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Tonder, Denmark – Folk musician Billy Fumi walked on stage Friday night in this quaint market town in rural Denmark and released an intense love song in the endangered Franco Provencal language. As he was describing a lyrical description of his poetry in the wind—”Kma tsèkion de tèt frissons da l’oura lèdzira”—few of the audience of 500 had any idea what he was singing about, but no theme. When the singing-filled track ended, the crowd applauded violently, anyway.
A few moments later, Carolina Rubirosa, a Spanish rock musician who sings in Galician, received a similar reaction. As did Jimi Hendrik, an Italian rock band that sang a rock number in South Tyrol, a German dialect. So did Inga-Marit Job-Gusu, an electronic artist who sings in the indigenous Sami language of northern Europe.
Everyone was participating in Liet International, a European singing competition for regional and minority languages. After completing her entry, Rubirosa switched to English to address the arrogant crowd. “This is a dream of being here today, with my language, outside my country,” she said. Rubirosa added that minority languages are vital. “We shouldn’t let them die.”
About 200 million people will participate in the Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday to listen to music from across the continent. Among the 25 pop stars who will compete in the final are those who perform in Italian, Spanish and Ukrainian. However, millions of people in Europe who speak one of its regional and minority languages are unlikely to find themselves represented on the Eurovision platform, let alone the popular charts of their country.
Since 2002, Liet International has been providing a platform for musicians from these communities – although a far cry from the garish scene of a Eurovision final. Friday’s event took place in the House of Culture, a small hall next to an elderly care facility in Tonder, a German-speaking region of Denmark. The 13 took part in small locker rooms and applied their own make-up. The evening’s hosts, Stevie Wright and Niklas Nissen, work day jobs as teachers and builders.
The event, which was broadcast live on the competition page on YouTube, attracted only 944 views, although the recording will soon be broadcast on television in the Netherlands.
Ove Euorsen, one of the event’s organizers, said his budget was around 100,000 euros, or about $104,000, so the organizers couldn’t buy the impressive theater sets or fireworks. I insist that it does not matter. “Languages are more important than explosions and the greatest light show on Earth,” said Euorsen.
Tjallien Kalsbeek, one of the competition’s organizers, said Liet International has its roots in a competition started by a Dutch television station in the 1990s. That competition aimed to find new pop music in West Frisian, a language spoken by about 450,000 people in northern Holland.
That competition was a success, Kalsbeek said, becoming an annual event, and expanding over time to include rap and techno entries. On its 10th anniversary, organizers held a special edition that included works in other minority languages including Basque, Occitan and Welsh. This was the first Liet International. Friday was the thirteenth edition.
The situation of minority languages in Europe varies greatly. Some, like Catalan, are spoken by millions of people, but others, like North Frisian, native to northern Germany, have only a few thousand speakers left and are in danger of extinction, according to UNESCO.
Elaine Jones, professor of linguistic diversity at Wales’ Trinity St David University, said by phone that regional languages that were protected by national governments and taught in schools like Wales were thriving. But in countries such as France, Greece and Russia, minority languages were more at risk, because children usually only learn in the national language.
Jones said all minority languages should be supported. “They’re an integral part of people’s identity, like gender or race,” she said.
Many of the people participating in Liet International on Friday came from regions where speaking a minority language could be seen as a political act, including Sardinia, where some activists want more autonomy from Italy, and Corsica, the Mediterranean island where Clashes broke out this year. After a Corsican activist was beaten in a French prison.
On stage on Friday, Doria Ossett, a Corsican singer with a six-piece ensemble, sang a wonderful melancholy of a 17th-century Corsican soldier facing execution at the hands of French troops. Then, in an interview on the stage, the hosts asked about her inspiration. “The French state doesn’t want us to know the history, so we have to sing it,” Ausset said. “It’s our job.”
But in interviews with The New York Times, four other chapters said they sang in regional languages for reasons unrelated to politics. Roger Argimi, a young pop singer from Catalonia, Spain, said he wrote the music primarily in English or Spanish, “but when I want to express my true feelings, I use Catalan” — his childhood language. He added that Catalan sounds “much sweeter, more toned” than Spanish.
Removed as Liet International seemed from the glamor of Eurovision, there was at least one element it shared with its well-known rival on Friday: a tense voting process. Shortly after 10 p.m., the night business marched onto the stage to listen while the jury read their results one by one.
As the leaderboard adjusted with each new result, it became clear that this was a three-horse race between Ossett, the Corsican singer; Your daughters, two sisters from the Danish-speaking minority in northern Germany, have sung a dreamy R&B track; Roberosa, Galician songwriter.
With one judge’s results left to reveal, there were only two points between these three acts. But when the judge read the points, Ossett came out on top. When her victory was announced, she collapsed in the arms of her bandmates in shock, then rushed to the front of the stage waving a Corsican flag.
“how do you feel?” asked Nissen, one of the flight attendants, in English. Ossett answered in Corsican with a long speech and tears. Very few in the audience understood the word she said. But they applauded and cheered anyway.