Tag Archives: Breton music

Introduction to Celtic Music

Irish band The Chieftains, one of the most popular Celtic music acts

It’s difficult to know what the music of the ancient Celts sounded like. Historical and archaeological data indicates that the Celts used bronze horns, flutes and bells.

What we know as Celtic music today is in reality the traditional music developed relatively recently in several western European Atlantic regions that may have been inhabited by Celtic peoples about 2,000 years ago.

Current Celtic music is characterized by the use of various forms of bagpipes (likely introduced by the Romans), harps, fiddles, flutes and whistles, accordion and concertina, and frame drums. In the 1970s, Irish musicians pioneered the use of additional instruments such as the Greek bouzouki, the Spanish guitar, the American banjo and the Italian mandolin, and adapted them to Irish traditional music.

Recent Celtic music history

The great Celtic music upsurge took place in the 1970s thanks to various influential artists from Ireland, Scotland, Brittany (France), Galicia (Spain) and Wales.

Ireland

The Bothy Band

Irish groups such as The Chieftains, The Bothy Band, Plantxy, Clannad and The Dubliners attracted worldwide attention with their innovative, beautifully-crafted arrangements of Irish folk music that were later adopted by colleagues in other Celtic countries and regions, as well as other folk music traditions.

Although many of the best known acts from the 1960s and 1970s disbanded, The Chieftains and Clannad carried on to develop highly successful long careers.

Altan in 2010

A new wave of first class artists continued to popularize Irish traditional and contemporary folk music: Enya, Altan, Kila, Dervish, Lunasa, Andy Irvine, Davy Spillane, Frankie Gavin, John Doyle, Karan Casey, Kila, Liam O’Flynn, Matt Molloy, Micheal Ó Domhnaill, Moya Brennan (Máire Brennan), Mick Moloney, Moving Cloud, Niall Vallely, Niamh Parsons, Oisin Mac Diarmada, Paddy Keenan, Reeltime, Sharon Shannon, Susan McKeown, Téada, and The Gloaming.

Books about Irish traditional music: Focus: Irish Traditional Music (Focus on World Music Series) by Sean Williams, Routledge (2009); Companion to Irish Traditional Music by Fintan Vallely, Cork University Press (2011); O’Brien Pocket History of Irish Traditional Music (Pocket History series) by Gearoid O hAllmhurain, The O’Brien Press (2004); A Short History of Irish Traditional Music by Gearoid O hAllmhurain, The O’Brien Press (2017).

Scotland

Silly Wizard in 1983

Seminal Scottish acts Silly Wizard, Battlefield Band, Tannahill Weavers, Boys of the Lough and Ossian played outstanding contemporary Scottish folk music and created a school of followers.

The next generations of first rate Scottish artists included Alasdair Fraser, Aly Bain, Blazin’ Fiddles, Bodega, Boys of the Lough, Breabach, Burach, Capercaillie, Wolfstone, Catherine-Ann MacPhee, Catriona MacDonald, Lau, Peatbog Faeries, Shooglenifty and Treacherous Orchestra.

Brittany

Alan Stivell

Breton musician Alan Stivell introduced the Celtic harp to large audiences. Two innovative bands, Diaouled ar Menez and Gwendal, also from Brittany, toured Europe extensively for two decades with its blend of Celtic music, jazz and rock.

Additional essential Breton musicians include Dan Ar Bras, Barzaz, Bleizi Ruz, Alain Genty, Gwerz, Kornog, Soig Siberil, Skolvan, Jean-Michel Veillon, Andrea Ar Gouilh, Anne Auffret, Yann-Fañch Kemener, and Nolwenn Korbell.

Galicia

Early lineup of Milladoiro

In Galicia, singer and harp player Emilio Cao, the now legendary group Milladoiro, Doa, piper celebrity Carlos Núñez and the influential Traditional Music of the Municipal School of Arts and Trades of Vigo (currently known as the Municipal School of Traditional and Folk Music of Vigo) initiated the remarkable Galician Celtic music wave.

Carlos Núñez in 2017

In the 1980s, a significant new act was formed, Luar na Lubre. This group has become one of the leading ensembles in the the Galician folk music scene.

