Read Part 1: An Introduction to Breton music and the history of the region

SK: So a moment ago you were talking about the early Breton music instrumentation, but I’d like to go back for a minute and talk about the way the instrumentation has evolved over time, especially after the folk revival.

JM: What you would have heard was mainly singing, of course, in Breton, or in the East of Brittany, singing as well. You would have violin in many parts of the North of Brittany. Violin duets sometimes. You would have had early clarinets. You would of course had bombarde, this mad double reed oboe we have coming together with a little pipes, with one drone, very shrill called binioù-koz. And that would be basically the picture.

One very emblematic instrument that was imported was the Scottish pipes. And this was because there was a strong sort of inter-Celtic feeling which dates back to the Romantic period of literature and music. Many people said “we must restore the old links between our cousins.” Scottish cousins, Irish cousins, Gaelic cousins, Welsh cousins, etc. Remember I said that the Breton culture, as well as Brittany itself, was in very bad shape after the World Wars. What happened is that a handful of young people an association called Bodadeg Ar Sonerion which means The Musician’s Assembly. And they decided, they said, “we must restore the pride of the Breton people.” And since many emigrated to Paris, they decided to create the equivalent of the Scottish pipe band, but this time, they added, so they imported Scottish pipes and people learned how to play it in Brittany, or in Paris, the Breton community in Paris. And they added bombarde, which is the oboe I mentioned, several bombardes. So a bagad is very loud, it’s louder than a pipe band actually because of the bombarde because those are very loud. Plus drums like in the Scottish pipe bands. So this started in the early 50s and even a little bit before. So the Scottish pipes were an important importation.

During this time, unfortunately, the fiddler tradition disappeared almost completely because of the wars as I said. And many of the people who still could play didn’t want to play any more. It was true for other instruments and also for the singing. Some people came back from the war and didn’t want to sing nor play. So the fiddle had disappeared but it was restored later and we now have several fiddlers. Although, we have lost, we don’t know exactly, how they played back in the 1900s. We know more or less, one or two survived, but strictly in Easterm Brittany.

Clarinet was still in use a little bit and the style. Completely with a very strange scale, not tempered scale. Very common in Brittany, like for singers. You’ll find this scale on all wind instruments, singers, and now other instruments too. And later, the folk revival that was all over Europe, you know let’s say from the 60s, guitar started to be imported in Brittany in bands as an accompaniment instrument. The main influence about the style of guitar in Brittany, the main and first influence was definitely the influence of some Irish musician. You know bands like Planxty, especially Paul Brady, Andy Irvin. People were big fans of Woody Guthrie and all that by the way. Pete Seeger and all that. Those people would use the open tuning, the DADGAD tuning. That came to Brittany exactly the same and it always adapts quite well to the modality of the Breton music. So guitar and then of course electric bass or double bass. And a little bit later percussion. There was percussion in Brittany, there were drums. Napoleon period of drums, very rough drums. That’s what we had really. They would accompany clarinets, duets, or binioù/bombarde or sometimes duets of fiddles.

But from the 70s, there was a main change in Breton music because bands, not this time bagad or pipe bands, but bands with various instruments were created. Meaning by this, you suddenly had bands with the accordion, the bombarde, a fiddle and the guitar for instance. That would change a lot of things in the Breton music. One of the main things that changed, and it’s also true with other musics by the way, other traditional musics, is, you know, Breton music before that, before the World Wars was a music played by duets of instruments, wind instruments or singers unaccompanied. Or solo instruments. Which means that, I mentioned the art of variation, people would do as many variations they wanted. They wouldn’t play in unison. And even a couple of binoù and bombarde would be completely wild. Some people listen that and say it’s like [?]. The bombarde plays a part and the binioù plays all the time and when he repeats part A or part B of a tune, he can improvise, well I wouldn’t say improvise, he is one the edge of variation and improvisation. So you see, when this music started to be arranged by bands, suddenly they wanted it to be efficient. They needed to play in unison. They needed to play the same thing. The same thing with the bagad and the pipe bands. So it reshaped in a way a big part of our repertoire and it was a main change after centuries of probably changing, but not as drastic I suppose.

So a melodic, melodic music became a music for unison, more arranged and little by little is started to evolve into something more sophisticated.

