TONDER, Denmark — Folk musician Billy Fumey took the stage Friday night in this quaint market town in rural Denmark and launched into an intense love song in the endangered Franco-Provençal language. As he intoned a lyrical description of hair flying in the wind – “Kma tsèkion de tèt frissons da l’oura lèdzira” – few of the 500 onlookers had any idea what he was singing, but it didn’t seem like it. question. When the yodel-laden track ended, the crowd still clapped wildly.
Moments later, Carolina Rubirosa, a Spanish rock musician who sings in Galician, had a similar reaction. So did Jimi Hendreck, an Italian psychedelic rock band who sang a raucous number in South Tyrolean, a German dialect. Inga-Maret Gaup-Juuso, an electronic artist singing in a language of the indigenous Sami people of northern Europe, also did the same.
All took part in Liet International, a European singing competition for regional and minority languages. After completing her entrance, Rubirosa switched to English to address the crowd of beer drinkers. “It’s a dream to be here today,” she said, “with my language, outside my country.” Minority languages are vital, added Rubirosa. “We don’t have to let them die.”
Around 200 million people will tune into the Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday to listen to music from across the continent. The 25 pop stars who will take part in the final include those performing in Italian, Spanish and Ukrainian. Yet the millions of people in Europe who speak one of its many regional and minority languages are unlikely to find themselves represented on the Eurovision stage, let alone on their country’s pop charts.
Since 2002, Liet International has provided a platform for musicians from these communities – albeit a world away from the showy spectacle of a Eurovision final. Friday’s event took place in the House of Culture, a small hall next to an aged care facility in Tonder, which is in a German-speaking region of Denmark. The 13 acts shared tiny dressing rooms and applied their own makeup. The hosts of the evening, Stefi Wright and Niklas Nissen, have day jobs as teachers and builders.
The event, which was streamed live on the contest’s YouTube page, only garnered 944 views, but a recording will soon air on TV in the Netherlands.
Uffe Iwersen, one of the organizers of the event, said his budget was around 100,000 euros, or about $104,000, so the organizers could not afford spectacular sets or pyrotechnics. He insisted it didn’t matter. “Languages are more important than explosions and the greatest light show on earth,” Iwersen said.
Tjallien Kalsbeek, one of the organizers of the competition, said Liet International had its roots in a competition started by a Dutch television channel in the 1990s. The competition aimed to find new pop music in West Frisian, a language spoken by approximately 450,000 people in the north of the Netherlands.
This competition was a success, Kalsbeek said, and it became an annual event, expanding over time to include rap and techno entries. For its 10th anniversary, the organizers organized a special edition which featured acts in other minority languages, including Basque, Occitan and Welsh. It was the first Liet International; Friday was the 13th edition.
The status of minority languages in Europe varies enormously. Some, like Catalan, are spoken by millions, but others, like North Frisian, which originated in northern Germany, has fewer than a few thousand speakers left and is threatened with extinction, according to the UNESCO.
Elin Jones, professor of linguistic diversity at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, said over the phone that regional languages protected by national governments and taught in schools like Welsh were on the rise. But in countries like France, Greece and Russia, minority languages were more at risk, as children are usually educated only in the national language.
Jones said all minority languages should be supported. “They are an integral part of people’s identity, like sexuality or ethnicity,” she said.
Several of those attending Liet International on Friday came from areas 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 this year clashes broke out. after a Corsican activist was beaten up in a French prison.
On stage Friday, Doria Ousset, a Corsican singer with a six-piece band, sang an epic rock lament for a 17th-century Corsican soldier threatened with execution by French forces. Then, in an onstage interview, the hosts asked about his inspiration. “The French state doesn’t want us to know the story, so we have to sing it,” Ousset said. “It is our mission.”
Yet in interviews with The New York Times, four other artists said they sang in regional languages for reasons that had nothing to do with politics. Roger Argemí, a young pop singer from the Catalonia region of Spain, said he writes music mostly in English or Spanish, “but when I want to express my true feelings, I use Catalan” – the language of his childhood. Catalan sounded “much softer and more melodic” than Spanish, he added.
As far removed as Liet International may have seemed from the Eurovision glitz, there was at least one element it shared with its better-known rival on Friday: a tense voting process. Shortly after 10 p.m., the acts of the night took the stage to listen to the members of a jury read their scores one by one.
As the rankings were reshuffled with each new score, it became clear that it was a three-horse race between Ousset, the Corsican singer; Yourdaughters, two Danish minority sisters from northern Germany who sang a dreamy R&B track; and Rubirosa, the Galician songwriter.
With a judge’s scores to be revealed, there were only a few points between those three acts. But as the judge read the points, Ousset took the lead. When announced as the winner, she collapsed in the arms of her bandmates in shock, then rushed to the front of the stage waving the flag of Corsica.
“How do you feel?” asked Nissen, one of the hosts, in English. Ousset responded in Corsica with a long tearful speech. Very few people in the audience understood a word she said. But they still clapped and clapped.