In the 1990s and afterwards, additional key bands and soloists appeared, including Matto Congrio, Fía na Roca, Berroguetto, Na Lua, Leilia, piper and flutist Xosé Manuel Budiño, Mercedes Peón, pipers Susana Seivane and Cristina Pato, Rosa Cedrón and the spectacular Son de Seu folk orchestra.

Wales

A revival of traditional folk music and a renewed interest in the use of its native Gaelic language took place in Wales in the 1970’s. With the help of local media and record companies like Sain, artists who represented the Welsh tradition and language finally got exposure.

Robin Huw Bowen

One of the essential musicians in Wales is Robin Huw Bowen, a master of the triple harp. He researched the music and methods of the old Welsh harpers by studying their old manuscripts. He has performed widely throughout the world, as a soloist and also as a member of the Welsh folk groups Mabsant and Cusan Tân.

Siân James

The best known Gaelic-language singer is Siân James. Aside from her solo career, James also performed with dub reggae and rock bands.

On the traditional folk scene, Calennig’s lively dance music attracts attention. The band, formed in 1978, was led by Pat Smith and Mick Tems. Their material includes Welsh, Galician and Breton tunes. The 2019 lineup featured founder Pat Smith on concertina, Ned Clamp on guitar, Jem Randles on bass guitar, and virtuoso fiddler Iolo Jones.

Other Welsh folk highlights include singer Julie Murphy, Heather Jones and Hin Deg. An exciting group in the contemporary folk style is Carreg Lafar, formed in 1993.

Jamie Smith’s Mabon in 2017

One of the finest Celtic roots acts was Jamie Smith’s Mabon, led by accordion maestro Jamie Smith. The group disbanded in 2019.

Inter-Celtic Festivals

Thanks to the proliferation of Inter-Celtic festivals since the 1970s, musicians from Brittany, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Galicia, Asturias, the USA, Canada and other locations, have exchanged tunes, musical instruments and participated in mutual recordings.

Celtic Connections, Old-Fruitmarket – Photo by Gaelle Beri

Some of the top Celtic music festivals include Celtic Colours (Cape Breton, Canada), Celtic Connections (Scotland, UK), Festival Interceltique de Lorient (Brittany, France), Ortigueira Festival of Celtic World (Galicia, Spain), Ballyshannon Folk and Traditional Music Festival (Ireland) and William Kennedy Piping Festival (Northern Ireland, UK).

Cwlwm Celtaidd in Wales celebrates the music from Ireland, Scotland, Isle of Man, Cornwall, Brittany and Wales.

Celtic Music Today

The major European centers of Celtic music today are Ireland, Scotland, Brittany (France), Galicia (Spain), Asturias (Spain) and Wales (UK). Other smaller regions with a strong Celtic music heritage are: Cornwall (UK), Northumbria (UK), Tras-os-Montes (Portugal) and the Isle of Man (UK).

Outside Europe, the music from the Irish, Scottish and Galician diaspora has found a comfortable home in eastern Canada, the United States of America, and to a lesser extent Argentina and Australia.

Canadian Celtic and world music star, Loreena McKennitt

The Celtic music artists recovered the hurdy gurdy in Brittany and Galicia, the Celtic harp in Brittany and Scotland, and a newfound respect for the bagpipe, including the uilleann pipe, Highland pipe, border pipe, Scottish smallpipe, gaita gallega, gaita asturiana, gaita de fole and binioù.

Celtic music today has crossed over into the pop mainstream, world music, rock and new age thanks to artists like AfroCelt Sound System (UK), Enya (Ireland), Altan (Ireland), Loreena McKennit (Canada), The Chieftains (Ireland), Capercaillie (Scotland), Ashley McIsaac (Canada), Solas (USA), Connie Dover (USA), Cherish the Ladies (USA), Shooglenifty (Scotland), the electronic bagpipe innovator Hevia (Asturias, Spain) and The Gloaming (Ireland). There is also the success of the Riverdance dance shows. Celtic Woman and the lighter, easy listening side of Celtic music has sold well in the new age market by way of numerous compilations, harp recordings and concept albums.