SK: So, I’d like to talk a little bit more, you said the style was kind of on the edge of variation and improvisation and I’m really interested in talking more about that. Some of the…

JM: Yeah, um, many people will prefer a couple of singers singing for the dance, not necessarily because of the quality of their tone and voice is excellent, but rather because they are able to do variation, literally play with the tune. To change the rhythm inside it to have a good articulation like a tune, and they’ll do, you’ll often hear in the Western Brittany, especially in, because as I said, Western Brittany has kept the language, the eastern part of Brittany has a dialect called Gallo which is of the family of French. Which is literally French. But in both, on both sides on that linguistic limit, you will hear the same type of rhythmic supposition. Three on four, four on three, things like that. If you hear a simple tune going (sings), you’ll have, I don’t know if it’s clear enough, you’ll have accidentals all the time. All the time you’ll have rhythmic accidentals, it’s very common. It’s difficult, of course, to do when you play in unison in a band. So it’s typical of a soloist music I would say. And also, the scales. The scales are very, very strange sometimes and they almost disappeared. Everything was going to be, in a way, leveled like become universal like the piano scale, but it didn’t. It didn’t.

And about variation and improvisation, to me, I make a very clear distinction and we know it in Brittany because many Breton musicians in the past thirty years have been involved in experiments with jazz musicians, and not necessarily jazz musicians by the way. I have been part of bands like that and I’ll come back to it. I’ve met some amazing musicians, jazz musicians. But let’s say that variation, you stay on a tune, you don’t, it’s melodic music so you don’t have harmony or, you don’t have a clear chart of harmony on which you can improvise, it doesn’t work that way, traditionally, I mean. So it’s not as if you had a piano playing chords and you improvise on it. It doesn’t work that way. You play with someone, possibly with a guitar but you can’t go too far from the tune traditionally, but this has changed. Now we have traditional musicians who improvise, but to me there is a clear distinction between the art of variation and the art of improvisation. You know, many people in Brittany are interested in other kinds of music like the taxim system of the Balkans, or in Greek, Bulgarian, Serbian and Hungarian, you have all this what you call makam, or taxim. Makam is the Arabic word for it which is a system of improvisation. Well, many Breton musicians study that a lot and they play sort of taxims with their own scale. And also, the improvisation, many people are interested and often Breton musicians have studied with Indian musicians, north India mostly where they are interested in the raga system which is with the talas, the rhythmic setup. And improvisation on a special phrase with ascending or descending scales. Well, this is old to me, music savant, classical music – old classical music.

Well, more and more Breton musicians are influenced by that, so improvisation appears in the Breton music, but traditionally, it was not except in vocal tradition from central Brittany which was called kan ha paouez. Which means literally “sing and pause.” It was a very special thing. I met someone who had witnessed, who had heard some of the last of this improvisation in the very early 50s in a farm in central Brittany. What it was, it was a work in common in a farm, people worked in common as I mentioned earlier on, it was several farmers and people, all farmers and people living from the land. They were working the field and they had a pause at midday and it was very hot and one came inside the house where the woman of the house was waiting for them with food and everything, and this man came inside the house singing, improvising on a simple melody. He said basically, putting it in rhymes, improvising it in rhymes, he said basically “we have worked a lot this morning, it was very hot in the field and we didn’t get much cider, apple cider to drink.” So the woman of the house replied to him singing and more or less the same simple tune she could pick up rapidly, and also in rhymes, she said to him, she told him, “well, you have probably worked more than anyone to talk to me like that. To make such a reproach, a grief.” Then a third man started to sing and say “we have all worked hard, this woman has worked hard to prepare food for us so we are not going to raise a dispute.” So this was all improvised. And this is a vocal tradition of improvisation that is not only in Brittany by the way. It exists in other countries, in Asia. So this would be as far as I know, the only improvisation existing in the very old tradition.

Everything you will hear now about improvisation in Breton music is inspired from other cultures.

SK: So why don’t you go ahead and talk a little bit about how you got involved in Breton music.

JM: I don’t think it’s an exception. Many young Breton musicians have more or less, the same thing that I am, I’m not from a musical family in the sense that my father was a great singer, but he wouldn’t sing really traditional songs. He would sing songs he heard from the radio, you know, cabaret singing from the 30s and all that. My father was born in 1917, he is now dead, but that’s what I heard. I didn’t like it very much. He sang funny songs, you know, very, with a lot of sexual connotations and things like that. Funny and he was people in the weddings would love him. He had a fantastic voice, very, very loud. Amazing and very much in tune. But the content of his songs was not exactly what I would expect.

Because we were from an area where the tradition had more or less disappeared, the dialect where I grew up, Gallo, which sounds a little bit like what you would hear in Quebec, was still very lively and I heard a lot of it. I heard it a lot and I know it, but I grew up on a peninsula on the coast. It’s a bit remote, a place remote, a beautiful place, but a bit remote and even when I grew up, there were not many tourists yet. My mother didn’t play nor sing any music, but there was a group at the time and a little bit every where in Brittany, hence what I said about, I’m not very particular in that. Back in the mid, from the beginning of the 50s, started many, many groups to restore the pride of the Breton people and groups with costumes, local costumes and to teach the young people to dance and to go on stage to perform with the dance and the music.

