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About fife from Nice - The musical traditions from County of Nice (MTCN)Traditional music from County of Nice (France)
Instruments of traditional music from County of Nice : fife, drum, petadou dins A lou fifre nissart - Li tradicioun musicali de la countéa de Nissa (MTCN)
Instruments of traditional music from County of Nice : fife, drum, petadou dans Au fifre niçois - Les traditions musicales du comté de Nice (MTCN)
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Ce qui du fifre vient s’en va par le tambour!
(What from the fife is coming goes away by the drum!)
Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, IV.3.
or instruments used in the traditional music of the County of Nice.

1. The fife playing area in traditional music
2. Origin of fife use in traditional music
3. The melodic section
     3a. The fife
     3b. The violin
     3c. The cornet
     3d. The hurdy-gurdy (wheel fiddle)
4. The rhythmical section
     4a. The snare drum
     4b. La timbala (the bass drum)
     4c. Lou petadou, or pignata (pot, or jug)
5. The vespa

The fife playing area in traditional music

The playing area of the fife in traditional music was and is very vast even today: from French Flanders (Dunkerque) and Belgian Flanders (country of Entre-Sambre-et-Meuse) to Gascony, through the County of Nice, Provence, Low-Languedoc. The use of the instrument is also attested in Low-Brittany, in a more locally way, at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th. In each of these regions, of which it is interesting to note that they are for the most part border countries of the French Kingdom under the Ancient Regime, the play is practised in couple (fife, drum), or in trio (fife, drum, bass drum), the same trio which is found in the County of Nice or in the Gascon ripataoulère. The “angelic” flute is here associated with the “demoniac” drum, as in many other traditions (galoubet-tambourine in Provence, txistu-tamboril in the Basque country, fluviol-tamboril in Catalogne, and as well in Laos, in the Thibet...).

Origin of fife use in traditional music

In the medieval time, musical instruments were distributed in two groups: the “high” and the “low” instruments, according not to their tessiture, but to the intensity of the emitted sounds. To the “high” instruments the symbol of the civil, military or religious power. To the “low” instruments returns the princely or popular entertainment, the bustle of private festivity, noble, middle-class or popular (Cf. Luc Charles-Dominique). Introduced in France in the 15th century by Swiss mercenaries enlisted within Louis XII army, the fife force itself among the family of flutes as a “high” instrument.
Before the County of Nice, from September 29th 1792, see its roads and its footpathes traveled by the Armée d’Italie of the french invader, independant battalions and a “national guard” where existing in Nice. They where well trained and armed, and where already marching at the beat of fife and drum.

How did these instruments manage to meet in the traditional music of the County? For the group fife-drum(s), the military origin from the fifes and drums batteries seems likely, although the conditions of the adoption in the traditional music of the County are still badly known today. It can be supposed that former soldiers brought back in the country a musical art acquired when serving in the army, having ended their military commitments. The military calls would then have been gradually transformed into popular melodies. This hypothesis finds a beginning of confirmation in the fact that one of the tunes played at the church during the Host elevation is exactly called The Diane, from the name of the military sounding of reveille.

The use of the fife in the traditional music of the County is given evidence from the 17th century. Later (during 18th century?), following the development of the strolling fiddlers activity, the violin came to add its timbre to the one of the fife.

First used by the military units at the beginning of the 19th century, the cornet is also adopted by the “orpheonic movement” (harmonic societies, brass bands...) born under the French Restoration, which develops from the middle of the 19th century. It is at this moment that the “piston” cornet comes to join fife and drums, certainly by bringing its repertory of light music, polkas, scottish...

The melodic section

The fife

The fife (lou siblet), from the german pfeifer (whistle). Small wooden (ebony) flute, of slightly tapered bore, with six or seven holes, and with a key or without key. Its small size confers it a treble register, within a tempered diatonic scale.
In the infantry as in French Marine, calls and batteries were at first played by the drum and the fife, this last one being then replaced by the cornet, then (from 1831?) by the (unkeyed) bugle.
Formerly in E flat (according to the modern diapason, A3 = 440 Hz) pitch, fifes in several tonalities (G, C, D, E flat) are found today. Is this ancient E flat tonality that influenced manufacturing of brass instruments?

