Bagpipe Society Logo
Promoting the Bagpipe Revival since 1986

The Bagpipe Society

Spotlight on ... Eric Montbel in conversation with Andrea Kirkby

Spotlight on … Eric Montbel in conversation with Andrea Kirkby

*AK: First of all, I would like to ask somewhat philosophical questions …. For me as a British resident living in France, it’s surprising to find traditional music in conservatoires, to see a classical pianist rub shoulders with the jazz saxophonist and the traditional accordion player in the corridors (and without snubbing them!). When did the teaching of ‘other’ music start in France? Has that changed traditional music a lot - more young people starting to play this music, a more homogeneous or more skilful style of play, maybe there is more economic support for bagpipe players / manufacturers? And does traditional music stay “traditional” if taught this way?

EM: When I started playing the saxophone as a teenager, I followed a trail in a conservatoire, the teaching was very classical. Fortunately, I met a great teacher who introduced jazz and improvised music to me. What really interested me was pop and folk from England and the United States: like everyone, I especially liked Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin… The discovery of the bagpipe was made by chance: I lived above ‘La Chanterelle’, a folk club in Lyon, and therefore had the opportunity to listen to the bizarre instruments played by guys like Bernard Blanc every week. It was through him that I heard a French bagpipe for the first time. It was a kind of music that was completely new and original for me. So at 18, I exchanged my saxophone for a cabrette. And as there was no repertoire, nor playing techniques taught in conservatoires or music schools for these instruments, it required me to visit the old masters living in the Auvergne and Paris, and it was they that taught me.

Jean Bergheaud. Photo Eric Montbel

You know that the cabrette is an instrument as much from the Auvergne as from Paris. I had the chance to meet, record and interview Jean Bergheaud, who was an apprentice of the great Bouscatel, one of the best Parisian cabrette players of the 1900s in the bals-musette of Paris. So, by some miracle, I signed up for this direct line of heritage and I’m very proud of it. And then I learned a lot from this contact, in particular that regionalism is a construction. A man such as Jean Bergheaud was not only a musician, he had a long story of living the life of a bad boy, a French Leadbelly if we could compare. So for me, as I was in my 20’s, he brought me into the funny old world of bals, prostitutes and gangsters, that was the world of the bals-musette in Paris in the 1930’s. Very far from the “70’s hippy-folky” style of my friends! And I loved it.

You should know that the bagpipes of Bourbonnais were put back on track with Bernard Blanc, and Jean Blanchard and me, and some others like Mic Baudimant or Philippe Prieur as in the years 1976-77, they were no longer played at all in France. There were lots of old instruments in museums or still kept with families, but there were no practicing players. So, it was necessary to refine a fingering, a technique, a style of play, repertoire, etc. Obviously, all this was done outside the conservatoires. It was only later that the French institutions decided to include the revival of this traditional music in the teaching of music schools and conservatoires. It is difficult to say whether this kind of progress was effective or even gave good results. Music is not a question of notes on a paper and exams… Fortunately, there are still many practices and lessons outside the institutions.

We were not the first to work on a “revival of traditional music” in France, it is something very old: in each era, in each century there have been restorations, rediscoveries of something that was believed to be old and that had to be saved. In the 19th century with George Sand or La Villemarqué, then with the folklorists of the 1900s. And much later still, there had been the movement of the Pléïade, around Ronsard and Baïf, who already wanted to find the music of “old France” at the end of the years 1500. And then pastoralism at the Court of France, with Lully, Rameau or Hotteterre in the 17th and 18th centuries. The originality of today is that this quest for ancestry is mixed with the most modern approaches, and in a broad social practice which is much more than a simple claim of roots. Today there is a bit of the counter-culture of the 70s, a lot of ecology, an openness to world music, a need to live together very far from the values ​​of liberalism, a kind of utopian socialism. And a great European feeling of togetherness because this movement of “trad” music is mostly European, (sorry Boris). From my point of view, it is a movement which is far ahead of all musical practices, and which announces perhaps the “world of after”. We toured a lot in the US with my band Lo Jai, and my international contacts leads me to Italy, Germany and Belgium today. In England, I have an old and friendly relations with the Bagpipe Society, thanks to Jane Moulder and Ian Clabburn.

