Two subjects that I know little about, except to say that, musically speaking, they are among my favourites. The average teen/grownup trying to divine another teen/grownup's character by asking "So, what kind of music do you like?" may not quite know what to make of the answer: Breton folkrock. The name "folkrock" should be familiar by now: folk music with electric instruments and/or "modern influences", which themselves may be folk elements from other traditions. Bagpipes with a beat.
"Breton" is a French word, and one I'll have to use as there is no good English word for it. Literally it means "British", but of Brittany, not the British Isles. These islands are also called Great Britain, not in the sense of being mighty but to distinguish them from Little Britain or Brittany, in French: Bretagne, a hump on the north coast of France. Either were named and inhabited by the Britons, a Celtic people absorbed into the Anglo-Saxon-Scandinavian population on one side of the Channel, and the Gaulish-Roman-Frankish population on the other. This is a very crude generalization, but of importance to the streams of Celtic music existing today, and the difference between Breton folkrock and the Celtic-based folkrock of Scotland, Ireland and very possibly Wales, though I can't recall any representatives of Welsh folkrock at the moment. That has similar historical reasons: Wales has, of the three "colonized" lands, been most under British, read: English rule. One member of the twentieth-century British royal family was Edward, "prince of Wales". The Welsh are known for their coalmines, church choirs and pigeon races, but not for their haunting music. I'm sure they make beautiful music and even have their own Celtic musical tradition - they have a poetic tradition - they're just not known for it. Scotland and Ireland were a little harder to control: the first had its own line of monarchs, one of them even becoming king of England after the death of Elizabeth I, while the second, on its own island, remained largely independent, the expression "beyond the pale" originally referring to the unconquered territory outside Northern Ireland. So that might be why Irish and Scottish folk music is a bit, well, glorified. Ireland has Carolan (a famous something-century harpist) and Clannad, Scotland has Loreena MacKennitt, a Scottish-Canadian whose musical experiments move far beyond her own cultural heritage. And that's just the names everyone knows, a Google search or sniffing aroung in a store specialized in "ethnic" music is likely to turn up an overwhelming amount of material, while the average Free Record Shop is likely to have compilations of "Irish" or "Scottish" or "Celtic" music along with its "Latin" and "African" albums. In other words: this kind of folkrock is mainstream.
Not so Breton folkrock. Welsh folkrock might be obscure as a result of past oppression; with anything coming from Bretagne, this is indubitably the case. As the cultural mishmash of France coalesced into something "French", ethnic minorities were forced to conform: the Britons in the north and the "oc"-speakers in the south (the two languages being "langue d'oil", French as we know it, and "langue d'oc", sounding half Spanish) were required to speak what was spoken in the country's capital, and the Bretons, being much closer to Paris, were that much more oppressed. And it seems that unlike the Scots/Irish/Welsh, they still are. The south of France, though semi-independent from the north, has similarly had its musical tradition obscured from view: even today, France does not like to display its cultural diversity to foreign countries! This strong impression of mine was confirmed by the explicit statements of a member of Breton folkrock band "Bleizi Ruz" (Red Wolves) in an interview published online, that i. Breton folk music was as different from the known "Celtic" (Scottish/Irish) folk music as the Breton language was different from Scottish and Irish (which are closely related - the original "Scottas" were from Ireland) and that ii. the French government didn't like to promote Breton culture in any form. The latter was also clear to me from a song that hit the top of the charts in the nineties, called "Panique Celtique": Celtic panic written in French, it's obvious where that came from!
There are ongoing political problems in Northern Ireland and possibly Scotland, but they needn't reflect on the musical traditions: the clashes are over territory and legislation, not over culture. The French government's discrimination against its Celtic ethnic minority is definitely a matter of culture, as the abovementioned song illustrates. This is reflected in the respectively British and Breton folkrock. Even when almost fully synthesizer-produced, British Celtic music tends to have a fantasy, fairtytale, our-glorious-past feel to it. What glorious past, James Joyce might scoff; and yes, it does get a bit pretentious. It's non-actual, not to do with contemporary history; Irish or Scottish makers of music with a political bent - U2, Sinead O'Connor in her pre-pop period, can somebody name me a Scot? - are typically not folkrock musicians. Although, apart from that single song, I don't know of Breton folkrock being put to a political use, it doesn't have that pretentiousness; even when recounting some myth, it is about the here-and-now. Apart from musical oddities like Alan Stivell, who experiments with music in the same way as Loreena MacKennitt, Breton musicians don't wallow in former glory; there wasn't really any. Okay, there were the faraway days of pre-Roman cultural expression, followed by several centuries of being sat on. In the online interview with the Bleizi Ruz band member, it was also said that people still like to get together and do the traditional dances, in other words, Breton music and dance is not a relic preserved for the tourists, but a current, modern form of entertainment. Its history and actuality makes Breton folkrock more humble than British folkrock, and at the same time gives it an edge.