The 1995 hit Sleepy Maggie by fiddler Ashley MacIsaac :

Piracy, consolidation, streaming and other factors have led to the demise and consolidation of many of the great Celtic music record labels of the past.

Brief History of the Celts

Ancient Greek historians, like Herodotus (400 BC) and Hecataeus of Miletus (500 BC), wrote about the Keltoi, a group of Iron Age “barbarian” tribes with a common language and culture that inhabited vast territories of Europe. The Keltoi’s dominion stretched from Ireland and the western Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) in the west to Bohemia (Czech Republic), Bavaria (Germany) and Austria in the east.

Castro de Baroña Celtic settlement in Galicia, Spain – Photo courtesy of Turismo de Galicia

The Celts were a mixture of western Indo-European peoples who created vivid ornamental art and spoke a language described by the Romans as Celtic. Their social power structure included warlords and priests known as druids. They lived in hill towns made to defend populated areas from other warring Celtic tribes. With the arrival of the Roman Empire, Celtic civilization nearly disappeared. Most of western Europe, except Ireland, was Romanized.

Celtic History books:

The Ancient Celts by Barry Cunliffe, Oxford University Press (1997); The Sea Kingdoms: The History of Celtic Britain & Ireland by Alistair Moffat, Birlinn Ltd (2001); Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland by Bryan Sykes, W. W. Norton & Company (2006); Celts: The History and Legacy of One of the Oldest Cultures in Europe by Martin J. Dougherty, Amber Books (2015); The Celts: A History From Earliest Times to the Present by Bernhard Maier, Edinburgh University Press (2018); Los Celtas. Imaginario, mitos y literatura en España by Martín Almagro-Gorbea, Almazara (2018): Celts: A Captivating Guide to Ancient Celtic History and Mythology, Including Their Battles Against the Roman Republic in the Gallic Wars, CH Publications (2019).

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Traditional Breton Singer Yann-Fañch Kemener Dies at 61

Yann-Fañch Kemener

Yann-Fañch Kemener, an influential Breton folk music singer died on March 16, 2019.  He was involved in the revival of a Breton style called Kan ha diskan.

Yann-Fañch Kemener was born April 7, 1957 in Sainte-Tréphine (Côtes-d’Armor), in the heart of Brittany’s Fañch region (France). He grew up in a family of singers and dancers.

Breton was his mother tongue and the transmission was done naturally. At four, he participated in his first fest-noz (Breton night festival) and his first performance on stage was at 15, encouraged by Albert Boloré.

Influenced by the great voices of elders like Mrs. Bertrand, Yann-Fañch performed gwerz (Breton epic folk songs) and other styles at fest-noz events, together with artists such as Marcel Guilloux, Erik Marchand, and Ifig Troadec.

He recorded Deep Songs of Brittany Vol. 1, including the Skolvan Ballade, Gousperrou ar ranned and La Grande Passion. In 1982, the Charles-Cros academy gave him the Grand Prix Heritage for the three album series Deep Songs of Brittany.

In 1988, he founded the influential group Barzaz with Gilles Le Bigot (guitars), Jean-Michel Veillon (flutes), Alain Genty (bass) and David Hopkins (percussion). It became one of the legendary bands of Breton music.

In 1991, he recorded the album Kerzh ‘Ba’ n Dañs’ with the group Skolvan. Later, he met Didier Squiban with whom he recorded three albums, creating a new genre called “gwerz de chambre” (chamber gwerz).

In the early 2000s, Yann-Fañch started a duet with cellist Aldo Ripoche.

In 2010, he was awarded the Knight Medal of the Order of Arts and Letters in 2015.

In 2016, he put together another band, along with Erwann Tobie and Heikki Bourgault under the name Yann-Fañch Kemener Trio. The intention was to entertain the fest-noz.

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Artist Profiles: Soig Siberil

Soig Siberil

Soig Siberil was born February 1, 1955 in Paris, France. He is a name that keeps coming up in the Breton folk music scene. After recording with Sked, he founded Kornog together with Jamie McMenemy of the Battlefield band and two additional musicians.

Soig Siberil later became a member of Gwerz, another legendary Breton band. Since then he has toured and recorded with Pennou Skoulm, Orion, Les Ours du Scorff, Kemia, Den and Alain Pennec.

