A Voice Like Thunder: Corsican Women's Lament as Cultural Work

Rosenberg, Ruth Emily

Funeral rites are commonly understood as a means by which communities reestablish normal or ideal social relationships following death. An individual lam enter facilitates the collective confrontation with death through a performance that combines musical and verbal signification (in the forms of homage, praise, etc.) with non-linguistic utterances such as stylized crying or weeping, the meanings of which are culturally constructed. The funeral laments improvised by women on the Mediterranean island of Corsica constitute one of the oldest and perhaps most significant oral traditions on the island. Though it was not customary in Corsica to sing laments for the long dead or to improvise voceri outside of the funeral context, some laments, because of their connection to significant events or their exceptional beauty, circulated orally or were transcribed. In the first half of this paper, I demonstrate the ways in which the Corsican voceru accomplished the cultural work associated with death and mourning in traditional Corsican society. This analysis draws on recent work on Greek lament that shows how, within patriarchal societies, laments can serve as a means by which women assist their community during times of crisis, comment on social relationships, and enter into conflict. In the second half of my paper, I consider how the voceru has, in one particular instance, been adapted to accomplish comparable cultural work in the twenty first century. This example demonstrates that, though the tradition of improvising laments is defunct, the repertory can be used to perform new social functions. It suggests that in Corsica, and perhaps elsewhere, the female voice in song retains its peculiar authority in times of conflict and crisis.

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Columbia University
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March 30, 2015