*AK: It might also be interesting for British readers to know a little about the ‘discovery’ of traditional music in France. When were the first collections of traditional songs and tunes published?

**EM: **I do not want to talk about the first investigations into popular song in France, for lack of space. Let us say that this movement has been in place since the beginning of the 19th century, and that the great trigger was the publication of the pseudo-poems of Ossian, who, like everywhere in Europe, directed intellectuals towards the “Celtic” sources of old Europe. But the “Folk” movement, which collected songs in France in the 1970s and 80s, collected mainly in imitation of what people like Lomax or Seeger in the US had done a few decades earlier, and who were the spiritual fathers of Bob Dylan. But what we call “trad music” in France is very different from American folk music, and therefore from the French Folk movement: it succeeds it ; we can do a lot more comparing, I think, with the folk revival movement of the 70s in Ireland, in Scotland, then in England, with a time lag. First we knew the interest in old songs, with the birth of folk-clubs, afterwards the interest for musical instruments, including bagpipes of course, the hurdy-gurdy, violin, accordion. This movement “trad” from the 70s and 80s in France was largely inspired by what was happening in the United Kingdom, and even today I think that our major references in piping are the great Irish or Scottish bagpipe playing. Bands as Planxty, Na Fili, Boys of the Lough and Pentangle had a fundamental influence on us.

Furthermore, what is very particular for France, and what clarifies the revival, is the great variety of practices and the great variety of types of bagpipes, in various social classes. There has never really been a real boundary between rural practices or urban practices in Paris, or those of the Court of France, at least since the 17th century. So talking about “popular bagpipes” or “aristocratic bagpipes” in France is very complicated, because the styles of playing, the repertoires, and even the instruments have been in permanent interference since the 17th century. When I hear Bouscatel, I undoubtedly partly hear the style of playing of the last players of the musette de Cour in Paris, like Nicolas Chèdeville, who taught until the French Revolution. The difference was made by history, by the Parisian ball-musette from 1880. But without cancelling anything, just by transforming and compiling the styles and the instruments: the “musette” became “cabrette”. I give two examples : the “Limousin chabrette” which is also called “cornemuse à miroirs”, and the Parisian “cabrette”, well these two bagpipes are in direct relation with the 17th century cornemuse de Poitou for the chabrette , and with the 18th musette de Cour for the cabrette, by multiple aspects, organological, historical, musical. These two families of bagpipes were played at the Court of France. I refer your readers to my articles and books, where I discuss all this in detail: we do not have the space to go into all of this for Chanter Magazine.

*AK: In Rouen (Musette Conference, see Chanter Autumn 2019), we talked about the idea of ​​a ʹbagpipe houseʹ or bagpipe museum, why isnʹt there a bagpipe association in France? (But on the other hand we have Le Son Continu) Your ideas? Would a French ‘Bagpipe Society’ be possible? or are the French too attached to their terroirs …?

EM: I cannot imagine a “national association of bagpipe players” in France today, because indeed the practices are very scattered depending on the territories. Brittany for example, which is undoubtedly the most active region for the bagpipe playing, is very attached to a form of cultural independence, and the Celtic mythology which carries these practices in Brittany directs its glances towards Galicia, Ireland or Scotland, much more than to the Auvergne or the Limousin. As for the other regions, Auvergne, Bourbonnais, or Landes, they have developed new ways to play the bagpipes that rely heavily on forms of regionalism. What distinguishes a musette incrustée, a chabrette, or a boha des Landes, is precisely the presence in the 19th century of the manufacturing of very original instruments which were inscribed in very small territories. On the basis of these ethnographic realities a whole imaginary has been set up, on which today’s practices are built. We are between belief and poetry. Personally, I have always been against regionalism, because I know how identity building works. Cultural boundaries are quite recent and political inventions, but they work. And then when we study the history of these instruments, we can see that these “regionalist” questions manipulate objects. With my friends of ‘Le Grand Rouge’, my first band, we always challenged regionalism, whatever it is : it is on this basis that, in the 1980’s we had created an association that wanted to be completely trans-national and international, which was called “Les Musiciens Routiniers”. We created workshops, published newspapers and books (Plein-Jeu, Modal), reissued discs, collector’s records, etc. This association is the origin of many musical and musicological courses still alive today. It wanted to be, precisely, trans-regional. The creation of musical institutions for traditional music, which operate today
(AMTA in Auvergne,, CRMT in Limousin,, CMTRA in Lyon, stems from “Les Musiciens Routiniers”.

