Celtic music is generally associated with Ireland and Scotland, but an equally rich musical heritage can be found in Brittany [Bretagne], the northwest peninsula of France which lies just south of the British Isles. Settled by Celts after the withdrawal of the Roman legions, this region managed to preserve its unique language and culture into the twentieth century. After World War I, traditional Breton music began to disappear, only to be revived in the '50s and '60s through music festivals and evening dances known as fest-noz. The primary instruments of dance music at that time were the biniou, a shrill one-droned bagpipe unique to Brittany, and the bombarde, a double-reeded oboe with a trumpet-like sound. In the early '70s, singer and composer Alan Stivell initiated a renaissance of Breton music, reviving interest in the Celtic harp and exposing a new generation to the complex and beautiful music of Brittany. One of the young French musicians who was introduced to Breton music at this time was Christian LeMaître.
A quarter century later, Christian is recognized as the leading authority on Breton fiddling. His bands Kornog and Pennou Skoulm were among the most influential of the folk music revival, reestablishing a role for the fiddle, flute, and guitar. At the time of this interview, he was finishing up a tour with the Celtic Fiddle Festival, a true "supergroup" that also featured Irish fiddle master Kevin Burke, Scottish wizard Johnny Cunningham, and Soïg Siberil, one of the pioneers of Breton guitar accompaniment. In this interview, Christian retraces his efforts to bring the fiddle back into Breton music and gives us an introduction to the complexities of Brittany's dance repertoire.
How did you get started playing Breton music on the violin?
It was a long time ago, the time of Stivell, the early '70s. In fact, my first tunes were American tunes, Cajun. Then the first records of Irish music arrived. I found one called Paddy in the Smoke, which was fiddlers from London. This was my first record of Irish music on the fiddle. And then in '75 there was the first record of the Bothy Band. It was a revelation for me! In Brittany, there was a fiddler playing with Alan Stivell. And there were some bands like Bleizi Ruz, who had a fiddler in the band. But it was more accompaniment than playing the lead or going into the style as a melodist. The real start was with the band Kornog, with Jean-Michel Veillon on the flute. When we started Kornog, it was one of the first bands to try to preserve this style. After a year or two we formed another which is called Pennou Skoulm. This band was only for playing fest-noz for dancing. This was the very first band to play in a fest-noz without a bombarde. We were two fiddles, Jackie Molard and I, and flute, guitar. We founded that because we said, why not try it? And it was a success.
The Breton music has plenty of different styles. Each small area has its own style of music and its own dancing. There are plenty of them, so the only way to play them correctly is to see how people do them and to know the dance. The traditional musicians and singers, the bombarde and biniou players, the old ones only knew the music from their own area. Fifteen years ago, in many places, the people danced only the dances of their own area. Now for the younger people, the musicians have to know all the styles. Developing the fiddle is mostly from the singing tradition. Also, there are some connections with the small bagpipe and the bombarde. I'm sure you know the connection with the fiddle and the pipes in Ireland and Scotland, so with me, the fiddler should hear also the biniou, which is the small bagpipe, and take some of it.
Did you grow up in Brittany?
No, in Paris. There is a place in Paris which is called Ty-Jos, and there I met a fiddler who was playing with Stivell. And I was going often to Brittany, where I knew some very good singers, bombarde and biniou players, and I was fascinated with the way they were playing. The bombarde player was improvising tunes; he was an inspiration. I met also Alan Kloater, who had played with Stivell in Dublin. He was a bombarde player who also played the uilleann pipes. He was sure in that period, which was about 1980, that it was not possible to play Breton music on those instruments -- uilleann pipes, fiddle or flute.
Why did he think that?
He was [a] pessimist! It had not already been done.
It hadn't? I have a record in my collection that is all traditional fiddle music from Brittany.
Oh, yes. This is very different. There are two very different traditions in Brittany -- western Brittany and eastern Brittany. There is a limit of the Breton language, which is in the West. After this, the traditional language is called Gallo. And the musical tradition there is originally from French sources. And then you have an area called Poitevin, around Poitiers. And the music from eastern Brittany comes from here also, and the songs are in French and there is a big tradition of fiddle. They (traditional fiddlers) are still alive but most of them haven't played for a long time. There is a tradition of hurdy-gurdy and accordion, but it is a completely different kind of music from the western part. Myself, I play almost nothing from the east of Brittany.
Even though they have more fiddlers there?
Yes, it's funny because it's not bad music but I don't have a big interest in it. Have you heard of Archetype? It was a band with six fiddlers from Brittany, with a cello and double bass and we played some tunes from eastern Brittany. Sometimes in festivals, we played for the dance called schottische and there are polkas and things like this, which are more influenced [by non-local musical trends] than the music of western Brittany, which is totally original and special.
Did western Brittany ever use the violin or was it never a part of their traditional music?
In the '50s, when some people wanted to make a record of Breton music, what was left at that moment was only singing and bombarde, biniou, and accordion. Many accordion players could play waltzes and tangos, and then they'd play the gavottes. But as for the fiddle, there is nothing positive left about it. The only thing we know is from books. French writers mention that they saw fiddle players in Brittany. There are plenty of reports of this, and pictures, too -- drawings, and some statues you'll see in churches.
Did you find that some of the same tunes from western Brittany were also played in Ireland and Scotland, or were the repertoires completely different?
It was completely different. In western Brittany, the structure of the music is completely original. Most of the tunes are very intricate with the dance, and you have several musical phrases. The gavotte is eight beats and every beat has its own function for the dance and its own way of being played. It has nothing to do with Irish and Scottish music.
[For the full text of this interview, as well as transcriptions of four Breton tunes as played by Christian, purchase the Summer 2001 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Peter Anick, co-author of Mel Bay’s “Old Time Fiddling Across America,” plays fiddle with the Massachusetts bluegrass band Wide Open Spaces (www.wideospaces.com).]
Photo courtesy Green Linnet Records