Exploring Other Celtic Destinations
The music of Ireland and Scotland, supported by large emigrant communities, has spread all over the globe, wherever the Celtic diaspora touched down. Some ditties have become so deeply entrenched that hardly anyone recalls where they came from. Who hasn't heard of "Danny Boy", known in Ireland as the "Derry Air" (this title could be problematic in France), or even warbled it once or twice under circumstances best forgotten? "Loch Lomond", Scotland's mournful ghost story about lovers separated by untimely death, ("You take the high road and I'll take the low road.."), is taught to unwary school children, and "Auld Lang Syne" is an inescapable ritual on New Year's Eve. The same sources turn up in popular music: for example, it is not generally known that Cat Stevens' hit, "Morning Has Broken", was lifted note-for-note from an old Scottish Christmas carol.
However, the Celtic universe is much larger than just Ireland and Scotland. There are actually two distinct families of nations, and each of these consists of three homelands related to one another by language and culture. Ireland, Scotland and Isle Of Man make up one branch, and Wales, Brittany, and Cornwall the other. Until recently, the ancient Bardic traditions of the lesser-known groups have languished in comparative obscurity. Like their Irish and Scottish cousins, these populations experienced suffocating political and religious oppression and were forced to reclaim their identities from beneath centuries of forced assimilation. Some have been more successful than others; for example, many of the Celtic folkways of Cornwall are probably lost beyond recall. However, the musicians and poets of the Celtic world are finally in a position to compare sources and look to one another for solidarity.
Brittany - An Introduction
Brittany (Bretagne in French, Breizh in Breton) is located in Western France and is most closely related to the Welsh and Cornish civilizations of Great Britain. However, unlike those two heavily Protestant nations, Catholicism remains a major part of the Breton national character and most holidays and festivals are tied to the feasts and saints' days of the church calendar. Nonetheless, as in the rest of the Celtic world, pre-Christian pagan rituals lurk just below the surface and Breton music strongly reflects this duality. The Breton language was rescued from the brink of extinction and many musical folkways have only recently been recovered. Since the works of the legendary medieval Breton troubadours survived only in vague and unidiomatic translations, the oldest generally acknowledged compendium of songs and poems written in Breton is the Barzaz-Breizh, which was published in 1839. Although scholars have since disputed the authenticity of some of the material, it remains an invaluable collection and modern musicians often refer to it.
Breton melodies, like those composed in Wales, are often written in major or minor keys and employ complex harmonies, but the modal tunings and unison structures more usually favored in Ireland and Scotland are also used. Much of Breton traditional music is built on call-and-response patterns. In a style called kan ha diskan, two (or two teams of) whirlwind a cappella singers known as the kaner and diskaner (chanteur and dechanteur in French) trade verses, joining forces briefly on the final words of each line. Like Scottish mouth music, kan ha diskan is meant to accompany dancing, in this case the hand-in-hand snake dances that Breton Fest-Noz (Night Festivals) are famous for, but listeners are also welcome. Well-known practitioners include Les Freres Morvan, three elderly brothers with trembly, time-worn voices who are captured live for all time on "Fest-Noz a Botkol" (Coop Breizh). Les Soeurs Goadec, another family act, were also recorded late in life on "Moueziou Brudez A Breiz" (Keltia), which was lovingly produced by the great harper and folklorist Alan Stivell. Charles Quimbert, Mathieu Hamon, and Roland Brou also present authentic kan ha diskan on "Trois P'tits Oiseaux - Chants de Haute-Bretagne" (Coop Breizh). Paul Huellou, an empathetic singer with a rough nasal edge, is heard solo and unaccompanied on "Songs From Brittany" (Music Of The World - Latitudes).
Slower ballads known as gwerziou (gwerz is the singular) are the Breton equivalent of Irish Sean Nos or Scottish airs. In its purest form, only the most accomplished vocalists are confident enough to attempt it, but it and kan ha diskan are also found in less rigid settings and contexts, backed by everything from dainty acoustic combos to crushing walls of electronic sound. Nolùen Le Buhé, with her wide eyes and secretive mouth, would have to appear on any list of first-rate a cappella singers, from anywhere. On "Komz a Raer Din..." (Coop Breizh), she concentrates on songs from the Yannes region and weaves a potent spell fashioned from equal measures of simplicity, passion, and ancestral channeling. For an overview of several singers and styles, the compilation "Gwerziou Et Chants De Haute-Voix" (Keltia) is an invaluable resource. Other vocal styles are also waiting to be discovered, especially Breton hymns and Christmas carols. The brilliant and much-recorded choir, Ensemble Choral du Bout du Monde, has done a magnificent set of the latter, sung entirely in Breton, on "Noels Celtiques" (Green Linnet).
