An In-Depth Introduction to Breton Music with Jean-Michel Veillon Pt. 1

Hey everyone! I hope you all are doing well!

Welcome to the latest session of Teen Jazz Radio. Thank you for tuning in!

For those of you who are unfamiliar with what we do, Teen Jazz and Teen Jazz Radio are websites and a podcast dedicated to educating and featuring emerging young performers. We have a ton of advice articles on everything from the music business to performance and practice advice, and we feature the profiles and music of many talented musicians. If you’re interested in finding out more about Teen Jazz, please visit TeenJazz.com.

My name is Shannon Kennedy. I am the host of Teen Jazz and I myself am a performer. If you want to find out more about me, my website is shannon-kennedy.com.

So today, I’m actually going to start a new series. I’ve considered introducing the various genres of jazz and music to our readers and listeners for some time, but this latest interview has given me the opportunity to make that a reality. The first few styles are already lined up and so it is with great pleasure that I get to introduce a genre of music very near to my heart.

During this episode, we’ll be discussing Breton music, a style of Celtic music that comes from North Western France. The music is deeply tied into that regions culture and its language, politics and history have all greatly affected it development.

Now, I’m sure you’re all wondering how this ties into jazz and so first, I’d like to say that although we’re called “Teen Jazz,” the site isn’t just about jazz. It’s about all styles of music and we do our best to feature musicians from a variety of genres. Second, Breton music does feature a few aspects of improvisation and many recent artists have fused the style with jazz and fusion making it a close relative.

So, to help me discuss Breton music, it’s history and it’s style, I have two very special guests with me. The interviews were recorded separately, but I’ve put them together in a way that will present a clear discussion of the music. Jean-Michel Veillon is a Breton flute player who has been a very important figure in the genre for the past few decades. One could argue, in fact, that he is one of the musicians who really brought the flute (now one of the most popular instruments) to the genre. I also have with me Larry Rone an American musician immersed in the Breton and Irish music genres who will discuss the style from an American perspective. At the end you’ll also hear a little bit from Patrick Ramsey who was sitting in on the call. So without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to Mr. Jean-Michel Veillon.

JM: Bonjour Shannon.

SK: Bonjour, ça va? (Hello, how are you?)

JM: Good.

LR: Good.

JM: (laughs) Okay, so, Shannon…

SK: Yes?

JM: How can I help you?

SK: Because a lot of listeners are going to be unfamiliar with the style of Breton music, can you tell us a little bit about it in general and what some of the important characteristics of the music are?

JM: Yes. So the Breton music is a music, is what they call modal music. It’s like what they call a drone music, you know. You have special modes. I don’t have much theory, especially not in English, but it’s a music based on – to the big difference of Irish music or Scottish music – let’s say Gaelic music, even though it’s not quite exactly Gaelic music. Gaelic music would refer more to really the music of the Highlands in Scotland and the Highlands north of Scotland and some parts of Northern Ireland, but, okay, let’s go to Gaelic music anyway.

First thing, Irish and Scottish would write the music earlier and much more than the Bretons ever did. The oral tradition is very strong in Brittany still. I can’t read or write music myself. I’ve been involved in musical things with jazz musicians and all, but still, I don’t read music.

The other thing is, one of the forms, Gaelic tunes have a [range], the stretch between the lowest note of a tune and the highest in a scale. It has a wider range of notes than Breton music. Wider. Breton music is often compared, some of the Breton tunes, some of the slow airs, are often compared to the Gregorian chant. Some of it sounds like it. And a lot of the things the Bretons, in their music and songs, would relate, would sing long stories about historical facts or crime or things that happened sometimes a very, very long time ago. Songs can be really, really long, but really the music, the melody, just the purpose for development of poetry, of diction. So a singer, he was considered, he was good because he knew many songs but also because he had fantastic diction. He would have good articulation in the language. And the best musician as long as he could keep the tune or make variations with it, he was considered to be good. And by the way, I’ll come back to it, but the art of variation, as we still call it l’art de la variation is very important in Breton music.

And also, another thing that is maybe that used to be different with the Bretons… The Bretons like, they have been compared often to people in Western Africa or in some parts in Asia. We’re completely crazy for the dance, even more than the Irish. Of course, with show business now, the Irish River Dance and all that is much more famous and much more adapted to show business. Breton dance is different. Most of the dance is community dance in the west. Rond, la rond – round dances. And still today we have this thing called fest noz which almost disappeared during the Wars. The fest noz is a strange event. Originally we know and we have witnesses who explained that it was something used to bring the people of little farms, because the farms were small, before the 19th century, the farms were small in Brittany. The landscape was such that the farms were small but the people would help each other. They would get together for the main things they had to do like take care of the potatoes. They would get several farms together and in the evening they would dance, but sometimes they would also dance to level out the ground in farm yards. If a young couple, a young man marries a young woman, they settle in a farm, they would start with inviting many people to dance and level out the ground in front of the farm. And people would dance with wooden clogs and so the dance was in a way work. It’s very important. The dance was like, it had, it was used. There was a use for the dance. It was used for something.

