A Different Kind of Celtic Music: Discovering "Fest Noz" with Brittany's Ossian
Brittany lies on a peninsula on France’s northwest coast, bordered to the north by the English Channel and to the south by the Atlantic. Dotted with the remnants of a megalithic culture dating back nearly 6000 years, it is a region that has remained largely agricultural, with local traditions tied to the land and to the church. Many towns still celebrate the feast day of their parish’s patron saint with religious pilgrimages known as “pardons” in which participants seek forgiveness for their sins. However, it was not a pardon I was seeking when I set out for Brittany last August. As both armchair archaeologist and folk music aficionado, I was hoping to indulge my curiosity about Brittany’s megalithic and musical traditions. For the former, I had mapped out a circuitous road trip that would encompass all the major monuments, from the Carnac stone alignments to the Cairn of Barnenez, the largest megalithic mausoleum in Europe. For the latter, I had timed my trip to coincide with the world’s largest Celtic music festival—the Festival Interceltique de Lorient. There, I had arranged to meet up with the Breton instrumental ensemble Ossian, who had offered to give me an introduction to traditional Breton dance music.
The world-famous ten-day long [Festival Interceltique] takes place throughout the city of Lorient, with most of the venues to be found along its glistening boat docks within easy walking distance of each other. I had heard that as many as 700,000 people attend the festival annually but it did not feel overly crowded during the day. The most difficult thing was deciding which performances to see out of the many choices on the program, with music (and food) representing all the varieties of Celtic culture: Scottish, Acadian, Irish, Welsh, Cumbrian, Cornish, Galician, Manx (Isle of Man), and, of course, Breton.
Many people tend to associate the term “Celtic music” primarily with the traditional music of Ireland and Scotland. But the modern notion of “Celtic nations” comes from the observations of a 17th century Welsh botanist, Edward Lhuyd. Traveling around northwestern Europe to collect his specimens, he noticed linguistic similarities among speakers not only in parts of Ireland and Scotland, but also in Wales, Cornwall, Isle of Man, and Brittany. He considered their dialects to be descended from a common Celtic language that was once spoken across Europe and he grouped these surviving populations together under the label “Celtic.” Precisely when and how this “Celtic” culture first arrived in Brittany (or in the British Isles, for that matter) remains a subject of debate, but DNA evidence is mounting for continuity between the earliest farming communities and today’s Celtic populations.
I wandered over to the stage where the Breton fest noz band Ossian would soon be playing for a dance. It was shaping up to be an unusually hot day but as Ossian took the stage and blasted out a phrase on the aptly-named bombard, a crowd gathered around, eager to dance in spite of the heat. Before long there was a long line of dancers winding gracefully in front of the stage, enjoying the sinuous melodies rendered on bombard (Clément Le Goff), fiddle (Odran Bigot), accordion (Béatrice Barbier), acoustic guitar (Alan Vallée), and electric bass (Gregory Legouic). The music, with its somber minor keys, small range of notes and repetitive motifs, was downright hypnotic. The guitar and bass, tastefully blending ancient and modern sensibilities, made use of stop chords, harmonies, and contemporary rhythms to vary the texture behind the trance-inducing melodies, making the tunes as enjoyable to listen to as to dance to. At the conclusion of their set, we sought out a quiet place out of the sun to do an interview. I was curious to learn more about the origins of this “fest noz” music, which sounded so different from the familiar Celtic music of the British Isles.
Spokesperson Clément Le Goff explained that the music can be traced back (at least) to the end of the 18th century. “The foundation of traditional music is singing, and most of the instruments are imitating the singing. The bass and guitar are not traditional but we use them to accompany the violin, bombard, and accordion. In Brittany, those three would be the traditional music. We mix this music with jazz and folk to form the way we are playing it now.”
As for the term “fest noz,” Clement translated it as a “night party.” “It was originally a traditional musical gathering. But after World War I, the waltz and mazurka became popular and the violin and accordion took up playing that music while the bombard (a small but loud oboe-like instrument with a limited range of notes) was harder to adapt to more modern styles and faded from use. After World War II, people went off and heard other music and traditional dancing died off. But in the 1950s, it was revived in the form of parties that people would pay to attend.”
It was scholarly interest in traditional culture during the Romantic movement of the late 19th century that helped preserve much of Brittany’s folk music through written and early mechanical methods of recording. At that time, “the music provided a way for people to find their way back to their traditional culture. The earliest live recordings we have from Brittany are from 1900, when they held the Universal Exhibition in Paris. They recorded culture in general: songs, dances, instruments, cooking, anything. In Rennes (the provincial capital), there were a lot of recordings made of the fiddle. In 1972, the Dastum organization was formed in Rennes to collect and promote the cultural heritage. They have over 30,000 hours of recordings from Brittany alone! One single person from the countryside could have known two or three hundred songs.”
I asked fiddler Odran Bigot what he had discovered about traditional Breton fiddling from such recordings. “They often played on double strings, with a very rhythmic bow, and used ornaments that are different from Ireland. They used some glissando and mordents (trills), bowed triplets played by shaking the wrist. In Breton music, it is the wrist that is doing the work on the violin.” He demonstrated by playing a plinn, a dance for which there is a lot of footwork. Clement noted that this dance had a practical purpose: “The floor of their houses was the earth. The plinn was used to tamp the dirt floor down flat with the feet. Dance that all night long and at the end the floor is perfect! It needed to be flat to make it easy to roll up bales of wheat on the floor.”
[For the rest of this article, purchase the Fall 2013 issue!]
[Peter Anick, Francophile, megalithomaniac, and author of Mel Bay’s “Old Time Fiddling Across America,” teaches fiddle and mandolin and performs with the Massachusetts bluegrass group Wide Open Spaces (www.wideospaces.com, on facebook as “wide open spaces band”).]
Photo: Peter Anick