I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this, but sometimes after gigs, especially those that have gone well, people come up to you and make all sorts of random offers. (Not that kind of offer. Well, once, but it was a long time ago and I’m sure you’ll forgive me if I don’t share it here.) Like the Miller of fairy tale who persuades the King that his daughter can spin straw into gold, these well- meaning people promise much and deliver little. I’ve learned to take it all with a pinch of salt. So when someone came up to us after a Wod gig and offered to get us some gigs in Brittany, I smiled enthusiastically then promptly forgot all about it. What I hadn’t bargained for was that that someone was William Gilbert, a drama teacher and one-time resident of Brittany, who is not only a fantastic organiser but a man of his word. It helps too that he’s improbably well-connected in the world of Breton music. That’s why this Spring we found ourselves on the ferry to Roscoff, heading to the village of Cavan to play for our first ever Fest Noz.
Breton music has something of a bad reputation, at least amongst those English bagpipe revivalists for whom inspiration lies across the Channel.
Compared to say the folk music of Central France, the instruments are too loud, the tunes too simple, the dances too boring. These things are a matter of taste, of course, but for me it’s the ‘barbaric’ nature of Breton music and dance, as Dave Shepherd put it memorably in his Breton Dance and Tune Book, that I find so exciting. Once you start playing Breton tunes over and again, they reveal themselves to be anything but simple. Each contains intricate rhythmic structures, carefully crafted to lift foot from floor, that can’t be conveyed on the page.
For sure, those looping, hypnotic dances don’t really give you a chance to prove your prowess but they do engender a communal feeling of togetherness and, yes, transcendence that’s rarely encountered outside the euphoria of Rave (the Breton fluter, Jean-Michel Veillon calls it their indigenous trance music, and he’s right). That linking of little fingers is at once a metaphor for how fragile are the bonds of society and how strong, for the dance only truly works when one relinquishes oneself to those on either side and to the greater movement of the whole. Perhaps that’s why people return from Brittany wide-eyed and championing the Fest Noz with an almost religious fervour.
There are, of course, less utopian sides to Breton culture, an ugly nationalism that, whatever the historical justification, is all about erecting and policing boundaries rather than effacing them. Extremism remains thankfully rare, but such is the strength of regional pride that only a fool would think to take Breton music to Brittany. To put it mildly, we were terrified, and had sweaty nightmares of emptying halls, of tar and feathers, or worse, polite indifference.
Certainly, there was a lot of interest in why Welsh people would want to play Breton music (our Englishness temporarily upgraded for the purposes of securing funding interceltique). The local paper made much of the etymology of ‘Wod’, an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘mad’, ‘furious’ or ‘possessed by a god’: bien sûr we must be ‘mad’ even to try. When pressed, my justification was that I make no claim to be Breton nor to be playing authentic Breton music (though with my forefathers buried in St Agnes, I suppose I could play the Cornish card if I thought such things actually mattered). No, in the absence of any extant British bagpiping tradition to which I feel I can truly belong, I look to the music of others so that I can better find my own. It met with a sympathetic response.
Indeed, we were treated with nothing but warmth and generosity. I’d heard rumours about how artists are treated on the continent but I was astounded when, before each gig, a table was laid out before us and piled with food and wine (I once drove four hours to play at an English festival and was denied even a cup of tea). But the best response was reserved for when we played. I’m relieved to say we pulled it off. In fact, these were some of the best gigs of my life. Two memories stand out. The first was when we played a Ronde de St Vincent, and the floor filled with three concentric rings of dancers, the inner, driven by the vigour of youth, spinning round at double speed. The second, when we played acoustically for a Fest Diez on the Sunday afternoon, largely to people who were retired. During a Hanter Dro – surely the most misunderstood of Breton dances – something slotted into place, the ring tightened about us and moved with an intensity that would have shamed the young. Afterwards, an old lady approached and said, simply, “Your music is good to dance to”, the highest compliment one could wish for.
It’s always sad coming home after adventuring but a large part of my tristesse this time was caused by the stark differences between our two cultures. There, bagpipe music and its dances are alive; here, where pipes in Southern England have lain dormant for four hundred years, give or take the occasional wandering Northerner or itinerant Zampogna player, we don’t even know what it is we’re trying to revive. When Brittany ferries rouse you from your slumbers at Roscoff, they do so with bombarde and biniou koz, played down the tannoy. It’s hard to imagine that from First Great Western. But if, in reinventing our lost traditions we do so with half the spirit of the Breton Fest Noz, where the very young and the very old dance side by side, late into the night and with an infectious energy, then we’ll be very much on the right track.
My thanks to William and Mary Gilbert, to Roy Eales and to Julien Cornic.