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TONDER, Denmark – The folk musician Billy Fumey strode onstage on Friday night in this quaint market town in rural Denmark and launched into an intense love song in the endangered language of Franco-Provençal. As he belted out a lyrical description of hair blowing in the wind – “Kma tsèkion de tèt freshons da l’oura lèdzira” – few in the 500-strong audience had any idea what he was singing about, but it didn’t seem to matter. When the yodeling-heavy track came to an end, the crowd clapped wildly, anyway.
A few moments later, Carolina Rubirosa, a Spanish rock musician who sings in Galicia, got a similar reaction. As did Jimi Henndreck, a psychedelic rock band from Italy who sang a raucous number in South Tyrolean, a German dialect. So, too, did Inga-Maret Gaup-Juuso, an electronic artist singing in a language of the Sami Indigenous people of Northern Europe.
All were taking part in Liet International, a European song contest for regional and minority languages. After finishing her entry, Rubirosa switched to English to address the beer-swigging crowd. “This is a dream to be here today,” she said, “with my language, outside my country.” Minority languages are vital, Rubirosa added. “We don’t have to let them die.”
Around 200 million people will tune into the Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday to hear music from around the continent. The 25 pop stars who will compete 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 in their country’s pop charts.
Since 2002, Liet International has been offering a platform to musicians from these communities – although it is a world away from the showy spectacle of a Eurovision final. Friday’s event occurred in the Culture House, a small hall next to the care facility for older adults in Tonder, which is in a German-speaking region of Denmark. The 13 acts shared tiny dressing rooms and applied their own makeup. The evening’s hosts, Stefi Wright and Niklas Nissen, have day jobs as a teacher and builder.
The event, which was livestreamed on the contest’s YouTube page, attracted just 944 views, although a recording will soon be broadcast on television in the Netherlands.
Uffe Iwersen, one of the event’s organizers, said its budget was around $ 100,000, or about $ 104,000, so the organizers could not afford spectacular stage sets or pyrotechnics. He insisted that didn’t matter. “The languages are more important than the explosions and the biggest light show on earth,” Iwersen said.
Tjallien Kalsbeek, one of the organizers of the competition, said that Liet International had its roots in a contest 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 the north of the Netherlands.
That contest was a hit, Kalsbeek said, and it became an annual event, expanding over time to include rap and techno entries. For its 10th anniversary, the organizers held a special edition that featured acts in other minority languages including Basque, Occitan and Welsh. This was the first Liet International; Friday’s was the 13th edition.
The status of Europe’s minority languages varies wildly. Some, like Catalan, are spoken by millions of people, yet others, like North Frisian, a native to northern Germany, have just a few thousand speakers left and are at risk of extinction, according to UNESCO.
Elin Jones, a professor of linguistic diversity at the University of Wales at Trinity Saint David, said by phone that regional languages that were protected by national governments and taught in schools like Welsh were thriving. But in countries including France, Greece and Russia, minority languages were more at risk because children are usually educated in the national language only.
Jones said that all minority languages should be supported. “They are an integral part of people’s identity, like sexuality or ethnicity,” she said.
Several of the people participating in 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 inside a French jail.
Onstage on Friday, Doria Ousset, a Corsican singer with a six-piece band, sung an epic rock lament for a 17th-century Corsican soldier facing execution by French forces. Afterward, in an onstage interview, the hosts asked about her inspiration. “The French state doesn’t want us to know out history, so we have to sing it,” Ousset said. “It’s our mission.”
Yet in interviews with The New York Times, four other acts 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 wrote music mainly in English or Spanish, “but when I want to express my real feelings, I use Catalan” – the language of his childhood. Catalan sounded “much sweeter, and more melodic” than Spanish, he added.
As removed as Liet International seeded from the glitz of Eurovision, there was at least one element it shared with its better-known rival on Friday: a tense voting process. Shortly after 10 pm, the night’s acts walked onstage to listen as the members of a jury read out their scores one by one.
As a leaderboard reshuffled with each new score, it became clear that this was a three-horse race between Ousset, the Corsican singer; Yourdaughters, two sisters from north Germany’s Danish-speaking minority who sang a dreamy R&B track; and Rubirosa, the Galician songwriter.
With one judge’s scores left to reveal, there were just a couple of points between those three acts. But as the judge read out the points, Ousset edged to the front. When she was announced as the winner, she collapsed into her bandmates’ arms in shock, then rushed to the front of the stage waving Corsica’s flag.
“How do you feel?” asked Nissen, one of the hosts, in English. Ousset replied in Corsican with a lengthy, tearful, speech. Very few people in the audience understood a word she said. But they clapped and cheered anyway.