The violin

The history of rubbed-string bow instruments gets lost in the ancient time. The instrument of origin is probably the ravanastron, the legend of which reports that it would have been invented by Râvana, king of Ceylon, towards 3000 BC. The rebab is then found in Arabia, which the Saracens imported in Spain in the 8th century. Its descendant, the rebec with three strings, is diffused in the 12th century in all Europe. Popular instrument, it was very used by baladins, jugglers. At about 14th century, the medieval vièle appears: instrument with bow, oblong or oval shaped, it had from three to six strings and a finger board provided with stops. It was held pressed on the breast or put on the shoulder or on the knees. One of its strings often acted as drone. The medieval vièle was used by the troubadours for the Court music, the festivities and the dances.
Then came viols which propagate from the Iberic peninsula in all Europe towards the end of the 15th century. In Italy, the viol with drone became the lira da braccio (lyre for arm): seven strings, among which two are anachronically next to the neck, as on the theorbo. With its arched bottom, its C-shaped cuts, its sound post, no doubt, the violin is not far...
Finally, the violins family. Towards 1530, in the region of Milan, appear the first violin (soprano) and probably the viola, the tenor (today having disappeared) and the bass, well known under its current name: the cello. The double bass will be born later.
These last two families were for a long time rivals, but violins, more powerful, more brilliant, had the preference of our modern ears, whereas viols da braccio and da gamba, with their timbre so sweet and homogeneous timbre, almost disappeared.
It was not rare that the popular intrument is made by the fiddler, who cut himself the wood, spun its strings and used the finished product.
For the anecdote, the pochette is a little fiddle used formerly by dance-teachers. It was so small as it could be slided in the pocket, where from the name!

The cornet

The cornet is a brass instrument, derived from the postilion horn at the end of the 1820’s. Its cylindro-conical bore, its size smaller that the trumpet one’s, its big technical flexibility made it easier to play than the trumpet of this time, and made it quickly adopt by the western military musics. Generally three-valved, in B flat pitch.

The hurdy-gurdy (wheel fiddle)

The hurdy-gurdy (wheel fiddle), which is given nowadays a revival, was played in the traditional music of the County, particularly in the hinterland. It left some trails in the iconography, cf. Sansougna.

The rhythmical section

The drums

The snare drum is closely connected to the tabor, a drum with two membranes, often equiped with a simple gut, being played in association with a three holes pipe in the European popular music of the Middle-Ages. Until 19th century, military drum (rope tension drum) consists of a wooden, rather high, cylindrical box, in extremities of which are tightened two animal skins, maintained by two tension circles of painted wood. At this period, tension circles are connected together by a small cord provided with leather straps.
In the middle of the 19th century, the cylindrical shaft grows shorter and becomes metal, in brass, as well as tightening circles, connected by straps made of brass: this is rolling drum. Skins are stretched out by tightening butterfly nuts on brass straps. The lower snare skin, thiner than the striking skin, is surmounted by an outside snare being consisted from eight to ten guts twisted in a string, giving to the drum its distinctive sound, by vibration of the snare against that head of the drum which is not struck.
Finally, by the adoption of an even shorter shaft, of synthetic fibers skins, of binding screws and of a snare made with a network of metal turns, the sound of the drum becomes clearer and more defined. This is the modern snare drum of the jazz battery.
The rolling drum was used by the fiddlers until the 1960’s. The current tendency among the traditional music groups of the County is a return to the military drum, which offers a more mellow sound.
All these drums are struck with wooden drumsticks on their upper skin. These instruments with a dry, treble and powerful sound, mark in a legible and elegant way the phrasing of the musical subjects.

