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Trobar and Rap: Guilhem de Peiteus (William IX) & Shawn Carter (Jay-Z)

by Patrick Kozey '11


What could be further apart than Poitiers in 1071 and Brooklyn in 1969? A lot, it turns out. The distance—in language, time, and place—is vast, sure, but both moments gave birth to figures with much more in common than might be expected.

In 1071, Guilhem de Poitiers was born in a town in what is now southern France. Guilhem would go on, at fourteen, to become Guilhem IX, the seventh Count of Poitou and the ninth Duke of Aquitaine. Though he owed loyalty to the King of France, he exercised great autonomy, and was easily one of the most powerful lords of his day.

In 1969 Shawn Carter was born. Today, Carter is better known by a name he too gained as a teen: Jay-Z. One of the highest grossing rappers ever, Carter lived a certain kind of american dream, rising from the self described "bottom" to serve as the CEO of label Def Jam. Now, after a "retirement" and comeback, Jay has moved beyond the typical model of music distribution, and with 11 solo albums, 10 certified platinum, he has achieved remarkable longevity as an artist, and an impressive blend of commercial and critical success.

Rap for Jay-Z, Trobar for Guilhem:

Both are performative art forms which, through a combination of a spoken or sung element and a musical accompaniment, create a new kind of work. Both anticipate an audience, and by choosing a performative genre, each artist exposes their intent: to both entertain and exert influence. For Guilhem IX, it is an exercise in politics. For Jay-Z it is an effort to balance commercial success with "legitimacy," in an effort to protect his reputation and future earnings.

Below, is the text of "Ben vuelh que sapchon li pluzor" (taken from Frederick Goldin's Lyrics of the Troubadours and Trouveres) and an approximate translation, (consulted works include previous translations in Goldin, Paul Blackburn's Proensa, and one by John D. Niles in Arion in 1976), interpolated after each stanza.

Though the music that would have accompanied Guilhem IX's song does not survive, Jay-Z's is quite readily available. Each link in the text below will open a new window in which a parallel between the "Ben vuelh" and the music of Jay-Z is laid out. Enjoy.

Ben vuelh que sapchon li pluzor
d'est vers si's de bona color,
qu'ieu ai trag de mon obrador:
qu'ieu port d'ayselh mestier la flor,
et es vertaz,
e puesc en traire·l vers auctor
quant er lassatz.

[I'd like everyone to know,
if it's well painted,
this song I've brought out of my workshop;
for of this trade I bear the flower,
it is true,
and I'll call this song as witness
when it's finished.]

Ieu conosc ben sen e folhor,
e conosc anta et honor,
et ai ardinem e paor;
e si·m partetz un juec d'amor
no suy tan fatz
no·n sapcha triar lo melhor
d'entre·ls malvatz.

[I know well sense and folly,
and I know courage and cowardice,
and I've had both honor and shame;
and if you challenge me to a "love-game"
I'm not so foolish
that I can't bring out the best
from amongst the middling.]

Ieu conosc ben selh qui be·m di,
e selh qui·m vol mal atressi,
e conosc ben selhuy qui·m ri,
e si·l pro s'azauton de mi,
conosc assatz
qu'atressi dey voler lor fi
e lor solatz.

[Well do I know who speaks well of me
(and who speaks ill besides)
and I know well who laughs "with" me—
So if people enjoy my company,
I've the good sense
to provide for their comfort
and their amusement.]

Mas ben aya sel qui·m noyri,
que tan bo mestier m'eschari
que anc a negu non falhi;
qu'ieu sai jogar sobre coyssi
a totz tocatz;
mais en say que nulh mo vezi,
qual que·m vejatz.

[Blessed be those who raised me,
that taught me such a grand occupation!
for never have I failed a soul;
when it comes to playing games (on pillows)

at every throw;
I'm more expert than are my neighbors,
(as you see me now).]

Dieu en lau e Sanh Jolia:
tant ai apres del juec doussa
que sobre totz n'ai bona ma,
e selh qui cosselh mi querra
non l'er vedatz,
ni us mi noa tornara

[Thanks be to God and Saint Julian:
so much have I learned of this sweet game
that above all others am I skilled,
and he who desires my skill
won't be denied it,
nor will any come back

Qu'ieu ai nom "maiestre certa":
ja m'amigu' anueg no m'aura
que no·m vuelh' ver l'endema
qu'ieu sy d'aquest mestier, so·m va,
tan ensenhatz
que be·n sai guazanhar mon pa
en totz mercatz.

[They call me "Old Infallible":
never will my mistress have me one night
and and not want me again the next day!
For in this trade I am (and proud to say),
so expert
that I can earn my bread
in any market.]

Pero no m'auzetz tan guabier
qu'ieu non fos rahusatz l'autr'ier,
que jogav'a un joc grossier,
que·m fon trop bos al cap primier
tro fuy 'ntaulatz;
quan guardiey, no m'ac plus mestier,
si·m fon camjatz.

[But don't make fun,
things went awry the other day
when I played a game for high-stakes,
The opening rounds all went well
but then my turn came;
when I looked, it was no use,
the game had changed on me.]

Mas elha·m dis un reprovier:
"Don, vostre dat son menudier,
et ieu revit vos a doblier."
Dis ieu: "Qui·m dava Monpeslier,
non er laissatz."
E leviey un pauc son taulier,
ab ams mos bratz.

[She reproached me, saying:
"Sir, your dice are light—
throw again, I'll double the stakes."

Said I: "Were they to give me Montpellier,
I wouldn't resign."
And I lifted up a bit her game-board,
with both arms.]

E quant l'aic levat lo taulier,
empeis los datz,
e·lh duy foron cairavallier
e·l terz plombatz.

[And having lifted up the board,
I threw the dice,
and while the first two were good
the third was loaded.]

E f·ils fort ferir al taulier,
E fon joguatz.

[I threw well onto the board,
and it was game!]