To sing and un sing


Pasatiempo - - NEWS - James M. Keller

The Breizh Amerika Col­lec­tive per­forms mu­sic from Brit­tany at Gig

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 school­child­ren 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.”

UNESCO clas­si­fies the Bre­ton (Brezhoneg) lan­guage 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.

Clock­wise from top left, Alain Le Clère, Gaë­tan Grand­jean, Armel an Hé­jer, and Thomas Mois­son

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