This Musician’s Songs Give Powerful Voice to a Language in Crisis

Singer and linguistic activist Alidé Sans hails from an isolated Catalan valley where a rare dialect is spoken

"My goal with music is to represent myself in a natural and sincere way," says musician Alidé Sans, "and what is more natural and sincere than an Aranese woman expressing herself in Aranese?" (YouTube)
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Alidé Sans, a 25-year-old singer-songwriter known for her soulful voice and upbeat, rumba- and reggae-inspired guitar riffs, grew up in the Catalonia region of northeastern Spain. As a child, though, she spoke neither Spanish nor Catalan.

Sans first learned to express herself in Aranese, a critically endangered dialect of a Romance language called Occitan (also endangered) that is spoken in Monaco and southern France, as well as smaller areas in the north of Spain and Italy. “I have always been aware that I grew up in a place with a strong identity,” she says. “I could feel it every time that we left the valley, every time my family would come from France or elsewhere in Catalonia.”

Sans also grew up with music.

Her mother, a music teacher, was the first to adapt the biblical creation song to Occitan, and she instilled a love of sonic beauty in her daughter at an early age. When Sans was 15, she began writing her own music, in Spanish, working with a group that played rumba and flamenco. She quickly realized, however, that she could not ignore a growing “internal conflict” regarding her native Aranese, which is spoken only in Val d’Aran, a 240-square-mile valley nestled amongst the green, rugged peaks of the Pyrenees. “I was communicating to an audience in Spanish, and I felt that my language—with which I had learned to speak, read, write—was in danger,” Sans says. “I decided to write and sing in Occitan.”

This month, Sans is a participant in the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, highlighting the distinct and vibrant cultural heritage of both Catalonia and Armenia and taking place on the National Mall July 4 to 8.

In her role as curator of the Catalonia program, Cristina Díaz-Carrera conducted a thorough research process, consulting with folklorists and other specialists from the region. She quickly became aware of a theme she calls the Power of Place, noting the varying cultural expressions in the Pyrenees, on the Mediterranean Coast, and in between. Díaz-Carrera and her co-curator David Ibáñez, who directs a music festival in Catalonia, found Sans’ work to be emblematic of Catalonians’ passion for diversity—linguistic, architectural, culinary and otherwise. “When an artist who is more of a linguistic activist makes a choice to compose in a particular language, I think it sends a strong message, especially to younger communities of speakers,” Díaz-Carrera says. “This is not just a language for school or for business or for office places. This is a language that we can express ourselves in; this is a language that we can do our artwork in.”

Occitan is one of the six case study communities of Sustaining Minoritized Languages in Europe (SMiLE), an initiative of the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. There are roughly 7,000 living languages today, an estimated 96 percent of which are maintained by just 4 percent of the population. Smithsonian Global's Recovering Voices Initiative estimates that, without intervention, more than half of these languages could be lost by the end of the century.

In response to this disheartening prognosis, many communities have committed to reinvigorating their languages through documentation, immersive education and other measures. SMiLE aims to address the need for “robust comparative research” to help guide these efforts. “Language revitalization is a very long haul,” says Mary Linn, the program’s director. “It has taken hundreds of years for the languages to get to where they are today, and it is going to take hundreds of years to get them back to a really healthy level, with constant work.”

Occitan began losing ground in the 1880s, when France and Spain instituted mandatory education in standard French and standard Spanish, respectively. The language’s use declined for nearly a century, until the late-1960s cultural renaissance that took place in Europe and across the world. With the death of Spain’s dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, Occitan speakers began to feel pride, rather than shame, in their language that the government had actively repressed for decades. Today, Occitan is an official language of Catalonia and a recognized minority language in France and Italy.

Successful language revitalization requires strong governmental policy. Signage can help promote the language in public spaces, and schooling is also key. Since 1993, all early childhood education in Val d’Aran has been conducted in Aranese, with Spanish, Catalan, French and English being introduced as secondary languages around age six. Though they face constant pressure due to immigration and other external forces, languages such as Irish Gaelic, Basque and Hawaiian, once on the brink, are today seen as success stories. “You have a total awareness in these communities and pride in the language,” says Linn. “So that next generation of kids is going to be exposed to a language that is not what their great-grandparents spoke, but is definitely fluent. And they’re going to run with that. That’s what kids have always done.”

In addition to these top-down interventions, grassroots efforts such as music play a crucial role in language revitalization. “When you’re singing, you don’t have the same inhibitions as when you’re speaking,” says Linn. “You’re not holding a conversation, and you’re not being held to grammatical standards or anything like that. So pedagogically, language and music go very well together. But beyond that, it’s definitely the motivation. A lot of people become interested in their heritage language through an entryway of music.”

Occitan has a long history of not only being written, but being formed into poetry and song. As Alidé Sans travels internationally, performing in France, the U.S. and elsewhere, she finds that audiences are enthralled by her deliberate revival of this musical heritage, even if they do not fully understand her lyrics. With increasing popularity, though, comes pressure to compose in other languages. Fans often suggest that if Sans sang in Catalan, or Spanish, or French, or English, she could reach a larger audience. She doesn’t see it that way.

“That’s not why I write or sing,” she says. “My goal with music is to represent myself in a natural and sincere way, and what is more natural and sincere than an Aranese woman expressing herself in Aranese? I think that singing in Occitan makes my project exotic to those who aren’t familiar with the language, and that can create interest. It’s a plus. I don’t want to play the victim, so I communicate in my language with total normalcy, because that’s what allows me to be the most sincere in my songs and onstage. And that’s what’s important in the end.”

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival is ongoing daily and most nights from June 27 to July 1, and July 4 to 8.

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