Guide to Music in Britanny
This guide was kindly provided to Ceolas by the US Branch of the International Committee
for the Defence of the Breton Language (US ICDBL) and was written by Lois Kuter. The ICDBL
is active in musical as well as language issues and publishes a Bro Nevez, a quarterly
newsletter, which reviews most of the recent releases, festivals and goings-on in Britanny.
A new, expanded print edition of this guide, inluding bibliography, discography and list of organisations, contests and festivals is available for a mere $5 from:
169 Greenwood Avenue, B-4
Jenkintown, PA 19046
Music has often been the means by which Americans discover Brittany - a
recording on the radio or live performances by Breton musicians on tour such as
Alan Stivell, Kornog, Dan ar Bras, Bleizi Ruz, Pennoù Skoulm or bagads
such as the Kevrenn Aire or Bagad St. Nazaire. Brittany has one of the richest
musical heritages in Europe today--expressed both in traditional styles and
less traditional electrical arrangements and compositions. Despite strong
pressures from Paris for cultural standardization, Bretons have never abandoned
their rich oral tradition while adapting all the tools of modern
technology--tape recorders, compact discs, synthesizers and computers.
If Breton music was ever in danger of disappearing, it was in the years between
World War I and World War II after more than a century of brainwashing had
convinced many that their culture was fit only for backward peasants. Enough
Bretons recognized the timeless beauty of their native heritage to pioneer a
renaissance of Breton culture in the 1950s and 1960s. Much of the music one
hears today has grown out of the efforts of these pioneers. Traditional songs
and dances were given new life in the 1950s with the creation of festivals and
contests. In the 1960s and 1970s the "folk revivals" of the British Isles and
U.S. had a parallel in Brittany, and this period is marked by the growth of
Breton folk groups who began to innovate with older songs and instruments.
While some of the experiments of the 1960s and 1970s were short-lived, many
musicians who rediscovered their roots during this period have continued to
develop technical mastery of instruments and song, as well as to research the
Breton oral tradition. The seeds planted during this period are bearing fruit
today. Young and old traditional style singers and instrumentalists (using
bagpipes, bombardes, accordion, fiddle, clarinet and hurdy-gurdy) find an
appreciative audience in Brittany at annual contests and festivals, frequent
concerts, and weekly dances which feature the dozens of traditional dances of
Contests, concerts and dances (especially the fest noz) have been important
contexts for young performers who use a firm knowledge of older traditions to
create newer styles. For example, the paired playing of the biniou koz (the
high-pitched bagpipe unique to Brittany) and the bombarde (an oboe-like
instrument with the sound of a trumpet) is now incorporated into groups
alongside electric guitars, fiddles, flutes and synthesizers. While extremely
protective of the beauty of their local heritage, Bretons are also very
international in spirit. Young musicians take time to listen and learn from
older masters who pass to them the riches of previous generations, but they
also open their ears to the world around them, borrowing sounds from their
Celtic neighbors in Ireland, Scotland, and Galicia (in Spain), as well as
Eastern European dance tunes, or American jazz and blues rhythms.
The following pages are intended to be just a basic introduction-a place to get
started. I have started with some fundamental descriptions of song, dance and
musical instruments. Also included is a description of the work of the Dastum
archives, followed by an annotated list of books and articles. Like the list of
recordings which follows it, this includes just a small sample of some
essential resources. Because this is a major problem for people on this
continent who may have the fortune to travel to Brittany but usually have only
a very short time to spend there, I have also included a guide to several book
and record stores and a listing of contests and festivals for Breton music and
dance. [Ed: the bibliography and discography have been left out of this online
edition, but the complete printed edition can be had from the above address.]
In exploring Breton music, dance and culture it might be most useful to start
with a few maps.