Among the most typically Breton instruments are the telen (Breton harp) and a local version of bagpipes known as the biniou. The largest size of biniou is the biniou braz (big biniou) and there is a smaller, more antique version called the biniou coz (old biniou). The veuze is yet another type of bagpipe and is found primarily in the area around Nantes. Bagpipes are often coupled with solo or massed groups of bombardes, which are pungent (and in the wrong hands, notoriously ill-tempered, shrill, and borderline lethal) members of the double-reed oboe/shawm family. These exist in a variety of sizes and keys. Instruments associated with medieval and renaissance music have also been adapted, as have guitars, flutes, fiddles, and percussion; in acoustic and electric versions. As in other Celtic nations, dance tunes make up the bulk of the instrumental repertoire, almost to the exclusion of anything else. There are thousands of such pieces and they are mostly known by the names of the dances they are meant to accompany, such as plinns, hanter-dros, an-dros, fisels, ronds, and gavottes.
When bombardes and binious face off singly or in teams, they spar with one another in couples de sonneur, a type of instrumental kan ha diskan constructed over an underlying drone. Gildas Moal and Rene Chaplain are masters of the genre, and "An Disput" (Ar Folk - Coop Breizh) is great listening, but best avoided by the hung-over. Most medium to large towns in Brittany boast one or more good-sized bombarde and biniou marching bands, or bagadou (bagad is the singular). These superficially resemble Scotland's gargantuan bagpipe bands, but bagadou make exhilaratingly fleet and agile music, peppered with brisk, rattling percussion. Biniou players are capable of dizzyingly abrupt changes of melody and tempo that would drive Scottish pipers to the brink of hyperventilation. Bagad Bro Kemperle's "Ar Gouriz Ruz" (Coop Briezh) is a perfect introduction to this type of ensemble, but it also mixes in singers and additional instrumental styles. There is another variant, where single or massed bombardes or binious, or both at once, are accompanied by a church organ - an interesting textural twist if ever there was one. Given a recording engineer who knows something about juggling sound levels, and instruments that are more-or-less in the same key, these can be very plaintive and moving to listen to.
Alan Stivell And The Breton Harp
The present revival of Celtic music in Brittany can be directly traced to the life's work of the brilliant folklorist, harpist, piper and singer-composer, Alan (Cochevelou) Stivell. He made his debut while he was still a small boy, performing on a harp reconstructed from a medieval Irish prototype by his trailblazing father, Jord. Stivell later became a master of the bombarde and especially of the biniou. Although he is a multi-instrumentalist, it was a series of harp albums that he made during the seventies that put Breton traditional music on the map (although sometimes under the wrong country - confused record store clerks outside of France sometimes file Stivell's output under "Ireland") and they remain at the center of his legend. His ground-breaking release was the "Renaissance de la Harpe Celtique" (Dreyfus/Rounder), a lush and mystical fantasy that took the world by surprise, and ultimately, by storm. It was followed by a wealth of other recordings, many of which feature material from Ireland and Scotland plus genre-bursting, inter-cultural experiments.
For a one-stop overview that includes much of "Renaissance De La Harpe Celtique" and also covers his later career, "Zoom" (Dreyfus), a two-CD compilation, is highly recommended. "Telenn Geltiek" (Dreyfus), is an archive of Stivell's boyhood recordings and as he was already an imaginative and potent player, it is far more than just a collector's curiosity. Stivell's father was the source and arranger of the mist-swept tunes on "Harpes Du Nouvel Age" (Dreyfus). Of his later catalogue, "Again" (Dreyfus), with such firebrands as Kate Bush and Shane McGowan (The Pogues) on board, could only be a modern pan-Celtic manifesto and so it is. "1 Douar (One World)" with everybody from John Cale, to Youssou N'Dour, to Khaled, to Paddy Moloney sitting in, is a lively and fearless statement but is best avoided by the musically conservative or faint of heart. Stivell continues to make arresting and fascinating music and every album he has put out is at least worth a hearing, whether he rocks, moons, or even raps. He is at once the essential Breton and a curious, ardent, and committed citizen of the world. Other recent releases are Brian Boru (1997) and Back To Breizh (2000).
Additional Breton Harpers
The identical twin Keffelean Brothers are also noted harpists. Their album "Tron Doue" (Philips France), recorded with their group, Triskell, is full of magic and fun. They had their way with "Drowsy (or "Sleepy") Maggie" almost two decades before Cape Breton's antic fiddler, Ashley MacIsaac, got around to it. Myrdhin is a present-day career bard who has made several superb recordings, of which "An Delen Dir" (Ar Folk) is particularly notable. He is also a member of Afro-Celt Sound System (Real World) and is prominently featured on both of their recordings.
Tri Yann - Brittany's Hometown Heroes
In the December of 1970, on the Feast Of Saint Jean, three young men of that first name performed together at a festival in Brittany. The audience was dazzled by their energetic treatment of Breton and other Celtic styles and knack for close-harmony singing. Jean Chocun, Jean-Louis Jossic, and Jean-Paul Corbineau were dubbed "Tri Yann An Naoned" ("Three Jeans From Nantes" in Breton) and quickly became regional favorites. After they made a well-received debut at the Olympia Theater in Paris, their own label, Marzelle, was licensed by Philips France (now Universal Distribution). As time went on, Tri Yann evolved from the original trio into an eight-piece ensemble capable of integrating unplugged traditional music, medieval balladry, and rollicking folk-rock into a empowering statement of Breton pride.