Solo Discography:

Digor (Gwerz Pladenn, 1993)
Entre Ardoise et Granit, Maen Glas… (Gwerz Pladenn, 1996)
Gwenojenn (Gwerz Pladenn, 1999)
Gitar (Naïve Records, 2001)
Du côté de chez Soïg! (Siam Production, 2003)
Lammat (Coop Breizh, 2006)
Tan Dehi, kan ha gitar, withc Lors Jouin (Coop Breizh, 2009)
Botcanou (Coop Breizh, 2009)
Red, with Nolwenn Korbell (Coop Breizh, 2007)
Noazh (Coop Breizh, 2010)
Dek (Coop Breizh, 2014)
Habask (Coop Breizh, 2017)

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Artist Profiles: Skolvan

Skolvan

An essential act of the Breton revival for many years, Skolvan originally comprised five of Brittany’s most respected musicians, including guitarist Gilles le Bigot, percussionist Dominique Molard, and Youenn le Bihan on bombarde, biniou, and his own oboe-like invention, the piston.

Skolvan was founded in 1984, at a time of great effort on the part of many musicians in France to preserve traditional music in Brittany. They introduced the atmosphere of a traditional Breton fest noz (“night festival”) to international audiences.

Discography:

Dañs (Adipho, 1987)
Come to Dance – Musique à danser (Adipho, 1989)
Kerzh Ba’n’ Dañs (Keltia Musique, 1991)
Swing & Tears (Keltia Musique, 1994)
Fest Noz Live (Keltia Musique, 1996)
Cheñchet n’eus an amzer – Les temps changent (Keltia Musique, 2000)
Live in Italia (Keltia Musique, 2004)
C’Hoari Pevar (Keltia Musique, 2010)

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Artist Profiles: Myrdhin

Remi Chauvet was born in 1950 in Dinan, in North Brittany. He became a bard at the age of 21, choosing to spend his career playing the harp since then. His friends gave him the name of Myrdhin, following the bardic tradition. He has played in numerous countries and won important singing and harp competitions.

Myrdhin has written several film scores, theater production soundtracks and two pieces for ballet. He also collaborates with Breton flute player Pol Huellou.

Discography:

Harp et Bamboo avec Pol Huellou (Breizh, 1990)
Harp in Aquarius (Breizh, 1991)
Harpe Instrumental (Sony, 1992)
A Cordes et à Cris (Iguane, 1995)
Harpsody – Duo Ars Celtica (Kerig, 1998)
Chants de Noël (Kerig, 1998)
La vie de Merlin (Ria, 1998)
An Delen Dir (Ethnea, 1998)
Fréhel (Kerig, 2000)
Run (Harpenciel, 2004)
Itinerari Celtici (Fairylands, 2004)
Magic Chaudron, with Pascal Lamour (BNC, 2008)
D’île en île (BNC, 2009)
Clarsàch (Crihc, 2010)

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Artist Profiles: Jacky Molard

Jacky Molard

Jacky Molard is one of the key musicians in the rebirth of Breton music. He plays various instruments, including fiddle, guitar and bass. He is also a reputable composer and producer.

Jacky Molard was behind some of the most groups in recent Breton history, such as Den, Archetype, Triptique, Bal Tribal. He was also a member of now legendary bands: Gwerz and Pennou Skoulm, as well as Procession Celtique, the Alain Genty Band and Erik Marchand’s band.

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Artist Profiles: Jean-Michel Veillon

Jean-Michel Veillon

Jean-Michel Veillon played the wooden flute in Breton groups Kornog and Pennou Skoulm. After taking up the wooden flute in 1977, Jean Michel Veillon developed a keen interest in the culture and music of Ireland. In 1979, he founded, together with Paddy O’Neill and the piper Martin Nolan, the Breton-Irish Band Kornog. At the same time, Jean-Michel played with a local East-Breton band and was encouraged to adapt the Breton repertoire to the wooden flute.

In addition to his work with Kornog, Jean-Michel was a founding member of the dance band Pennou Skoulm and played with the group Den in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Since 1995 he’s been performing with the Duo Veillon-Riou.