Departments are government-defined administrative regions which often cut
across cultural borders. In fact, the French government has defined "Bretagne"
as a region which excludes the department of Loire-Atlantique. The decisions to
chop off this historically important area of Brittany (which includes the
historical capital of independent Brittany, Nantes) continues to be protested
Upper Briitany (Haute-Bretagne in French, and Breizh-Uhel in Breton) is the
eastern half of Brittany and the French language predominates here, with a
unique French-based dialect called Gallo in the countryside. Lower Brittany
(Basse-Bretagne in French, Breizh Izel in Breton) makes up the western half and
in this area the Breton language is concentrated (still spoken by approximately
350,000 people as their everyday language).
These areas were established by the 9th century as basic religious areas.
Today, they are still important as major cultural areas. The four western
dioceses: Leon Treger, Kernev and Gwened correspond to the four major dialects
of the Breton language.
Called "pays" in French ("country") or "bro" in Breton, these areas are marked
by distinctive cultural differences in music, dance, costume, architecture, and
subtleties of language, in addition to distinctive economies. The borders are
fuzzy and no definitive Up has been produced since research is still underway
to better define these areas. The map which follows is by no means definitive,
but will place some names to help you locate pays that are cited in Breton
writings or on record albums.
Traditional dances of Brittany generally vary by geographical region--each pays
having a different dance or different variety of a more widely spread dance
type. The best introduction to the complexity of defining and mapping different
dances in Brittany is Jean-Michel Guilcher's classic La Tradition populaire
de la danse on Basse-Bretagne (1963).
In general, three different types of dances can be found in Brittany (per Serge
Moëlo's Guide de la musique bretonne). First are the oldest dances
which are often performed as a three-part suite. These are most commonly dances
in lines or circles, and include dances such as the gavotte, an dro, hanter
dro, laridé or ridée, or dañs plinn. In some areas of
Brittany subvarieties of these dances have been developed (gavotte d'Aven,
gavotte pourlette, etc.). The second category of dances is made up of more
recent figure dances influenced by British dances of the 17th century or French
contredances of the 18th century. Included here are the jabadao, pach-pi and
bals. In the third category, one finds couple dances introduced to Brittany in
the 19th and 20th century such as the polka, mazurka, and scottishes. Although
of more recent introduction, these dances have been adapted by Bretons to
become a unique part of the Breton heritage.
Song remains at the heart of Breton music. In contrast to instrumental
traditions, women have an equally important role in song. All song styles that
are called "traditional" in Brittany are unaccompanied and unison in nature.
The vast majority of ballad singing is performed solo. In both the
French-language tradition of eastern Brittany and the Breton-language songs of
western Brittany response style singing is very common, especially in songs for
dance. In contrast to other areas of western Europe (including Brittany's
Celtic counsins) singing for dancing is very common and well appreciated.
It is important to keep in mind that the song repertoire and the use of song
varies from one region of Brittany to another--songs for a particular dance
will be found, quite naturally, in the region where that dance is traditionally
There are several words one finds associated with Breton song that merit a
Lan ha diskan
Kan ha diskan is a particular type of responsive singing found in the
Breton-speaking areas of central-western Brittany. Most commonly, it is sung by
two people, a kaner ("singer" in Breton) and diskaner ("counter-singer"). The
prefix "dis" is difficult to define but in this case it has the sense of
opposition as in rolling/unrolling, winding/unwinding. The kaner begins and the
diskaner repeats each phrase. The unique aspect of this style of responsive
singing is found in the fact that the singers take up their singing on the last
few syllables of each other's phrases. This pushes the music forward with a
This Breton language term has no English translation (in French it is
roughly translated as "complainte"). It refers to a repertoire of ballads (in
the Breton language) in which historical, legendary, or dramatic events are
This is the Breton term for all Breton language songs other than the gwerz.
Included in this category are love songs, drinking songs, counting songs, and
other "lighter" songs for dancing.
Biniou koz (biniou bihan)
The biniou koz ("old bagpipe" in Breton) or biniou bihan ("little
bagpipe") is traditionally played in pair with the bombarde (see below). The
two players are referred to as "sonerion" (in Breton) or "sonneurs de couple"
(in French). The biniou koz is a mouth-blown bagpipe with one drone. It is
high-pitched (an octave above the Scottish Highland pipes), with a range of 10
notes. Its use and its key (G#, A, B, or C) varies from one area of Brittany to
the next and research is underway to fully document the history and diverse use
of this instrument in Brittany. The bombarde has a range of two octaves with
its lower range pitched an octave below the biniou. The biniou provides a
continuous sound due to the steady supply of air from the bag to both the drone
and chanter. The chanter is only 5-1/2 inches long with 7 finger holes; the
single drone is approximately 14 inches long.
