Gijon, Spain- Ivan Belosludtsev had never before left Udmurtia when the invitation arrived to perform his song at an international competition in northern Spain.
Several trips to the visa section of the consulate in neighbouring Tatarstan, a series of flights via Moscow and Madrid, 5,200km and three time zones later, 18-year-old Belosludtsev and his young bandmates found themselves on a stage in Gijón, performing live on Asturian television to a cheering audience including Samis, Corsicans, Basques and Friulians.
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Culture shock does not come close. “It’s mindblowing – there are no words to describe it,” Belosludtsev told Al Jazeera of his bewildering journey from his home city of Izhevsk, deep amid the ethnic melting pot of territories that make up the Russian Federation.
“It was just an impulse. One day I just wrote it,” he said of “Tau Tynyd”, the song he had just performed. It already sounds like a fully polished stadium rock ballad – even in the Finno-Ugric Udmurt language. “I never realised that people would be attracted to this song, or that there would be an audience for it.”
This is the unique and bizarre world of Liet International, a song contest for European minority languages established ten years ago as an antidote to the bland majority-language mono-pop of Eurovision and now on an ever-expanding mission to discover musical talent from the Atlantic to the Urals and the Arctic to the Mediterranean.
“It’s always a challenge when you get a band that you haven’t seen live,”says Onno Falkena, Liet’s international co-ordinator, of the decision to hand Belosludtsev a place among the 11 performers at this year’s finals in Asturias. “We got an MP3 that was a bit shaky, but potentially interesting…”
Falkena comes from Fryslân, a northern province of the Netherlands with a strong and well-developed regional identity, including its own language, Frisian, which is spoken by most of the region’s 640,000 population and taught enthusiastically alongside Dutch in schools.
Fryslân also has a vibrant music scene, and when the winner of the local Liet competition – the word means “song” in Frisian – made it to the top of both the Dutch and the Belgian charts, Falkena and his fellow organisers decided the time was right to take the contest to an international audience.
Nowadays, Liet International is open to musicians performing in any of Europe’s many minority and regional languages. These range from those with official status, stable numbers of speakers and strong support structures, such as Frisian and Basque, to those used by only a few thousand people and facing an imminent threat of extinction.
Among this year’s finalists were Claudia Crabuzza and Claudio Gabriel Sanna, a duo who perform in Algherese, a fragile Catalan dialect spoken by barely 10,000 people in the city of Alghero on the Italian island of Sardinia.
Yet at Liet, contestants are made to feel part of a larger community of more than 50m speakers of minority and regional languages continent-wide, helping them forge links with other artists and draw confidence and courage to sing for their cultures and languages with pride.
“It’s very important for songwriters from minority languages to see that other people are doing the same thing,”said Brian Ó hEadhra, a Scottish Gaelic performer, whose links with Liet have led to flourishing collaborations with Corsican musicians.
“This is a soft event. We need real measures, we need media, we need education. Singing and dancing is not enough to save the language “
– Carlos Pulgar of La Xunta Pola Defensa de la Llingua Asturiana
“Minority languages are often quite introspective and they’re quite focused on what they are doing, they’re busy trying to save their own language. When you come to Liet you become inspired by people trying to do the same thing.”
At a time when questions of national identity are being raised in Scotland in the UK, Catalonia in Spain and Flemish and Walloon areas of Belgium, Liet serves to highlight the continuing existence throughout Europe of a diverse regional patchwork that was mostly subsumed by the emergence of the geographically rigid nation states that have dominated maps of the continent since the 18th and 19th centuries.
By going to Asturias, this northern Spanish principality whose largest city is hosting the festival, organisers chose specifically to raise awareness about the plight of the Asturian language, which, although acknowledged by regional and national authorities as “protected”, lacks the co-official status enjoyed by Basque, Catalan and Galician in other Spanish regions.
Though superficially similar to Castilian Spanish, Asturian has its own distinctive vocabulary, pronunciations and grammatical structures and is spoken and understood by about 150,000 people.
But with the majority of native speakers now elderly, a birth rate that is among the lowest in Europe, and with the region gripped by the sort of economic pressures facing other areas of Spain, there is a real danger that, without urgent action, the language – already recognised as definitely endangered by UNESCO – could be dead within a couple of generations.
For some then, a musical event such as Liet fails to address very pressing existential issues. A scuffle breaks out before Saturday’s contest between activists seeking to use the occasion as a platform to voice their grievances and local organisers determined to put on an evening of slick entertainment for television.
In the end, with the clock ticking towards the beginning of the live broadcast, organisers relent and the activists are allowed to hold up letters reading “Asturian language official now” throughout the show.
“This is a soft event. We need real measures, we need media, we need education. Singing and dancing is not enough to save the language,”Carlos Pulgar of La Xunta Pola Defensa de la Llingua Asturiana told Al Jazeera. “We need official status now. This is what we are shouting as loudly as possible.”
Expression of self-identity
Ultimately though, Liet is as much about musicianship as language. Many of the artists blend traditional elements and instruments, such as Corsican band Dopu Cena, whose performance draws on the polyphonic vocal style for which the island’s musicians are famed, and Inger Karoline Gaup who performs dressed in a colourful Sami outfit known as a gákti.
But the emphasis is firmly on originality, creativity and contemporary relevance.
“The biggest thing you can do for a language is just to speak it. It’s as simple as that. “
– Lleuwen Steffan, Welsh singer
“The formula is the best new song in a European minority language performed live, so that means when they are on stage everything needs to be perfect, nothing can be out of tune, they have to get in touch with the audience and they have to get their message across,”says Falkena.
“Our jury tends to be fairly critical about music that tends to be too mainstream or too commercial. We are not looking for an ABBA in Asturian.”
For many of the artists though, recognition comes in the fact that they are judged primarily as musicians, rather than because they have chosen to express themselves in a lesser-used language.
Perhaps the final word should go to this year’s winner, Lleuwen Steffan, a talented Welsh singer performing in the Breton language of her adopted home of Brittany in northern France, whose atmospheric “Ar Goulou Bev” held the audience spellbound.
Steffan’s musical career mirrors the migration route of Celtic migrants from the British Isles who fled the invading Saxons in the fifth century to settle across the water, and whose traditions and languages live on today, in defiance of centuries of assimilation, in Breton and Welsh culture.
“If you make an expression of self-identity in a minority language it’s the best thing you can do for it really because it shows you are living your life within that language. It’s not about the past. It’s about now and tomorrow,” Steffan told Al Jazeera.
“The biggest thing you can do for a language is just to speak it. It’s as simple as that.”
Follow Simon Hooper on Twitter: @simonbhooper