A beautiful singing voice is alchemic—you pull a lungful of air through the human machine and it leaves, like magic, as music on the exhale. I’m a singer, so probably biased, but I don’t believe we’ve managed to design an instrument that rivals the reed we’ve got built in.
I was first introduced to the vocal group A Filetta by a listener at one of my own concerts, a poorly attended show in Germany. To distract the crowd from its own size, my bandmate Aby and I crammed everyone into a stairwell, then sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in harmony, a cappella.
Afterward I received an email from a man named Christian: In a very, very quiet moment, please watch this. A link led to a video in which a man wearing a gold chain and a black dress shirt, open at the collar, held a tuning fork to his right ear before dropping it into his breast pocket. Gray-haired and trim, he moved with a relaxed, animal athleticism.
When his mouth opened, his eyes shut, as if wired on a shared circuit. The sound he emitted matched his physical aspect—it was a boxer’s voice, abraded by time or suffering or both. The melody was both mournful and urgent, like a funeral song for someone not quite dead. It featured the tense, fast vocal trills of tragic Portuguese fado or a muezzin’s call to prayer.
After the first phrase, half a dozen other male voices joined in; the camera panned across their faces, dark lashes edging their closed eyes. Some sang in close harmony, some sang long vowels, like a bed of strings.
I couldn’t understand the words, couldn’t even identify the language. But I knew I’d never seen such undisguised passion in the faces of singers making such a religious sound. This was not a church pew prayer. This was a bathroom floor prayer. I played it again and again.
Googling, I learned A Filetta is from Corsica, a Mediterranean island territory of France. The group’s charismatic leader is Jean-Claude Acquaviva.
I checked the band website, hoping to find U.S. tour dates. Nothing. I checked again the next summer—no luck. Five years later, I was still checking, and then found that, to celebrate the band’s 40th anniversary, a concert would be performed in the Corsican capital of Ajaccio. I bought a plane ticket.
Maps can’t tell the truth about Corsica. From above, it looks like any other island: a patch of green against the blue. But Corsica is first and foremost a mountain—sheer cliffs rise from the surface of the Mediterranean as if it’s just cut its way out of the sea. The truth of the place is visible only in profile.
I arrive in Ajaccio a few days before the show with plans to meet a Corsican filmmaker named Nico de Susini—the friend of a cousin of a friend who graciously agreed to orient me to the island.
Nico is tall and lean with silver curls, a French accent, and almost always a cigarette—lit or unlit—in his right hand. (“We are like an old place: Everybody smoke here.”) Over beers in a little bar, Nico introduces me to the culture: “Respect. It is the first and most important word in our parents’ mouths.” As in Sicily, Nico says, traditional family values prevail. Toddling Corsicans are instructed to respect mothers, fathers, siblings, neighbors, the elderly. “When we cross the road with old people in the street, we take the bags.”
He stresses that Corsicans cannot be understood as islanders or fisherfolk: “We come—all of us—from the mountain.” The cigarette gestures inland. They may work on the coasts, but all have ties to a family village in the interior. Historically the mountain also provided a strategic position from which to defend against invasion; the island’s geographical position made it a tempting conquest. Although it’s been a region of France for more than 200 years, most residents seem to consider it more like an occupied territory—misunderstood and mistreated by federal powers. Corsican pride is untamable; Corsicans’ allegiance is to their own flag, their own traditions, their own mountain. You can leash a wolf to a stake in the yard, but it’s nobody’s pet.
The proprietor sets down a plate of bread and meat. Corsicans are uncompromising about food—cheese and meat in particular. Earlier that day, at restaurant Le Don Quichotte, I’d marveled at ribbons of pancetta shaved so fine I could read the newspaper through them. The medallion of warm chèvre on my toast was so flavorful and so yielding, I wasn’t even sure it was cheese. The restaurant’s chalkboard menu listed the name of the shepherdess who’d supplied it, and I spent a few minutes admiring online photos of Johanna, goat kid in her arms.
Two men enter the bar and join the conversation, one a Corsican language teacher, the other a professor of philosophy. In fast French, Nico explains the American is a writer and musician, here to see A Filetta. Both seem surprised a traveler from so far would be familiar with Corsican music. I get a round of approving nods.
The Corsican teacher asks if I know what A Filetta means. I do not. The Fern, he says. There is a story, but the details escape him and the conversation proves difficult to translate. I nod, pretending to understand more than I do, and make a note to look it up.
In the days before the concert, I do what tourists do. I walk through Plaza Foch, the open-air food market where vendors sell hanging sausages, nuts, and small jars of candied fruit that shine like oiled gemstones. Corsican fare relies on simple combinations of local, fresh ingredients—citrus pulled from trees in the garden; olive oil pressed from local groves; and brocciu, a soft white cheese made from the milk of goats or sheep.
But if the Corsican dinner table had a protagonist, it would be the chestnut. It’s ground into flour for sweet canistrelli biscuits, turned into paste to spread on fresh bread, made into liqueur, baked into a savory polenta-like pudding, and enthusiastically consumed not only by the human residents of the island, but also by sangliers, semiwild boars, whose meat is flavored by their predilection for the nut.