***AK: *And now, the more concrete questions: Can you talk a little about your collection experiences? - When a chabrettaire receives an air from a violin player, what steps are necessary to properly set up the melody on the bagpipes? - Have you heard ‘ghost’ remains from bagpipe playing, for example the drones on the lower strings, the ornamentation?

**EM: **When we set out to reconstruct the bagpipe playing of Limousin and Bourbonnais - since there was practically nothing left - I obviously turned to cabrette practices, which were rich and lively, thanks in particular to Jean Bergheaud and a few others. And above all, the historical recordings of Bouscatel, which I had to listen to a thousand times. So, I think it was this playing, mainly, that led to the reconstruction of a modern style of playing. The inspiration has always come from cabrette practices and techniques. After my researches in the field, with the last chabretaires living in Limousin, such as Louis Jarraud or Camillou Gavinet, it was confirmed that the playing of cabrette had already greatly influenced the practice of the whole of Centre France, before the war of 1914. Undoubtedly, for the same reasons as today: the availability of instruments, and the very large number of players in Paris in the bals-musette in 1900. In particular the diffusion by 78s, from the years 1906. But our great chance was to meet tens and tens of fiddlers, who were still alive although very old, and being able to study their repertoire and style. So, the modern playing is built both on this heritage of cabretaires, discs, collections, and the imitation of their style: vibrato and ’picotage’, which are fundamental in our style. But also, ornamentation and more wild styles, coming from the popular violin. This is what I tried to apply to the Limousin chabrette playing. In particular, by trying to respect certain modal scales, for example the mode of sol, which is a common characteristic of all the fiddlers of the Massif Central - and which in my opinion did not exist in the old playing of these bagpipes. They were played mainly in major modes, in plagal (middle on the chanter) or authentic (on drones). The invention by Bernard Blanc of the thumb hole for the right hand for the musette bourbonnaise, making it possible to play in minor, radically modified the modal practice and the contemporary repertoires, with a predominance of the minor modes today. Historically these modes have been used, but nothing is less certain, except in relative scale, as in Irish or Scottish playing (in A minor on a bagpipe in G for example, drones in sol). The Limousin chabrette was the only one where you could play minor by the use of a forked fingering. Even if George Sand talks a little about it … In any case what I could observe is a predominance of the major asserted modes, authentic or plagal. Then among the fiddlers, what is interesting is that guys like Chabrier or Péchadre, the most remarkable, have obviously reproduced in their playing, styles and ornamentations of other instruments they are related to or that preceded them.

*AK: The sordellina!!! - you absolutely have to tell us where the crazy idea came from to revive this beautiful beast? :-)

EM: I would love to speak about the sordellina, but I propose to write another article on this subject, what do you think?

***AK: *Great idea!…And as a chabrette player, can you talk a little bit about the ornamentation (you probably know that all English are obsessed with picotage!), How to make a melody more spicy or ‘swing’ a tune? (Maybe indicate some recordings where we can listen to these ornaments?)

**EM: **Once more, the revival of the playing of chabrette was my own initiative. I transposed the style of the Parisian cabrette to an instrument with drones, from a nearby region but not bordering (Haute-Vienne and Cantal are far apart), but of course the historical contact was made by Paris on the one hand and then by the diffusion of Auvergne culture throughout the Massif Central in the 19th century. The “historic” chabrette is a very complex phenomenon, coming from the French Court, and I wrote a 600-pages thesis on it so I don’t dare to summarize!

