragamuffin styles, France has been as active a nation as any, and its production has been as patchy. For every brilliant rhythm-maker or inventive lyricist such as Daddy Yod or M C Solaar, there are half a dozen young nonentities whose espousal of the hip new street art consists of donning a pair of oversize Nikes, peppering their babble with 'Yo]' and strutting back and forth across a stage.

It was not with unalloyed enthusiasm, therefore, that I opened a package from Bondage Productions of Paris to find a record by The Fabulous Trobadors, an 'ethno-rap' group from Toulouse, who sing partly in Occitan, the old southern French langue d'oc and have attracted a good deal of French press attention over recent months. OK, nice gimmick, boys, but does this really warrant the diminution of scarce shellac and plastic resources?

Actually, it is rather good. Musically rough and ready - a tambourine, bits of drum machine, desultory strokes of bass or some other stringed instrument, the odd sample passage, and what sounds like a human voice doing silly but quite effective impersonations of DJs scratching, trombones tooting, electronics bleeping, the whole thing recorded in the street or some attic by the sound of it. But the words - witty, original, a mixture of intelligence and genuine eccentricity, briefly recalling long-dormant memories of Frank Zappa's daft protege of the early Seventies, Larry 'Wild Man' Fischer.

And the subject matter: here's a number called 'Cachou Lajaunie', apparently a paean to a Toulouse-made brand of throat lozenge, in which the rapid-fire rhyming interchange of the two voices intersperses lengthy expositions of the ingredients and beneficial properties of the cachou in question, with equally rapid-fire rhyming offering-and-accepting badinage: 'You want a cachou?'/ 'Beaucoup'/'Which?'/'a Lajaunie'/'Go on, help yourself'/'OK'/'What do you say?'/'Thank you'/'Thank you who?'/'Thank you Lajaunie'. This clearly merits an expedition to Toulouse.

The most striking way to mug up on the troubador background of the old capital of Occitania is to gaze at a beautiful mural by Jean- Paul Laurens above the main staircase of the 18th-century red brick city hall in Toulouse. This depicts a session of the 14th-century Floral Games, in which versifiers and musicians, heirs to the medieval tradition of courtly love, competed for gold and silver violets in front of the ruling burghers of a city subdued to the French crown but still highly autonomous and democratic, and conscious of its southern, Occitan, cultural leadership.

Ten minutes walk away, in their home quartier of Arnaud Bernard, Toulouse's mini-Camden, Les Fabulous, as everyone seems to call them, are playing. It is one of the regular Thursday neighbourhood dinners, when long tables are placed around the statue in the small Place des Tiercerettes and everyone stays out chatting and mingling over the empty wine bottles till the early hours. This particular dinner is in honour of a visiting party of native Americans, and an Osage Sioux flag is draped on a wall beside the yellow-cross-on-red Occitan banner.

After the meal, an Osage Sioux, in golfing slacks and powder blue sports shirt, delivers a couple of war chants and a rendition of 'Freres Jacques', and the Fabulous take to the stage, or pavement steps to be exact, and sound precisely as they do on record.

The bleeps, scratches and other impersonations emerge from the mouth of a slight, humorous-looking, fair-haired younger rapper named Ange Bofareu (Ange B), the second voice, and North African-style percussion, is supplied by Claude Sicre (Doctor Cachou to his public), a tall, bespectacled, 40ish Bohemian-intellectual with collar-length hair.

In situ, the great virtue of the Trobadors' songs - their everyday, local subject matter - becomes more apparent. 'Come On Every Baudis]' turns out to be a torrent of semi-scurrilous, semi- affectionate rhetoric addressed to the 'Adonis-like' Mayor of Toulouse, the smart young Dominique Baudis. 'Ai] Que Lo Babua Me Pica]' is a risque neo-folk ditty in Occitan, which sounds, as you might imagine, like a mixture of French, Italian, Catalan and Spanish. The Pizzeria Don Camillo, recommended on record by the Trobadors in return for free pizzas, is right behind me, and doing a good trade. 'Cachou Lajaunie' ends with the distribution of handfuls of lozenges, supplied by two representatives of the company who are standing in the crowd.

The Fabulous's subject matter does not occur by accident: Dr Cachou says that the 'chanson de proximite' is a key idea. Claude Sicre is not short of ideas. His interest in Occitan culture is predated by a deep fascination with rural blues, a subsequent realisation that the folk music of France's own Deep South constitutes a 'blues' on his own doorstep and a new passion for 'cultural decentralisation' as espoused for decades in the writings of the Occitan thinker and teacher Felix Castan.

'I was born in Toulouse, but I didn't discover 'Occitanism' until I was in Paris in the Seventies, when there was a sort of post-68 Occitan revival movement.' It was Castan's 'Anti-Regionalist and Multicultural Manifesto', a moderate and level-headed alternative to the extreme anti-centralists, which set Sicre on a 10-year quest for a new southern French cultural identity.

During a visit to north-eastern Brazil he discovered that the emboladores of the Nordeste bore a distant relationship both with the 'verbal jousts' of the medieval troubadors, and with more recent Languedoc folk styles such as the batestas and cantarias. Sitting in his little study at the end of a wooden balcony, Sicre roots through the piles of books and papers covering every surface: copies of earlier recordings made during a decade playing the folk and alternative festivals of the South-west; a slim volume on the Toulouse Carnival, which Sicre was instrumental in reviving; 'Viva L'Americke]', subtitled 'Some blues ideas to colour France', with a preface from the historian Theodore Zeldin; and copies of 'Linha Imaginot', the musical bulletin of the Institute of Occitan Studies.

It is very bracing to find such a quantity of lively scholarship boisterously off-set by the Trobadors' music. I leave Sicre in a bar playing pinball with Ange B's girlfriend, the Trobadors' number 'Homo Flipper' - which announces homo sapiens' successor as homo flipper, 'the latest one out and the best' - buzzing merrily in my mind.