Alan Stivell: Back to Breizh


By Dan Moos

On Wednesday nights I have a 35-mile drive home from my weekly banjo lesson in southern Rhode Island. My drive just happens to coincide with the University of Rhode Island radio station show “The Celtic Realm”. I vacillate back and forth each week between an intense desire to quickly turn the volume down to zero and a vague interest in taking what this radio show would give me for the next 30 minutes.

Usually when I think of Celtic music I think of rollicking jigs, drinking songs, waltzes, and dance tunes. I guess this vision simply evidences a narrow-sightedness that points, rather simply, to Irish pubs. This particular radio show (you can hear it at highlights a much broader range of music than sits in the Celtic corner of my brain. Though the artists’ names leave me almost as instantly as they arrive in my head, I am consistently amazed at the range of music that I don’t know, or understand. I’ve heard a capella pieces, rock and roll songs, sappy strings, songs in English, songs in Gaelic, and now, as I am sure I missed at the time, songs in Breton.

I must say that I truly enjoy my drive home each Wednesday night. After a long day on campus I hop into my oversized van and whizz through a rush hour bursting with Rhode Islanders who aggressively demand their right to drive home at 80 miles per hour. By the time I arrive in the sandy south, my nerves jangle and my greenhorn banjo chops shake a little. After an hour of feeling inadequate, frustrated, and, well, dumb, I meander back to Providence to the sounds of WRIU’s Celtic connections. Arriving home, I feel whole again, primarily due to the sounds that fill my van.

Alan Stivell takes me to this same place, but somehow these sounds feel out of place. I need to be forced into that Wednesday night space to truly enjoy this music. Stivell, would likely be a fringe player on the WRIU show. As someone who has dedicated his life to the revival of Breton Celtic harp, he will throw anyone with a taste for the “authentic” into a frenzy. Stivell’s Back to Breizh uses the harp as a centerpiece or a quilting point for the rest of the instrumentation. While many of the tracks here include traditional instruments such as whistles, claviers, pipes, and accordions, Stivell also builds numerous songs around loops, samples, drum machine rhythms, and scratching. The eighth track on Back to Breizh, “E Kreiz Hag Endro”, even ends with an jet airplane cruising across the stereo speakers.

Stivell has a long history of dedication to the music of Brittany (or Breizh, as the locals call it). He began recording over 30 years ago and his music has run the gamut from traditional recreations, to a Celtic symphony, to his more recent melanges of ancient and modern styles. Back to Breizh may not be the best place to start for someone interested in the music of Brittany, or really as a first excursion into Celtic music. Back to Breizh‘s collection of styles holds true to the historical roots of Celtic, and specifically Breton, musical traditions, but this anchor may not seem apparent to anyone unfamiliar with Stivell.

Stivell builds from his decades of work in traditional Breton harp and Scottish bagpipes, as well as drums. But he provides a progressive vision of where “traditional music” can go. As a banjo player, I am consistently appalled at the narrow-mindedness of “old time” players who insist on some original fingering style or who can argue for hours as to the origins of a particular song or set of lyrics. Instead, I eagerly await any new Bad Livers CD to hear just where Danny Barnes will take his five-string next. Stivell’s Back to Breizh annoys the side of me that dislikes quiet and contemplation, but his innovative use of modern musical techniques takes Celtic music toward a new plateau. Breton harp and scratching—who’d a thunk it!

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