I borrowed the sound of Bouscatel and his style, which I put on a bagpipe with drones (the cabretaires of Paris played without drones) that does not go up in the high notes, like the Highland pipes. The chabrette remains in a tessitura of an octave + sub-tonic. It has a semitone sub-tonic, articulated by a key. It is an instrument which can be played in plagal mode, authentic mode, and that uses the chromatisms with the forked fingerings. This is what the cabrette does not do, because it is limited to plagal play, that is to say in the middle of the chanter as a tonic. So once again my playing of chabrette is an invention. I amplified the resonator effect given by bell of the chanter, and which one of the only active chabretaire I met, Camillou Gavinet, used rythmically. I hope to have been a “faithful transformer”, according to the formula of the ethnologist Bruno Latour: that is to say that I rely on both very specific inheritances, being not only national, or regional, but connecting me to people, more than to a tradition. And I mix these memories with my own daring. My memories are individual, I rely on the memories of players who I admired, and that I quote in my playing. It will be Bouscatel, it will be Bergheaud, it will be Gordon Duncan or Xosé Ferreiros. These international mixes have influenced my playing, especially the quality of the Galician gaitas that are very close to the sound of the chabrettes. And, at the same time, I use local repertoires, songs that I collected in the Limousin, ornaments that I heard from violin players, and dance tunes of course.

It was incredible in France, in the 19th century, all territories were filled with popular musicians, each with their own styles. For example, in Corrèze there was a great practice of violin but few bagpipes, purely for historical reasons, because many chabrette manufacturers lived in Haute-Vienne, in the north. On the contrary we played a lot of bagpipes around Limoges, but there were very few violins … These are historical facts, and today, of course, which serve to fuel our fantasies.

*AK: Finally, in this time of lockdown, perhaps you can give everyone a few ideas to make our bagpipes (mirrored or otherwise) sound out and keep in touch with the other musicians!

**EM: **I hope that when this interview is published, we will no longer be in confinement. It will stay as the memory of a difficult time, happening suddenly, but with a new horizon. At the moment I give bagpipe lessons on Skype, several times a week. My students are in Belgium, in Marseille … And then we have regular collective aperos, always on Skype! And during this period, I have composed a lot. These airs are not sad, on the contrary: they are full of hope. For me they will remain moments of hope, because we are already preparing new days and our music is made for these.

I also want to tell my English friends that my book “Carnet de Notes”, 200 tunes for chabrette Limousin, which has been out of print for a long time, will be re-printed this summer. And that I recorded the 200 airs on chabrette, that will be on line on the website of the CRMTL. We were supposed to present it at Le Son Continu this summer, but that event is sadly cancelled.

Many thanks to Karin Casier for translation.

Books and articles by Eric Montbel linked to this interview:

  • La cabrette, histoire et technique d’une cornemuse, AMTA / Italiques, 2017.
  • Les musiques du Massif Central : héritage et création – Comment furent réinventées les musiques traditionnelles. Editions Créer / AMTA, 2014.
  • Regards vol. 1 et 2. Photographies des musiciens d’Auvergne et du Massif Central, 1860-1960, 1936-2006. La Flandonnière, 2016.
  • Bouscatel. Le roman d’un cabretaire. Suivi de Vies des cabretaires d’Auvergne, créateurs des bals- musette de Paris. AMTA, Italiques, 2013.
  • Les Cornemuses à miroirs du Limousin (XVIIe - XXe siècles). Essai d’anthropologie musicale historique. Chemins de la Mémoire - Ethnomusicologie et Histoire. L’Harmattan 2013.

**In English :

“Pipes of the Massif Central” and “The chabretas, the cornemuses à miroirs of the Limousin region”. InThe William Kennedy Lectures. Lectures from 25 years of the William Kennedy Festival of Piping, Armagh Pipers Club, 2019.