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:
Lois Kuter
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 Brittany.

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.]


Where am I?

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 by Bretons.

[Departments of Brittany figure]
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.

[Dioceses of Brittany figure]


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.

[Pays of Brittany figure]

Breton dances

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 found.

There are several words one finds associated with Breton song that merit a brief definition.

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 particular emphasis.


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 recounted.


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.

Biniou bras

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 instrument.


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 in ensembles.


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).

Violon (fiddle)

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 listeners.

Dastum - Breton Traditions for the future

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 hurdy-gurdy.

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