Letter from Brittany

By Wehling, Matt | Strings, April 1999 | Go to article overview

Letter from Brittany


Wehling, Matt, Strings


Dear readers,

It's 3:00 A.M. at a fest-noz (night festival) and dancers are still going strong, accompanied by a group playing modern traditional Breton music on a fiddle, a guitar, an accordion, and the appropriately named bombard, a traditional Breton wind instrument of piercing sonority. Five hundred Bretons from five to 80 years old are dancing in a huge mass of tangled lines, their pinkies entwined and their feet pounding to what I think is a 5/4 beat. (I stopped counting a while ago, preferring to simply feel the rhythms. )

"It's like a big plate of spaghetti," says fiddler Rudy Velghe of the pan-European (Breton-Belgian-Scottish-whatever) group Orion. "Except that this spaghetti is alive." This fest-noz will feature groups ranging from two singers belting out highly rhythmic melodies to a 25-piece bagad (a huge Breton ensemble modeled after the Scottish pipe bands, featuring a large number of bombards, five or six Scottish bagpipes, and several drums). Not surprisingly, the bagad uses little additional amplification, for which we are all a bit thankful.

Like Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, the Brittany region of France is a Celtic nation full of music, folklore, and a language separate from the governing culture. (It is separate enough from France culturally that sometimes when you leave Brittany you will see a road sign welcoming you to France.) I came to Brittany in 1995 to study bow making with graduates of the bow-making school in Mirecourt, France. Initially I worked with Benoit Rolland, one of the first graduates of the school (class of '74) and the inventor of the Spiccato carbon-fiber bow. My second, and current, master is Georges Tepho, who was the final graduate before the school closed in 1981. Both men have a deep love of listening to and playing music. Rolland is a fine classical violinist and occasional composer, while Tepho's playing emphasizes Irish and Breton music.

In fact, Monsieur Tepho's workshop has become a center for violin players who interpret Breton music. I talked to Christian LeMaitre when he stopped by to visit the shop recently. He's a leading fiddler known for his work in the groups Kornog and Storvan. He is also well known in the United States for his tours and recordings with Kevin Burke and Johnny Cunningham as part of the Celtic Fiddle Festival. LeMaitre told me that the fiddle is a recent addition to Breton music; it first made its contribution as a simple accompaniment to the playing of others, such as singer-harpist Alan Stivell and the group Sonerien Du. In the late 1970s, inspired by Irish groups such as the Bothy Band, fiddlers began to play with their role in Breton music, gradually bringing the instrument to the fore. Kornog was one of the first groups to play Breton music without the bombard. Now, says LeMaitre, more and more young people are taking up the fiddle and playing Breton music on it.

There is an ancient but continuing tradition of highly rhythmic singing to accompany dancing, similar to lilting in Irish music. There were many times when people wanted to have a dance but musicians were not available. To fill this void, singers developed an extremely powerful, steady but syncopated singing style whose rhythms are based on the regional dances and on the outer limitations of human lung capacity. The lyrics are often nonsensical rhymes whose patterns fit that of the dance. LeMaitre sees all fiddling coming out of this singing tradition. "Every fiddler is a singer," he told me. This is echoed by the enthusiasm of Fanch Landreau, formerly the violinist with the group Skolvan. I asked Landreau if I could visit him to learn more about the music. "Oh, yes, great," he replied. "I can take you around to meet all the singers I've learned from!" I found it very interesting that he was eager to have me meet singers, rather than other instrumental musicians. This shows the emphasis that these fiddlers put on interpretation of the voice through their instruments. …

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