Discography:

E Koad Nizan (Gwerz Pladenn, 1993)
Pont Gwenn ha Pont Stang, with Duo Veillon-Riou (Gwerz Pladenn, 1995)
Er Pasker, with Katrien Delavier (Coop Breizh, 1999)
Beo! Live in Belfast, with Duo Veillon-Riou (An Naër Produksion, 2000)
Deus an Aod d’ar Menez, Duo Veillon-Riou (Bemol productions, 2017)

With Kornog

Kornog 1 (Ar Folk, 1981) 33T
Première Live in Minneapolis (Green Linnet, 1983)
Ar Seizh Avel – On Seven Winds (Green Linnet, 1984)
Kornog IV Kanaouennou an Aod (Adipho, 1986)
Korong (Green Linnet, 2000)

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Artist Profiles: Gwerz

Gwerz

Gwerz was a supergroup that featured some of the finest innovative musicians in the contemporary Breton folk scene. Patrick and Jacky Molard, Erik Marchand, Youenn le Bihan and Soig Siberil founded it in the mid 1980s. Although most of Gwerz’s members have developed solo careers or joined other well-known bands, the group still performs together occasionally.

The Gwerz sound combines Breton traditional music, vocals and instruments with modern elements and Irish music influences, including the use of Irish pipes (uilleann pipes).

Musicians: Youenn Le Bihan (bombarde and bass bombarde), Jacky Molard (fiddle), Eric Marchand (vocals, clarinet), Patrick Molard (uilleann pipes), Soïg Sibéril (guitar), Alain Genty (bass), and Bruno Caillat (percussion)

Discography:

Musique bretonne de toujours (Gwerz, 1986)
Au delà (Escalibur, 1988)
Gwerz live (Gwerz Pladen, 1993)

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Artist Profiles: Erik Marchand

Erik Marchand

Erik Marchand was born in 1955. He’s a well known Breton vocalist and treujenn-gaol (Breton clarinet) performer. Even though he was born in Paris, his family was of Breton origin, hailing from Quelneuc, Brittany.

Erik was a member of the highly influential Breton band Gwerz and also formed the Erik Marchand Quartet, an ensemble featuring himself and Jacky Molard, two of the most famous artists in Breton traditional music, and by Costica Olan and Viorel Tajkuna, two of the biggest virtuosos of Gypsy music from Romania and Serbia.

The quartet performed suites of Breton dances colored by the stamp of the taragot and by the very specific technique of the accordionist Viorel Tajkuna. These dances are also decorated with improvised introductions and with subjects of gwerzio or doina, played with the particular feeling of this multicultural orchestra.

Discography:

Chants à danser de Haute-Bretagne, with Gilbert Bourdin ha Christian Dautel (Dastum, 1982)
Gwerz, nouvelle musique de Bretagne (Dastum. 1985)
Chants à répondre de Haute-Bretagne, with Gilbert Bourdin and Christian Dautel (Le Chasse-Marée, 1985)
Au-delà, with Gwerz (Escalibur, 1988)
Gwerz Penmarc’h, with Cabestan (Le Chasse-Marée, 1989)
Songs of Central Brittany – An henchoù treuz, chants du Centre-Bretagne, with Thierry Robin (AMTA/Ocora, 1990)
An tri Breur (Silex, 1991)
Musique têtue gant le Quintet de Clarinettes (Silex, 1991)
Gwerz live (Gwerz Pladenn, 1993)
Bazh du with le Quintet de Clarinettes (Silex, 1993)
Sag an tan ell, with Taraf de Caransebes (Silex, 1993)
Condaghes, with Fresu, Pellen (Silex, 1997)
Dor, with Taraf de Caransebes (BMG, 1998)
Kan, with ensemble de Mallakaster of Albania, Le Tenore de Santu Predu (Sardinia), Fransy Gonzales-Calvo (Galicia, Spain) and Bassey Koné (Mali) (Télérama, 2001)
La Route de la Rose (Attitudes, 2003)
Le Requiem d’Anna Ac’hmatova (2003)
Ephéméra, with Jacques Pellen (Naïve, 2003)
Pruna, with les Balkaniks (Harmonia Mundi, 2004)
Ukronia (2013)

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