This is the name given to the Scottish style bagpipes which were
introduced to Brittany in the late 1800s. These bagpipes did not attain any
degree of popularity until the late 1930s when they were used in place of the
biniou koz in pair with the bombarde. While still used in this pair, they are
best known for their role in the bagad, a Breton bagpipe band developed in the
1950s which includes bombardes as well as a drum section. The French word
"cornemuse is also used to refer to this type of bagpipe, but usually refers
to bagpipes more generally, or is used to refer to solo piping using this
The bombarde is a member of the oboe or shawm family. Describing it as
an oboe, however, can be misleading since it has a very powerful sound, more
closely resembling a trumpet. The bombarde is played as oboes are played with
the double reed placed between one's lips; the second octave is achieved with
lip pressure. In contrast to the continuous sound of the bagpipe, the bombarde
is capable of stacatto (short notes with silence between) which makes it
particularly effective in pair with the biniou or in a bagad. This is an
instrument that has been in constant evolution with many different keys
developed as well as milder versions ("lombarde", "piston") developed for use
The veuze is a one-drone bagpipe found traditionally in southeastern
Brittany and in the northern part of the Vendée. Played alone or with
the accordion or fiddle, this instrument is perhaps the oldest of the bagpipes
found in Brittany and has changed very little in form since the Middle Ages.
Those who are familiar with other bagpipes will find that the tone of the veuze
is similar to that of the gaita of Galicia, Spain, or the cabrette of the
Limousin and Auvergne areas of southern France. The veuze disappeared from
Brittany for several dozen years before pipers began to research it and locate
old instruments. It was only in the mid-1970s that the instrument saw a real
revival thanks to the work of the organization "Sonneurs de Veuze".
Treujeun gaol (clarinet)
The treujenn gaol, literally translated as "cabbage stump" is a clarinet
with 4 or 5 keys, often made of boxwood. More commonly found are clarinets of
13 keys made of boxwood or ebony. The fabrication of these instruments in
Brittany dates back to the 19th century and their use is concentrated in
central western Brittany - Bro Fanch and Plinn and Bro Fisel. Modern clarinets
of 24 keys are also used and traditional performers tend to stay within one
octave. The music parallels that of the biniou/bombarde pairs. The organization
Paotred an Dreujenn Gaol has been particularly active in promoting research and
performance of this instrument and several excellently documented recordings
are available (see discography).
Noted first in the 17th century in Upper Brittany, the violon has become
a popular instrument again in eastern Brittany after near disappearance. It is
used today for traditional dance tunes and melodies as well as in a number of
innovative groups. While Irish fiddling has been a source of inspiration for
many young Bretons, research and collection work has made the traditional
Breton styles better known.
Vielle à roue (hurdy-gurdy)
This instrument has been found throughout Europe since the Middle Ages.
Its period of greatest development in France seems to have been the 18th
century when it was a popular instrument of the court and aristocracy. In
France the areas of Bourbonnais, Berry, Auvergne and Upper Brittany have been
particularly active areas for this instrument in more recent periods. A current
revival began in Brittany in the 1950s with the use of the hurdy-gurdy by
Celtic Circles ("cercle celtiques") of Rennes, St. Malo, Penthièvre, St.
Brieuc and Dinan. This instrument remains a part of the traditions especially
of northeastern Brittany where it is played for dancing, for wedding
festivities and informally for local festivals.
Beginning in the early 20th century, the diatonic and later chromatic accordion
gained popularity throughout Brittany, with particular use in eastern Brittany
and in coastal areas where maritime traditions have had an impact. As in other
countries of Europe, the accordion has often replaced bagpipes, but it has also
developed a tradition all its own. while this instrument has brought with it a
musical repertoire from outside of Brittany to replace local styles, it has
also been adapted by Breton musicians to express local styles.