Why Tri Yann has such a low profile outside of France is a mystery, as several of their albums are masterpieces. Of the titles released by Marzelle-Philips, "Suite Gallaise" (1974) is a lively example of their early acoustic sound, although some tracks are leaning toward folk-rock. "An Heol A Zo Glaz (Le Soleil Est Vert - The Sun Is Green - 1981)" is a flawless concept work. The material ranges from the title cut, a war-like cantata about ecology sung in Breton; to "Si Mort A Mors", a ballad about the last reigning Duchess of Brittany and one of the band's signature pieces, to a feisty and droll treatment of some hapless little Scottish tunes. The band's next release, "Cafe Du Bon Coin (1983)" draws heavily on Irish material and includes an impassioned, French-language setting of Phil Coulter's "The Town I loved So Well", a suite of Irish dances, a gorgeously sung a cappella drinking song, and "An Tourter", which is surely the only time that a bulldozer has ever been used as an instrument. A live recording from this period, "Anniverscene", has some dated-sounding tracks, but proves that Tri Yann is capable of replicating their studio albums in front of an audience.
Of their recent catalogue since moving to Marzelle/Globe (distributed in France by Sony) , "Portraits', a musical gallery of personalities the band is intrigued by, from ancient history and the present, is a must-have. The tunes dealing with Brian Boru and Gerry Adams depict Irish figureheads separated by centuries, but local legends also get their due. A romance about Madeleine Bernard, the sister of the painter Emile Bernard, pictures a fragile, red-haired beauty of seventeen; while a medieval-inspired ode to the doomed medieval princeling, Arthur Plantagenet, was recorded among the silent royal tombs at Fontrevaud Abbey. The album closes with a with a suite dedicated to Guillaume Seznec, describing in song, spoken word, and historical recordings how an innocent man came to be convicted of a crime he did not commit. "Tri Yann En Concert" is a neatly produced live set that covers many of their biggest successes as well as newer material and the second disc is a diverting CD-ROM. As with Alan Stivell, hidebound roots-bores may cavil at some of their choices, but everyone else will delight in the virtuosity, nationalist fervor and cheeky panache of Tri Yann, Brittany's standard-bearers and soon-to-be-revealed secret weapon.
Other Breton Groups And Instrumentalists
Kornog was an acoustic supergroup with a mixed Scottish-Breton membership and an earthy, light touch. Their live album, "Premiere", (Green Linnet) shows them at their formidable best, but "Ar Seizh Avel" (Green Linnet) is a close second. Kornog's former guitarist, Soig Silberil, was also a member of an earlier, equally famous band known as Gwerz. He is now making records under his own name, among which "Digor" and "Gwenjean" (both Coop Breizh) are especially fine. Kornog's transverse flute player, Jean-Michel Veillon, has also moved on to a solo career. Of his recordings for Coop Breizh, "E Koad Nizan", "Pont Gwenn Ha Pont Stang", and "Er Pasker", are particularly well-played; he has an extraordinarily rich tone. The Chieftains explored Breton music in their patented well-controlled yet enthusiastic manner on "Celtic Wedding" (RCA Red Seal), a 1987 release that still holds up quite well. Glaz, fronted by the carefully fractured vocals of Nathalie Brignognen (she sometimes sounds like a Breton Maria Muldaur), has a bright yet wistful sound on "Holen Ar Bed (The Salt Of The Earth)" (BMG-Declic). Alas, some key members, including the singer, have since left this band. Gwendal were strictly instrumentalists, and they pushed the envelop every chance they got. They put out some amazing (in more than one sense of the word) albums on Pathe (EMI France) during the seventies and eighties that are still beyond-the-box. Gilles Servat is an influential poet-singer-songwriter who composed original songs in Breton. He is sometimes covered by other artists, but his versions bring the old language into the present. Much of his early recorded work was on Philips, he is now working with smaller labels. Recordings by the party-hearty Fest Noz groups Bleizi Ruz and Sonerien Du are collectors' items and should be snapped up if found.
A special award for "Most Cheerfully Demented Hybrid Of 1999" goes to Lyannaj (Declic/Globe), which consists of a Breton band, Carre Manchot, and an Afro-Caribbean drumming outfit, Akiyo Ka. Their self-titled album is wild toss-up of Antillaise gwo ka and Breton kan ha diskan with touches of Jamaican reggae, Brazilian forro and Haitian rara and they sing in a mixture of Breton and Kreyol. Somehow, and who knows how or why, it all works!
Breton Compilation Recordings
These generally provide a painless way to sample a variety of styles and figure out who some of the major players are. "Au Coeur de la Musique Bretonne" (Escalibur - Coop Breizh) and "La Musique Bretonne - Yesterday - Today" (Blue Sun) are both excellent places to begin, as both sets cover a lot of important artists and widely diverging types of music. "Kerden - Cordes de Breton" (Coop Breizh), contains sixteen generous tracks by great guitar pickers, including Dan Ar Braz (Alan Stivell), Soig Silberil (Kornog), Nicolas Quemener (Gilles Servat), playing old and new grooves.