Great Breton

Some of us, of a certain age, still remember watching The Old Grey Whistle Test, back in the early 1970s, and blinking in disbelief as "Whispering" Bob Harris introduced this hirsute French guy who played bagpipes and the harp, for God’s sake, and in a rock band - at that stage in the folk revival, when the template for folk-rock bands was fiddle-led Fairport, Steeleye, the JSDs, bagpipes were still the prerogative of uncompromising marching bands, harps for douce drawing rooms, or the afterlife

Alan Stivell, however, was - and is - very much alive and what more appropriate festival for this ground-breaking Breton harper, piper and father of latter-day pan-Celticism to celebrate his 60th birthday at than Celtic Connections? The birthday is on 6 January (the birthday concert is in Glasgow on 17 January) but, he says, the anniversary he has really been celebrating this year has been his half-century of harping.

Back in 1953, audiences at La Maison de la Bretagne in Paris were taken aback by a ten-year-old who got on stage and played just one tune, an old Breton hymn, on the harp his father, Jord Cochevelou, had made for him, modelled on the ancient Irish Brian Boru harp.

"That’s really what I’m celebrating on this tour - and it was the 50th anniversary of the beginning of revival of the Celtic harp in Britanny," says the Breton musician, who explains that the name Stivell is taken from the original Breton Kozh Stivellou ("old springs"), from which his Breton family name Cochevelou was derived. "That concert was the beginning of many people getting enthusiastic and wanting to buy harps, find lessons."

Most Popular

    In Scotland at that time, a stalwart few were already sowing the seeds of a Scottish harp renaissance but in 1972, before the now burgeoning clarsach revival had gathered momentum, to listen to Stivell’s seminal Renaissance of the Celtic Harp, with its sensitively arranged melodies from the Celtic enclaves of Brittany, Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man, was something wondrously ear-opening.

    More than 20 albums on, Stivell has worked his way through acoustic Breton traditional music and muscular folk rock, orchestral epics and "world music" collaborations with the likes of Senegalese star Youssou N’Dour, and dabblings with techno, scratch and hip-hop. And, we sometimes tend to forget, he can also be a powerful singer.

    For a man so widely identified, certainly in the 1970s, with the revival of Breton music and cultural consciousness, he has delighted in keeping mixed company. He has his own thoughts on the tricky niceties of preserving cultural identity while embracing strands of other music, other cultures. "It’s a challenge, but when we study the past, we know that, in fact, it’s nonsense to talk about ‘pure’ folk music. Scottish and Breton music forms have always been deeply influenced by the fashions of the time. The influence of medieval European music in Breton music is very obvious, for instance, while Arabic music was very important in Europe in the middle ages.

    "So today we must do the same as has been done for centuries, to ‘Bretonise’ or ‘Scotticise’ influences from all over the world. We can stay Breton - or Scots, using synthesisers, guitars and everything, although it’s not always easy to get the balance and I think it’s right to criticise those who do it in a superficial way, just using some colours of the music with no real interest in depth or subtleties."

    Stivell is equivocal about his label as father of pan-Celticism, pointing to what he regards as the common elements of society and culture in the Celtic areas of pre-12th-century Europe, and to the romantic pan-Celticism of the 19th century. "But I grew up in a natural pan-Celtic environment; for me it was not an idea, it was my life. When I was learning the harp, my father and teacher arranged music for me from Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Brittany and for years I was playing as much music from Scotland [he learned some of his Scottish piping at the college of Piping in Glasgow] as from Brittany. I learned Breton but I also learned words of Scots and Irish Gaelic, and Welsh."

    One can argue that, these days, "Celtic" has become overworked into something of a ubiquitous term of convenience, much to the consternation of some scholars. Again, Stivell concedes that, certainly, it can be used in a superficial way, but he identifies plenty of remaining common ground on which to base a pan-Celtic fraternity, which he believes the London and Paris power bases have traditionally undermined.

    While the Breton music revival has a powerful and eclectic resurgence, little, he says, has changed in Paris’s regard for Breton culture since the 1970s, when his folk-rock cultural clarion call, Brezhoneg’ Raok, hammered out a protest at French centralist oppression of Breton language and culture, a hangover from the pre-war days when signs warning: "It is forbidden to spit on the floor and to speak Breton" adorned classrooms in Brittany. Like his fellow-cultural activists, Stivell rails against Breton’s lack of legal status and the republic’s reluctance to make even a modest constitutional change to allow ratification of the European Charter for Minority Languages.

    Meanwhile, at 60, he plays on. He still has that first harp his father made and, although it doesn’t go on the road with him any more, it does feature - in the suitably contemporary company of synthesisers, loops and other electronica - in his current album, the all-instrumental Au-Dela les Mots ("Beyond All Words"). Similarly, at his Celtic Connections concerts, he’ll be forsaking his Highland pipes and bombarde (the strident Breton shawm) to concentrate on harping, playing a new electro-harp made by Camac of Brittany to his specifications, and accompanied by a trio using synthesisers, percussion and occasional flute. No doubt he’ll include a number off the album which goes by the appropriate title of The Young Boy and the Harp.

    • Alan Stivell’s 60th birthday concert is at the Barrowland, Glasgow, 17 January. He also participates in a Master and Apprentice concert with young Scots harpist Phamie Gow the following evening at the Piping Centre.