Brittany, the northwest-most region of France, is in many ways the least “France-like” part of the country’s mainland. It is a culturally hybrid area, sharing a part of its heritage with the rest of the country while also maintaining its ancient Celtic roots. It’s a corner of geography most of the world overlooks, which may be one reason it has been able to maintain its distinct personality. On the other hand, Brittany doesn’t mind strutting its stuff now and again, and to that end, its Regional Council decided in 2009 to launch an international festival of Breton culture, which this May, in its seventh incarnation, will present concerts and other culturally specific events throughout France and in six other nations over the course of 10 days “to show,” as the organizers put it, “what goes on all year long in Brittany.”
The Fête de la Bretagne/Gouel Breizh (to use its bilingual French/Breton name) touches down in Santa Fe on Saturday, May 23, when Gig Performance Space hosts a concert by the Breizh Amerika Collective 2015, featuring four musicians from Brittany. Charles Kergaravat, founder of the Breizh Amerika initiative, is very much a “world music” type. In fact, in several of its other appearances during the current tour, the ensemble shares the stage with musicians representing the African-Caribbean-Central American tradition known as Garifuna, and the night before they appear in Santa Fe they perform in Albuquerque with Native American musicians. In Santa Fe, the show will spotlight only the Breton foursome. “When you think of Breton music,” Kergaravat said, “the sound you might think of first is the bagpipes and the bombarde, which is an oboe-type instrument. But we’re not bringing those. Instead, we have the accordion and the bouzouki.” Really? The bouzouki, the mandolin-like instrument that emigrated from Turkey to Greece and became a mainstay of rebetika music? “It’s not native to Brittany,” he allowed, “but by now it has been incorporated into lots of other musical traditions — in Ireland, in Spain, and elsewhere. Brittany is a seafaring place. It served as a passage between north and south in Europe, so it got many influences from distant places.”
Perhaps the most distinctive of Brittany’s musical traditions is the kan ha diskan, which Kergaravat translated as “to sing and unsing.” Two singers of the collective include representative examples, performing a cappella in call-and-response style. Such pieces would be indispensable for a fest-noz, a Breton singing-and-dancing evening. “In festoù-noz,” he explained, using the term’s plural form, “these pieces are always accompanied by dancing. Every weekend, people in Brittany get together for these, to listen and dance.” Such music got a boost during the early 1970s by the mounting popularity of the Goadec Sisters, three siblings who were in their sixties and seventies at the time and became standard-bearers of the region’s folk-song revival and what would become Celtic pop. They are credited with championing on the concert stage what Kergaravat said “was originally sung at home or while doing chores in the field. There was always dancing attached to it, with a lot of pounding going on. That had a practical purpose. People had dirt floors, which could become very dusty. So they would water it down, invite their friends to come over, and people would dance, pounding the earth until it became a hard, smooth surface.”
The songs will be sung in Breton (Brezhoneg), one of six surviving Celtic tongues, the others being Irish and Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Manx, and Cornish. The only living Celtic language whose home base is not in the British Isles, it is spoken by about 200,000 people in France and perhaps another 10,000 living elsewhere. UNESCO classifies it as “severely endangered,” which is one of the reasons the regional government of Brittany wants to shore up cultural pride through the annual Fête de la Bretagne, even if France refuses to recognize any language but French as official within its boundaries. At least Breton is not as bad off as Cornish or Manx, both of which had been declared extinct but have been revitalized, if precariously, through classroom use in selected primary schools. Breton also seemed headed in a doomed direction, but language instruction was reintroduced into some schools in the 1970s, preventing the situation from growing more critical, and today some 16,000 school- children in Brittany are being educated bilingually in French and Breton.
The members of the Breizh Amerika Collective may or may not wear traditional dress for their current tour; they hadn’t decided for sure when Pasatiempo spoke with Kergaravat. If they do, you would have to be Breton to decode their outfits. “Everything has meaning,” he said. “If you know how to interpret what a person is wearing, you can tell exactly where they’re from, maybe their social status, if they’re married or not, maybe even what town they’re from.” Although the four musicians in the group are from different towns, they all hail from rural areas in central Brittany.
“These guys have won competitions for dañs fisel,” Kergaravat said, referring to a fast rhythmic dance in which the feet are lifted very quickly. Such a dance might remind casual viewers of Irish step dancing; and indeed, Brittany shares its Celtic background with that island 200 miles to the northwest, across the Celtic Sea. “Many people equate Celtic music with Irish music, but they are on the whole quite different. One aspect they share is the convivial atmosphere.” On the other hand, quite a few typical Breton pieces are lamentations on the subjects of “hardship, loss, broken-heart problems, the girl you want to marry but she doesn’t love you, or the husband who didn’t come back from the sea.” ◀