I was in a group like that which was a good thing. We would dance all summer and with the money we got the whole band would go to visit another part of France or go abroad. So my first trips in a bus where with a dance band. And we would stop anywhere in France and as soon as the bus stopped, we got down and we danced and we played. And the people everywhere else in France looked at us with big round eyes, wondering the [heck we were doing]. And they said, “oh, the Bretons, okay.”

But this is how I started, but very rapidly. I got in contact with people who had never lost the tradition in Brittany, where it always stayed in use. So little by little I heard this and that and very early, I started with the bombarde, the double reed instrument. I started as a dancer, of course, then bombarde when I was 14, and later I heard wooden flutes, the transverse wooden flute played by Irish musicians.

The first time I ever saw was in a big festival in Southwest Brittany, an inter-Celtic festival where there was a group from Ireland and I heard the flute and I thought, “hey that’s great.” A few years later I found a wooden flute which was not at all adapted to what I wanted to do but I started with that. And as I said, being from a remote place on the coast, I didn’t have anyone to explain to me so I was completely self-taught until I met some Irish musicians and that’s how I started. At first, when I played the flute I only played Irish music, you know, there was still in Brittany among young musicians and not necessarily young by the way, there was this very strong inter-Celtic feeling. Ah, the Irish, as they are our cousins, we need to play their music. We need to know it. The other way was not exactly true, the Irish people would come to Brittany, they didn’t travel much to Brittany anyway. But they would like [Breton music] but they wouldn’t try to play it. It sounded to weird to them I think. And so this is how I started until and that’s where maybe my personal history is maybe different from many people in Brittany. Is that people around me started to tell me, “why don’t you use the flute in the Breton music?” And I said, “well I guess I could,” and I started to work on it and it actually and it was the beginning of the long way. Far from being finished, but that the time there were not that many people playing the flute in Brittany. But that’s the story of flute now.

But now there are many flute players but at the time there weren’t. What else could I say about my, well, I started to work on… It’s funny how when I started to play flute, I wanted to play, I said I wanted to play Breton music on flute because people asked me so I’ll be nice and I’ll do what I’m told, but then I had to find what will I play? How will I play it? I have no tradition, I have nothing to refer to. So I searched a lot, I listened a lot what I already knew with the singers, the binoù/bombarde player I was as a bombarde player myself. I listened to lots of styles and I started, you know, but the funny thing is, when I started to find the keys to many of the technical questions I was left with is when I started a very precise listening to extra European flute traditions. Strangely enough, what helped me to come back to Breton music and have new ideas to play it. I’m not saying I tried to imitate the shakuhachi from Japan or the bansuri from India, or the [?] from Turkey or Iran or North Africa, it’s not that. It’s listening to that and letting all this music sit in my mind I suddenly find a different way of articulating my playing on the flute.

And the funny conclusion to that, and there is a conclusion is that one evening I was playing a very traditional fest noz, this dance night I mentioned before in central Brittany and this man from this very distinct style of music came to me and said “the way you played tonight shows very clearly that you have worked very hard on our tradition because the way you play it is really great.” But of course I didn’t tell him that all I was listening to in the past weeks before that was tradition from extra European music.

SK: And what would your advice be to someone who was interested in learning Breton music but doesn’t have immediate access to it because they’re not in the Breton region?

JM: It’s like learning an instrument. To me when learnt, I was learning on my own. I keep that in a way, I teach many workshops now, so sometimes I teach to someone something that took me two years to know how to do. Now in a workshop of three days, I can explain to a person how to do it, you see what I mean? And then now, someone who wants to approach Breton music, you have the Internet. You have videos. You have loads of music everywhere. Now you have so much that you don’t necessarily know what it is, what it means. So I would recommend, a good thing, is a trip to Brittany and meet some people to have different points of view and know where you are and what style you like. Or else you have some people in every country I suppose who know a little bit about Breton music. By the way, in the United States, there was a a woman who made a lot, who made a thesis about Breton music called “Glorious Culture.” She was from Philadelphia and she came here several times and other people like Larry who play bombarde, you have many people who are interested in this music. But coming to Brittany would be the best start I think, to see exactly. To see it with your eyes and feel it, go to a fest noz and know exactly how it works. And then, after that, you can go back to video and things and you know exactly what it is about. You know what it’s all about. But there again it will be only an introduction because it’s like any other music, and you know that, you all know that. It’s like any other music. It takes your life [to learn it].

Read Part 3: includes of discussion with Larry Rone about Breton music in the US
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 by Shannon Kennedy

Shannon Kennedy is a vocalist and saxophonist living in Southern California. She is author of "The Album Checklist" and the founder of Teen Jazz. She has been contributing articles to music magaizines and websites since 2004.

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