Read Part 1: An Introduction to Breton music and the history of the region
Read Part 2: Read Part 2: the instrumentation of Breton music and how Jean-Michel Veillon became involved in the genre
Read Part 3: includes of discussion with Larry Rone about Breton music in the US
SK: Well those are all the questions I have for everyone, thank you both so much for being a part of this conversation. Unless anyone has something else to add?
JM: The problem with the Breton language is still really important here. You know, it’s a political problem for a simple reason. It’s a political and I was going to say mechanical problem. France, like your country [the US] has a strong constitution and the constitution of France stipulates very clearly that only one language can be official in France which is French. It’s not like in the States, I remembering touring in the States once and there was a friend, was it in Florida or California? To know people would accept that Spanish would be used. Well, in France, the problem you see is that people, the Basques, the Corsicans, the Bretons, the Alsatians, try to keep their languages alive. The problem is that, take a simple example, you’ll understand exactly what I mean. Someone who is rather Leftist here in Brittany, which means he is in a way, he wants more equal society and all that, more guaranty of the defense of the workers. No expectations of the workers by huge enterprises and all that. Let’s say he is from a sort of Left feeling. But when it comes to the defense of the Breton language, it means that we should change the constitution and there people would say if we open Pandora’s Box, if we start to change the constitution, it could change not only for languages but also for the basic rights of the citizen. So it’s a mechanical problem. So even people who would support the Breton language would think it’s not fair, “We should have the right to use it more in schools, in offices everywhere.” The problem is the barrier is the constitution but at the same time the constitution guarantees equality between citizens. Do you see what I mean? It’s complicated. It’s quite complicated, so I don’t know what the future will be for that language, I have no idea, but one thing is for sure. If the language goes, the music will lose enormously. Because it’s so much attached, the rhythm of the Breton language has it’s responsibility in the way the music is shaped. Especially in the West of Brittany, of course. So the way the language goes, our music will be very weakened I’m afraid.
PR: Well I was born in Brittany in [?]. I stayed with my Breton mother, she wasn’t my mother but she was my nurse mother. I stayed with her until I was eight years old and I remember when we would come down as children, I was one of several children, she and Maman Marie was talking to Jean-Louis in Breton, they would immediately stop speaking Breton to speak French because in those days it was illegal. I think you’ll agree that you could speak Breton, but now, I think it’s different. Things have changed in that, I live in Brittany, I live in the south part which is, I’m about one hour and 15 minutes from Rennes. And I’m about three hours from where Jean-Michel lives on the coast in the Cotes-d’Armor, and one of the things that has changed is you can now, Breton has certain [?] that, in schools, it’s amazing, they do have to teach Breton. The kids have to learn it. It’s not everybody, but when I was born that was absolutely out of the question. So this is encouraging, I think.
JM: Yes, yes. You’re right. Well it was never really illegal, the language. It was not really illegal… Well…
PR: It was frowned upon.
JM: Well horrible things happened the second World War. Some Breton soldiers who had lost their regiment in the battle, were shot because in Breton you say Ya to say Oui, yes like Germans.
PR: And they thought they were Germans?
JM: Yeah. They thought they were German spies. And it happened a few times that Bretons were shot and they tried to say “we are Breton,” they didn’t speak French at all. And by the way, I have seen and old woman, one of the last. She died in my arms by the way, 1979, 1980 in central Brittany, she could hardly speak French. But you see, the problem is, it was not illegal, the problem is what has happened with the French government, all these last 40 years, that the more the Breton language is dying, the more they give a little bit of help. Not much. It’s like they want it to end up in a museum or something. They didn’t help it when it was time, you see what I mean?
JM: It’s still time, maybe, but it’s… Something needs to be done rapidly. Yeah we could go on with this for hours because I would have a lot to say about it. It’s hard to consider this music without trying to understand the background. Yeah, I wouldn’t say that most musicians are so political, but…
LR: Of course, of course…
JM: But the thing is whether they are not, what happens is they are often asked, especially professionals to play for political causes.
JM: Or environmental… We are thrown into, we are not outside of the arena. We have to help. And we are asked to play and very often by the way, can you refuse your fee? Because we need to…
PR: That does sound familiar, doesn’t it?
JM: It happens all the time. And by the way, oh this is for Shannon, I forgot to say something. Apart from the fest noz, which is where you dance, but everybody will come to it. I know rock musicians will come to fest noz because they meet friends even though they don’t play that music or sometimes don’t even like it that much. But they know it and they often who have friends that play. And also, many musicians will play in a traditional band will play rock or jazz in another band. So there is a sort of melting pot of musicians if you like, but..
PR: There is… There is Jean-Michel, it’s true. I’ve been to two fest noz or three since I’ve been here and one relatives came over from their living in Japan and Korea now and I said look, these people they’re going to dance these very traditional dances that go back hundreds of years and you’re going to see young people, old people dancing together in circles and they’re holding your hands and doing these gavottes and plinn, and they said “no dad, you’re wrong” and they went the fest noz and they were absolutely blown away. They had no idea. People dance and their music could go off in a jazz direction, in an African direction, all within, you know it’s Breton. It could be sung a cappella or with a full rock band or with a traditional band. No difference. And there’s a strength there and I find it very energetic and invigorating just talking about it.
JM: And by the way, what I wanted to tell to Shannon is that, in fact, apart from the fest noz and the traditional music concerts. Traditional is a word that, by the way, is a little difficult for me. I don’t find it very adapted, but anyway, we have also festivals. Like there’s a huge festival in central Brittany called the [?] which means the Old Ploughs.
PR: Ah, oui oui oui
JM: And Bruch Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, Sting, Bob Dylan, blah blah blah, and you have always Breton music there as well. So all these big stars know about it, they see the big flags and we have lesser festivals where a traditional band will play just after a jazz band or just before a rock band. So the musicians get to listen to each other a lot which I was say was not necessarily the case 40 years ago. Is that good or bad? I think it’s good in a way. I don’t know what, well, what you can fear is always all music will eventually sound alike, but I don’t think so. I don’t think so.
LR: I would love to go to a concert where Pennou-Skoulm played next to Bruce Springsteen. That would be really great. I would love that. That would be the greatest concert in the history of the world.
JM: Well, I played with Barzaz last summer a few hours before Carlos Santana.
SK: Wow. Well, thank you so much again.
JM: Take care!
Everyone: Take care.
Once again, another huge thank you to Jean-Michel Veillon, Patrick Ramsey, and Larry Rone for taking the time to talk to us. If you’d like to learn more about Jean-Michel and his music, you can visit jmveillon.net for more information. For more information about Larry Rone and his group Poor Man’s Fortune, you can visit poormansfortune.com/music
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