As I said, with the agricultural revolution, what happened is this function of the dance was going to disappear and then there was the Wars. Especially the First World War. Just after the Second World War, the man called Loeiz Roparz decided to bring some old people in a community hall, salle de fetes, of a little parish, or should I say commun because after the revolution, we don’t talk about parishes any more but commun because in France the church is separated from the state which is a very good thing.

This man took a group of all Breton people in a hall and made them sing and dance. And they really started that day the fest noz, they reshaped it. It was not any more something necessarily outdoors to level out the ground and it was just a sort of social event which explains why now when you come to Brittany, you see fest noz every Saturday, sometimes Sunday afternoon, sometimes Friday and during holidays it could be any day during the week. You will see a fest noz and every time it’s an association who organizes it to get some funds. It could be a school to get some extra money to pay for a trip for the kids somewhere, it could be a protest, an ecological thing. It could be lots of things. It could be the local hunter society, it could be just a fest noz for fun. Then the people will keep the money and organize another one and the musicians are paid. Some bands sometimes professional are booked with a contract to play at the fest noz. And people take turn on stage. And everybody comes to it. Everybody has the right to come to it and dance. Kids. Babies even. You see old people, old people of the village. Everybody can dance, as long as the kid can stand, as long as the old person can stand, you will see those people without distinction of age or social class. Everybody dances.

And then it’s also a place to meet. Many, many people meet in fest noz, you know. You meet friends, you see sometimes people you haven’t seen in a long time. You know, it’s a very, very typical thing and a very social event. So fest noz is a little bit central now. It’s central and it has just been, by the way, admitted into the universal patrimony of UNESCO which means in a way that the fest noz is a sort of emblem of Brittany.

Probably I explain a little about Brittany geographically and historically what it is and all that.

SK: Okay.

JM: Briefly. So Brittany, Bretagne, in French and Breiz in the Breton language is the Western Peninsula of France, it’s in the Northwest of France. It’s just below Normandy, you know, D-Day and all that. And across the channel, North of Brittany is England, British Cornwell England and Wales, Scotland, etc. And to the Northwest, is Ireland. So we are not very far actually from neither England nor Ireland.

Brittany is a place where it’s known, one of the last, so-called Celtic areas in the West of Europe. For the simple reason that the Celts were pushed, moved west, you know after the time they were all over Europe and mainly in central Europe, the Bronze Age and all that. They moved west more and more. And the region where they are, more or less, they stayed was Brittany and in the British Isles, mainly in the North, Scotland, Wales, the Southwest, Cornwall, the Island of Manx, and Ireland. So the main thing in common from all those families of different tribes of Celts is language. But two branches are very distinct, well quite distinct, let’s say. The Gaelic branch, the Gaels, having their, the Gaelic language which is the Irish and the Scottish, Gaelic. And Manx. There’s another branch called the Brittonic branch. And the Brittonic branch has had three languages, Welsh, Cornish in British Cornwell, just southwest across the channel from us and Brittany, Western Brittany. So that’s about it.

The Cornish language is now extinct, but the Breton language until not so long ago was the first Celtic language for the number of people speaking it. There are more people speaking fluent Breton than Irish, Scottish-Gaelic, or even Welsh, but it has changed recently.

So, all the languages are not, have no relation with Latin. Unlike French, Italian… They have no, not real relationships with Germanic or Saxon languages like English, German. They are a distinct branch called Celtic.

Now, historically, this is about Brittany now… Brittany was attached to France, got attached to France in 1532 by a treaty and a wedding. The Queen of Brittany called Anne, got married at the time. So this is really, this is really the moment when Brittany got attached to France. So, which explains, in a way why some particular traditions and let’s say ways of life remained different from other parts of France. Now, this explains… was that clear enough?

SK: Yes.

JM: But I have to say something though, just before going on. It’s hard to make an opposition between Brittany and France because France is really just a puzzle of, a patchwork of very different cultures. The south of France with Corsica is really close to Italy, and even the language. Even Corsican is different than Italian but it’s related. The dialects from South[east] France were very close to Italian.

The Southwest, north of Spain is as a Basque. You’ve heard of the Basque, I’m sure?

SK: Yes.

JM: And the Basque was really mysterious, very, very old language. Probably one of the oldest of all Europe. And the North of France was Flanders, linked to what they speak in the Netherlands, in Belgium, in the Flemish part. The Flemish language. The east is Alsace. And then you have a whole lot of dialects all over France. To the point, if you go back to the 1800s and even late 1800s, probably 80% of the French population couldn’t speak, actually, proper French. Or else dialects, related to French, or languages not at all related to French like Basque or Breton or Flemish. So this is a situation, this is the landscape in which Brittany grew up in a way. Brittany used to be powerful in the 1300s and then attached to France, when it got attached to France it started to decline. And then there were several things and especially after the French Revolution, the big change was that for the first time the Breton men could be taken into the French wars, Napoleon I. And a lot, by the way, of the Breton repertoire of music, the traditional repertoire talks about it, reports things about those wars.