On what do I base this sweeping statement? On four albums I took out from the library's music section, by Gwerz, Bleizi Ruz, and two by Sonerien Du, the first being "Roue Marc'h", king Mark, punished by a fairy of the forest by being given the ears and mane of a horse. How mythical-fantastical, eh? And on that same album, a song about a man who finds his girlfriend crying because she's heard he's going off to war, but he promises to return; not that he ever does. What war would that be, WWI or WWII? It sounds like a modern war to me, especially since the song, unlike the "Roue Marc'h" tracks, is in French. The second is called "Ronde de djembe", after the first song on the album which uses a djembe, a type of traditional African drum from Mali. Another song on the same album is about the hard life of musicians, who rest on Mondays but work like animals on Sundays. What both albums have in common is the total lack of temporal distance between "modern" and "traditional", folklore and reality. A concept album about a mythical figure has a very personal, catchy, unpretentious anti-war song popped between the tracks. There is a "modern" album featuring an ancient, though still currently used, foreign instrument. "Au-dela" by Gwerz is more about French history: one song, half French, half Breton, tells of the "libertine" who likes to drink baby blood (were Breton women demonized and regarded as witches by the French oppressors?), and another of four women returning from the market and drinking themselves silly to celebrate their sales - the band is all-male and women's lib is never explicitly mentioned, but the album has a decidedly feminist feel to it! Finally, "Pell ha kichen" by Bleizi Ruz, the first of the four and the one that sparked my interest, totally instrumental, a perfect synthesis between electric instruments and old folk tunes, one that I taped to pop in the walkman and press the "repeat" button. Tapes don't last forever, and I looked around on eBay and elsewhere for the original. I didn't find it and instead found and bought "Celtic Trip", by the same group. Which will be the subject of the rest of the review.
I was a little disappointed. Bleizi Ruz is quite famous as an instrumental band. On this album exactly four tracks are completely instrumental, and they are magnificent. The songs, well, it feels as if colleagues from all over the country went "come on, do a few tracks with lyrics, you can do it" and the musicians finally gave in. Nothing wrong with the lyrics, I suppose; judging from the French summaries, they're humoristic, sometimes surreal, sometimes about the current social-political situation (as with the "American dinosaurs": resisting the Americanization of Europe) and usually personal, small-scale, un-grandiose, like the closing song about a little girl who has to be persuaded to go to bed. But the voices, oh dear. There is much fluting and piping in Breton folkrock, and singers' voices tend to be of the same quality, both Gwerz and Sonerien Du using the technique of two singers alternating lines like two woodwind instruments repeating each other's notes, shrill, reedy, with a certain tension to match the liveliness of the music. The boys from Bleizi Ruz have normal voices. They don't sing out of tune, but their vocal performance is so flat that they might as well be reciting. The only song I like is "Menez Blues", where the singing is a bit more imaginative, but which is also about as un-folkrock as they can get. The addition of a female voice is not a success; think of Kate Bush's voice in "Wuthering Heights", only more piercing, singing the part of a little girl who wants to stay up late. Not very convincing!
However, if I could find another album by Bleizi Ruz - or Gwerz, or Sonerien
Du, or some other star of the genre - I would buy it, instantly. I love that
skipping rhythm, like Scottish fiddle tunes played backwards on wayward
bagpipes. I love the duets of two similar but different instruments playing the
same tune in different timbres, especially when one starts to improvise against
the other. I deeply appreciate the non-offensive way socio-political issues
surface in the music, not to tell the listener how the world oughtabe, just to
make clear that the musicians do know what's going on in the world around them,
and don't necessarily agree. I love the singing style, the clear, tuneful,
non-loud, non-macho (since I've heard mostly male singers), simultaneously
plaintive and light-hearted delivery of ditto lyrics, to indicate that even the
saddest song is meant to be enjoyed, not endured. I positively dote on the
traditional instruments used, most of which I don't know by either name nor
appearance, but whose modestly melancholic tones suggest empty, windswept,
rolling green hills (which is exactly the landscape of northern France)
pleasantly free of the human urban sprawl. The music is wonderful, and the
musicians are amazing. Even on "Celtic Trip".