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Contre vents et marées, la berceuse - #AuxSons
Soothing songs for babies -

Lullabies, come hell or high water

What is a lul­la­by ? Eth­no­mu­si­co­lo­gist Made­leine Leclerc and musi­cians Piers Fac­ci­ni and Robin Girod give us their takes.

In 1969, the eth­no­mu­si­co­lo­gist Hugo Zemp held out his micro­phone in the vil­lage of Fili­nui in the Solo­mon Islands. He recor­ded a woman cal­led Afu­nak­wa per­for­ming a lul­la­by to her child – a “rorog­we­la” as they say in the Bae­gu lan­guage – one of the har­dest moments to cap­ture. Publi­shed a few years later by UNESCO’s Musi­cal Sources, this lit­tle song against a forest back­ground became a glo­bal sen­sa­tion when it was sam­pled by the French group Deep Forest in 1992 for its track “Sweet Lul­la­by”, and would also be taken up short­ly after­wards by the Nor­we­gian Jan Gar­ba­rek, who mis­ta­ken­ly cre­di­ted her as being of Pyg­my ori­gin. Beyond the ques­tions of cultu­ral appro­pria­tion inherent in these samples and the pro­ble­ma­tic ico­no­gra­phy atta­ched to them, we start by asking : what is a lul­la­by ? And why do we have such a need to be lulled ? 

Deep Forest - Sweet Lullaby 


Lul­la­bies can be found eve­ryw­here : “all over the world and through the ages. And they never disap­pear,” begins Made­leine Leclerc, cura­tor for sound heri­tage at the MEG, Geneva’s Eth­no­gra­phic Museum, which brought out the won­der­ful com­pi­la­tion Soo­thing Songs for Babies – Ber­ceuses du Monde in 2019, which includes Afunakwa’s ori­gi­nal rorog­we­la. “They’re pri­ma­ri­ly vocal at first and usual­ly use what are known ‘mama­ni’, ono­ma­to­poeia or sounds that allow you to have contact with chil­dren. There’s not much that is uni­ver­sal in the human race : lan­guage, music… Lul­la­bies are lan­guage set to melo­dies. In Yoru­ba, for example, there’s no sepa­rate word for ‘music’, but the term ‘lul­la­by’ does exist. This helps us unders­tand that they’re not of the same order”. 

Music, of course, connects us to our­selves and to others. Research into fin­ding bet­ter ways to unders­tand and des­cribe the phe­no­me­non is ongoing. We know that the part of the brain affec­ted by music is the seat of pro­found emo­tions. We also know that the set of fre­quen­cies that make up music inter­acts with all bodies – even those mis­ta­ken­ly belie­ved to be motion­less, as they are swar­ming with moving atoms ; that a foe­tus hears from the seven­teenth week of ges­ta­tion ; that no acti­vi­ty other than making music can eli­cit so many cog­ni­tive inter­ac­tions in the brain ; and that when we sing, our whole body vibrates and acts as an ins­tru­ment. In young chil­dren, mil­lions of neu­rones have yet to be assi­gned and are gra­dual­ly being for­med with experience. 

Lul­la­bies, with their repe­ti­tive, conso­nant and des­cen­ding tones are a lear­ning tool, a slow ope­ning up to the wider world. A real “ritor­nel­lo” – accor­ding to the concept crea­ted by the phi­lo­so­pher Gilles Deleuze and the psy­cho­ana­lyst Félix Guat­ta­ri in Mille Pla­teaux in 1980 – is a block of space and time within which the pro­cess of sin­gu­la­ri­sa­tion and indi­vi­dua­tion can take place. Through lul­la­bies, the world is made habi­table and safe. They serve to deli­mit the ter­ri­to­ries of the living and allow fas­ter access to the sophro­li­mi­nal state, the pivo­tal state bet­ween wake­ful­ness and sleep, well known to sophrologists.


Piers Fac­ci­ni – La plus belle des berceuses


 “To sing a lul­la­by, you your­self also have to relax,” we are told by the song­wri­ter Piers Fac­ci­ni over the phone from his house in the Cévennes, where he recor­ded La plus belle des ber­ceuses, a poe­tic book-cum-album relea­sed in 2017. “It’s about some­thing fun­da­men­tal, our ear­liest memo­ries, the bea­ting of our mother’s heart, voices through our body : lul­la­bies are a por­tal that opens onto what is oldest in us. They sus­pend our dua­lis­tic mind. The repe­ti­tion means we lose the begin­ning and end of the cycle. We revolve, we’re in a loop that is often ter­na­ry, a form of trance. You might well think I only make lul­la­bies. I’m not trying to put people to sleep though, but to put them into the state of over-sub­jec­ti­vi­ty that a lul­la­by in par­ti­cu­lar pro­vokes, because it’s very beau­ti­ful in terms of ener­gy, it’s about sha­ring and connec­tion”. 


Vidéo Robin Girod Ber­ceuse vol.2


Mul­ti-ins­tru­men­ta­list, song­wri­ter and sin­ger (Mama Rosin, Duck Duck Grey Duck…) and foun­der of the label Chep­tel Records, Robin Girod has also relea­sed a two-volume album of lul­la­bies : “Back then I was going through a dif­fi­cult time, a sort of per­so­na­li­ty clash. So, I star­ted playing lit­tle melo­dies to relax myself. I recor­ded them eve­ry night for a hun­dred days. It became a ritual, where, on a broad spec­trum, there was also this idea of being lul­led by the repe­ti­tion. And like Deep Forest, it was the fas­test sel­ling album of my entire career!” 


Mar­cel Proust, the great music lover, said : “We find in music fee­lings that are com­mon to all man­kind”. Let’s go back to 1992, the year of Deep Forest’s inter­pla­ne­ta­ry track, which was also the year of the signing of the Maas­tricht Trea­ty and the crea­tion of the Euro­pean Union, the defi­ning of Agen­da 21 and of the first Uni­ted Nations Earth Sum­mit. Doesn’t it make sense, if you think about it, that a lul­la­by would top the Wes­tern charts in a rapid­ly expan­ding and glo­ba­li­sing world ? Could it be a natu­ral and sym­bo­lic phe­no­me­non, reas­su­ring us as we sense the accul­tu­ra­tion that goes with ultra-libe­ra­lism in full flow ?  Piers Fac­ci­ni concludes : “Lul­la­bies are actual­ly the pin­nacle of any­thing that can be done with music”. 


Julie Henoch

Julie Henoch

Julie Henoch is a journalist, curator, and independent radio producer in Switzerland. She has worked for many years at the Radio and Television channel "Suisse Couleur 3" as a filmmaker, and has been part of the musical magazine "Vibrations". Hyperactive in organising cultural events in Swiss Romandie, she is currently a musical programmer for the CityClub Cinéma in Pully. In 2016, she produced the monumental sonic installation " Horizons irrésolus " at CERN, with the artists Vincent Hänni (The Young Gods) and Rudy Decelière, alongside two physicians at CERN, Diego Blas, and Robert Kieffer, after a joint research lasting two years. In 2018, she won the Gulliver Prize for francophone public radios (RTBF, Espace 2, France Culture, Radio Canada) for her radiophonic creation "Lamɛr". Julie Henoch is also a writer, her object book Volte-face : aux Nouvelles en trois lignes de Félix Fénéon was published by Hélice Hélas Editeurs in 2019.

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