Telemn (Celtic harp)
Called telenn in the Breton language, the Celtic harp is a small harp
whose Golden Age in Brittany as well as in other Celtic countries was the
Middle Ages. Professional harpers brought the harp to the halls of noble
families as well as more common folk, and historically there was a great deal
of musical exchange between harpers of Brittany, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
But, combined economic, social, political and cultural changes contributed to
the decline of this instrument and by the end of the 18th century harps had
practically disappeared in Brittany.
A rebirth of the Celtic harp in Brittany can be dated to the 1950s and Alan
Stivell's father, Jord Cochevelou, is an important figure in this period
because of his research and efforts to reconstruct ancient harps. By the early
1970s the popularity of the Celtic harp in Brittany started to grow--thanks in
part to the example set by Alan Stivell. Today hundreds of Bretons learn harp,
and annual competitions and festivals in Brittany gather an impressive number
of innovative performers along with learners, harp makers, and appreciative
Dastum, a Breton word meaning "to collect", has become well known in Brittany
throughout Europe for its work collecting and encouraging the performance of
traditional styles of Breton music. Dastum was founded in 1972 and has
continued to expand not only in its collection of recordings and song texts,
but also as an archive for photographs and documents related to all aspects of
Breton culture. Today Dastum has over 30,000 recorded documents, 30,000 pages
of manuscripts and printed materials, 18,000 old postcards and photographs, and
over 55,000 press clippings in its collection. But, such figures mean little
compared to the total work of this organization.
Dastum has mobilized both scholars and performers who are well aware of social
and economic changes which have changed the traditional culture of this
distinctive area within France. Urbanization and its individualistic life style
has helped undermine the communal spirit of rural Breton life.
Industrialization and increased mobility, along with changes in the family
unit, have affected the human contacts which make an oral transmission of
culture possible and creative. And the centralization in France of education
and the media has stifled the expression of unique local cultures with the
diffusion of a standardized program. For centuries Bretons have been taught
that their languages--Breton, a Celtic language, and Gallo, an old French
dialect--are backwards and, at best, impractical in the modern world.
Dastum has created the means for people in Brittany to use their traditional
culture as part of modern life in stimulating a sense of cultural
self-confidence and in helping local communities find the resources necessary
to creatively use their rich oral traditions. There is nothing nostalgic in the
work of Dastum. It is a future-oriented organization, using computers and the
most technologically advanced equipment and techniques to support and not
replace the invaluable human element of oral traditions which continue to
prosper in Brittany.
Collection of Music
Unlike other archives, the primary aim of Dastum is not to store recordings,
but to use collected materials. The activity of collection itself is critical
in encouraging performance of traditional styles of vocal and instrumental
music. Collectors are volunteers--usually musicians themselves--using a wide
range of equipment and techniques, resulting in a range in quality of
recordings. As Dastum has grown, more collectors have gained experience and
better equipment has become available, resulting in excellent quality
recordings today. Local collection groups are the basis of most activity within
Dastum, and these are effective because of their close ties to the community in
which they collect. Collectors are not outsiders descending on Breton villages
to scavenge a dying culture, but participants in a living culture.
Tape recordings, including radio programs and other oral documents, are
consultable in Dastum's archives in Carhaix, Nantes, Pontivy, and Rennes.
Rennes is the central office and includes the full collection, while the other
sites specialize in their particular area. Tapes are available to anyone
interested and copies can be made in some circumstances. Tapes are also used
for lectures, music workshops, and by cultural groups throughout Brittany
interested in learning more about a specific music tradition or geographical
area. All recordings are indexed by cultural areas, performer, collector, date,
etc., and computerization makes it very easy for musicians or researchers to
find what they need. Dastum has also created a computer index to all
commercially produced recordings of Breton music.
Additional: I'm not sure how much it is used in Breton, as opposed to French
traditional music, but here's some information on the
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