La timbala (the bass drum)

The bass drum (la timbala) appears in the European music in the 18th century, coming from the Turkish military music: the orchestras on horseback of the Janissaires used the davul, a long drum with two skins, played with two drumsticks, about which the legend says that it was heard to kilometres. The European brass bands adapted the instrument by carrying it vertically on its edge, on a ventral way. At first wooden, the shaft of the bass drum evolved as that of the snare drum towards a metal manufacturing.
For its use in the traditional music of the County of Nice, it is handy struck on only one of its two skins, by a leather bass drumstick. Its big diameter gives it a deep, rather glowing sound. The very simple language of the bass drum marks the tempo of the tunes.

Lou petadou, or pignata (pot)

Organologically, the petadou, or pignata (pot, or jug), is a friction drum, with the nearby sound of that of the double bass. This instrument was primitively built from a hollow marrow, or gourd. Fragile material, to which it is today prefered an earth-enware jar or a baked clay pot, closed by the skin of an ass (or of a stillborn calf), to which is fixed perpendicularly in its center a reed rod. Here, the petadou skin is not directly struck with drumsticks or fingers as for an ordinary drum, but put in vibration by the friction of fingers (constantly being moistened) on the reed, held in a position close to the vertical line. The jar acts as a resonator.
The petadou is the oldest percussion instrument known in the country, about which Annie Sidro assures that it has “for function to reproduce God’s fart”. Sometimes called laughing gourd, it is cousin with braù, brame-topin and bramadèra used in Languedoc and Gascony.
Musically, the petadou assures the same part as that of the bass drum. But while this one is used in the back-country, the playing area of the petadou is rather limited to the coast.
The rommelpot from the Flemish country is a similar instrument, built on the basis of a small diameter drum, with a very elongated shaft, equipped with two skins. In the Balearic Islands, the friction drum possesses a single skin, tightened on a terra-cotta shaft. The cuica, used in Brazil to imitate the shout of the monkey, is played by rubbing the rod with a wet rag.
The friction drums family is very diversified, and spreads over a great part on Earth. The next door Italy knows the caccarella and the cupa-cupa, the neighbouring Spain practices the pan bomba, the ximbomba, the zambomba and the chicharra. Always within Europe, it is found the German brummtopf and rummelpot, the jackdaw in Lincolnshire, the köcsögduda in Hungary, the bandaska in Moravie (Czech Republic), as well as the Romanian buhai. Far away from County of Nice, the dingwinti and the mbala are friction drums played in the Congo; the morupa, the namalua and the ngouloubé are used by South Africa traditional music; while the furruco is a friction drum played in Venezuela.

The vespa (the wasp)
traditional vespa of carnival of nice
La Vespa, watercolour by Gustav Adolf Mossa, ca. 1925.

Not really and not only a percussion, the vespa is an instrumental ensemble, the “carnivalesque town band” of Nice, in fashion from the very start of 19th century in neighbourhood carnivals, whose instruments are made of cougourdouns with comical shapes. During its growth, the cougourdoun can take up numerous forms and sizes, natural or imposed by the hand of man. Dried, emptied or not of its seeds, its sound properties made it to be used as a percussion instrument, a friction instrument, a wind instrument, and even sometimes as a stringed instrument, whose buzz – more or less high-pitched according to size of each instrument – evokes the sound of wasps or bumblebees flight. Some instruments of this type, made from 1894 to 1927 by a craftsman, Louis Allo, are kept in Nice Art and History museum.

The vespa could gather, on carnival processions and festivities, up to twenty performers or so. This “reed pipes fanfare” typically from Nice was accompanying the masquerade of the Morou, a reminiscence of those times troubled by Saracens forays and by the fear of Barbary Coast inhabitants, whose remembrance endured for long in collective memory.

The vespa, that had disappeared from carnivals of Nice, meets renewed interest, borne by enthusiasts who now pass on to numerous pupils of schools from Nice the making techniques and use arts of its instruments.

© 2001-2023 Jean-Gabriel Maurandi.

traditional musics county Nice, fife

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