And then Brittany gradually got, in a way, more and more involved in the French problems. The first was probably the First World War where there was a huge gap in the male Breton population. The trenches. Many, many people were killed. Many, many. The Second World War was not much better. It was about the same. And then there was the Algerian War in North Africa and then started an enormous emigration. Bretons went massively to Paris and to wherever they could, but mainly to Paris and New York. That’s what I can say, it’s very brief and incomplete, but that’s what I can say about Brittany.

SK: You know, you talked a little bit about how the wars played a big influence on the musical repertoire but what about some of the other things as far as the language and the instrumentation and things like that?

JM: Well, the same. The instrumentation, like in any other part of the world, changed through history. But there was a big change after the industrial revolution, and what we call the agricultural revolution which means in that, the wars of course, changed a lot, not only Brittany but all regions of France. The wars were, helped France to become what it is. Meaning everybody had to learn French all of the sudden and everybody had to understand it. And new fashions, new ways, new influences, and of course, in the music came from abroad. The very typical thing would be the button accordion which came to France from Italy in a way and developed a lot in central France and then in Paris. Taken to Paris by Italian immigrants and people from central France and then being carried to Brittany as an instrument with chords and everything. It can do its own accompaniment. So in a way, it was suddenly very, it had a big success rapidly. And it replaced some of the instruments we had.

So to talk about the instruments in Brittany, I won’t go into detail too much. Let’s say that in the very early period, like if you refer to year 500 and things like that. There were string instruments. {—?} sort of a little harp, not exactly. The rebec, which is actually the Arabic word for violin. There were strings instruments and the Celtic harp called tailin (sp?), in Breton language. But then gradually wind instruments started to take over. Sorts of shawms, and oboes, rustic oboes, old oboes with double reeds. Flutes, probably. There is a lot of questioning about flutes. We are not too sure. We are not too sure because they appear on early Christian settlements on the structures we have images of flutes. We don’t know exactly what it was the coming of flute in Western Europe is a long story with the fifes. The fifes and drums and all that battlefields and all that later. Of course, the singing and then much later other instruments like accordion and then much closer from us now, from our period, guitar, you know. Or electric keyboards or this today in bands and all that. But singing and wind instruments like bombarde which is a very loud double reed oboe. Binioù which is a sort of pipes, very shrill. Clarinet. Early clarinets, very simple clarinets with five keys or seven keys made out of boxwood. All those instruments were very common in many parts of Brittany.

The language, you asked about influences. Of course, the language declined rapidly with the wars and also with the French Revolution. The main reason for that, one of the main reasons is that Brittany was divided into what we call pays in French. Little areas where the people had their own ways and all those little countries were separated like everywhere in the planet by rivers or any sort of, and often bishoprics. Brittany, by the way is mainly Catholic. It was Christianized early enough but after Ireland and all that. It was, it actually, well, there’s an important thing about Brittany which could explain things even about the music. Brittany was not evangelized by people coming from inland. Brittany was evangelized by people coming from Ireland and the British Isles. Early Celts.

So since Brittany was Catholic, the division inside Brittany, there was an amazing variety of music style, dances and even costumes. And still now people define themselves with those names. Like some people play this style of music and they say, “Ah I am [? thistle] or I am [? plinn] which is a little area. All that of course, all those limits and little countries changed with the Revolution. The Revolution drew new administrative divisions called departements in France. So Brittany has had five departements, now only four, they say. But historically it had five. So you see, the division of the French administration didn’t necessarily fit with the way that people looked at themselves and the way they would trade together inside Brittany. So it’s, this, I try to simplify because it could be more complicated, but basically you see the problem. It’s a little mosaic of different people, but there is some constant thing you find everywhere in Brittany.

Oh, one last thing that you said about the influences, the French language pushed, like in Ireland, the English with the Irish Gaelic. The language with the “winner” in the way, the strongest which was the French in that case, pushed the Breton language west. So to give you an example, where I grew up in the Northeast of Brittany, most of the names are Breton, but the Breton language hasn’t been spoken where I grew up since the 11th century. It was before, but it was pushed so the limit where you find where you find the Breton language is further west now.
Read Part 2: Read Part 2: the instrumentation of Breton music and how Jean-Michel Veillon became involved in the genre
Read Part 3: a discussion of Breton music in the US with Larry Rone
Read Part 4: a discussion of the current music and political landscape of Brittany with Jean-Michel Veillon, Larry Rone and Patrick Ramsey

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Published on: December 1, 2014

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