I buy two jars of honey. Tapping one of the lids, the vendor says, “Strong.” When I sample it, I let out an involuntary “Whoa,” surprised by a completely un-honeylike bite. Instead of a round sweetness, this honey came armed with a sharp, astringent note of ... Marmite? Makeup remover? Even before I can properly decide if I like it or not, I help myself to a generous second serving. I take a late afternoon bus to Pointe de la Parata to see Îles Sanguinaires, the “bloody islands” of red rock just off the coast. Gravel crunches beneath my work boots on the path up. The view at the top is a postcard in every direction: The clouds are sun roasted, the islands stark against the pastel wash of sea and sky. The pink light doesn’t seem to hit the rock, but feels attached to the air itself somehow, like vaporized rosé.
I visit the little resort town of Porticcio, a 20-minute ferry ride away, to meet a cutler who has agreed to show me his workshop and explain the tradition of Corsican knives. Simon Ceccaldi is sinewy and handsome with a quick laugh that he uses like mortar to fill holes in conversation. Standing in his one-room storefront, he explains that the Corsican knife began as a shepherd’s tool; a herdsman would bring a horn from one of his animals to be fashioned into a handle and fitted with a blade. More recently, however, the vendetta knife has captured the imaginations of Corsica’s visitors—a dagger purportedly used to settle feuds on the island (though that account might have more marketing appeal than historical veracity).
The knives are displayed like jewelry, propped up in flattering postures. Some blades feature fine stripes of alternating black and silver, in liquid patterns. “Damascus steel,” Simon explains, has been heated and folded many times, forming hundreds of tight layers. I watch his hands as he gestures; the right palm is traversed with a thin white line across the meat of his thumb. When I ask about it, he traces a finger down the scar and confirms it’s the product of a rare careless moment with one of his own blades.
We enter the workshop behind the store, walking past sanding belts, blade templates, and a machine that cuts steel with a jet of water. Blocks of ebony, oak, boxwood, and walnut sit on shelves, waiting to become handles. We follow the sound of metal clanging to the forge where a man, backlit by fire, is battering a knife into existence.
The night of the concert I trudge uphill in the dark toward the venue printed on my ticket: L’Aghja. I’m eager to see what sort of Corsican will be in attendance—old people who remember the band as a soundtrack to their youth? Young families? Hipsters?
The big sign for L’Aghja comes into view, and my heart seizes. The windows are dark, the parking lot empty. A poster of A Filetta, elegant in their concert blacks, has been plastered over with a piece of printer paper and French words I don’t know. I check the time: 30 minutes until the concert begins. And this sign, I’d wager, announces a change of venue. I’ve been waiting to see this band for seven years, I’ve traveled around the world—and the thought of missing it makes me sick with panic. Across the street, I see a man and three women, walking briskly. In manic, awful French, I shout, “HELLO! I’M SORRY! DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH!” The man turns. As I sprint toward him, backpack bouncing, I think, I would never talk to a stranger behaving the way that I am right now.
Luckily, the man is more generous with agitated strangers than I am. His name is Matthew Bertrand-Venturini. Within a minute, I’m in the back seat of a little red car, all of us heading to see A Filetta. Had the concert been moved to a larger venue? Was the ticket just misleading? It’s unclear, but relief snuffs out my curiosity, as we drive away, as all Corsicans do, very fast.
We find our seats beside one another in the darkness of the new venue, a black box with a stage elevated a few feet off the floor and folding chairs aligned in tight rows. Haze wafts through the ray of the spotlight. Jean-Claude takes the stage and welcomes the crowd, which eagerly responds.
When the music begins, the basses resonate in such low registers, it seems impossible such sounds could issue from the body of a man built to normal scale. Jean-Claude delivers the melody in his fighter’s timbre, flanked by tenors who sing harmonies so clear and sweet they almost hurt to hear. Just as in the video, the singers cup a hand around one ear to better discern their own voices in the tidal swell; they stagger their breathing so that long notes hold unbroken. I find it hard to imagine someone writing these songs, in the same way it is difficult to imagine someone inventing the bowl or the door—they seem so elemental, more a feature of the natural world than the designed.
Between songs, Jean-Claude talks about freedom and recent political events. When the group formed in the late ’70s, it was born out of a movement for social and political resistance; Matthew leans over to translate when he can. But even without the exposition, the melodies are decipherable: There is love and loss and inextinguishable longing. Matthew and I agree that the best are the a cappella songs. When I hear Matthew sniffling beside me, I don’t bother drying my own cheeks. I let the song dissolve the ceiling and turn the square black room into a vaulted cathedral. Jean-Claude and his men take hold of one another’s forearms to raise their voices together, lifting and darting like birds, then diving in a sudden decrescendo that ends the song by guillotine.
I leave Corsica the way that everyone does—be it visitor, resident, or rebuffed invader. With plans to return.
When I look it up back at home, I learn A Filetta is named for a Corsican fern. The root structures grow horizontally, making the plant exceedingly difficult to pull or displace. No matter what army might roll in or whose flag they unfurl, the fern is resolute. It will not be moved.
I realize how fitting it is that the songs of Corsica—anthems of a robust, defiant cultural identity—should be performed by the human voice. It is the only instrument inseparable from its player, rooted firmly in the body from which it cannot be removed without a fight.
Dessa is a rapper, singer, and the author of My Own Devices: True Stories From the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love. Follow her on Instagram and find music and tour dates at her website.
This story originally appeared in the August/September 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveler.