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Guide to the Music of Brittany© Table of ContentsBack to TopPrint


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, Pennou Skoulm or bagads such as the Kevrenn Alre or Bagad St. Nazaire. Brittany has one of the richest musical heritages in Europe today--expressed both in traditional styles and less traditional electric 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, CD-Roms, and computers--to support this tradition.

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 Bretons 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 and the reinvention of the fest noz. 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 with feature the dozens of traditional dances of Brittany.

Contests, concerts and dances (the fest noz and fest deiz) 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 (the high-pitched bagpipe unique to Brittany) and the bombarde (an oboe with the sound of a trumpet) is now incorporated into groups alongside electric guitars, fiddles, flutes, synthesizers and percussion from around the world. 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. New books and articles are published all the time in Brittany, and there seems no end to the production of great new recordings, so bibliographies and discographies will be always need updates. Feel free to contact the U.S. ICDBL for more specific information on any of the topics included in this guide, or contact some of the resources in Brittany that are listed.