"The goal of a tour is to build ties that go both ways," says Charles Kergaravat, speaking on behalf of Breizh Amerika, the Breton music collective set to perform in St. Louis this Sunday. He speaks through the phone in such a way that you know he's smiling, almost falling over himself with such enthusiasm for the music that he lives to share—and does so with righteous vigor.
The province of Brittany makes up the most western tip of France, a land-mass that stretches out toward Great Britain (hence the nickname Little Britain). The collective's latest tour traces old river byways of traders and explorers through Chicago, St. Louis, and many more cities, all while highlighting traces of Breton culture left behind by the earliest European Americans.
The region's music is a close neighbor to Celtic folk, yet the sound carries a heavy pulse that lends itself to vigorous dance. Singing also plays a huge part, especially with Kan Ha Diskan, a dueling vocal style that means "to sing and unsing."
To his wit, Kergaravat is quick to dash any presumptions that Breizh Amerika is simply "world" or "folk" music. Since Brittany sits along the English channel, its music has been in no small way influenced by the sailors and fishermen of several nations such as Spain and Ireland. Even the bouzouki, a mandolin-like instrument not native to Brittany, has been adapted along with the accordion and many instruments over time.
Breton songs are often at the core of pulsing dance parties called fest noz—cultural bouts of attrition where the young playfully try to out-dance the old—but Kergaravat recalls times when the songs had a more utilitarian use:
"The ground inside of the old stone houses; you wouldn't realize that it's dirt. They would bring a singer in, and people would dance and dance and make the dirt floor more like cement. When you come see Breton music, you start tapping your feet. You start feeling like a dancer in the 1700s, 1800s and start making your floor into cement," he says.
Breizh Amerika aims to travel with that spirit intact, bridging the gap between the old world and the new. The songs are set to be sung in Breton (Brezhoneg), an endangered Celtic tongue that is mainly spoken inside a country (France) that only considers French as an official language. After all, the collective's mission statement is to increase awareness of Brittany while preserving its culture through sharing and recording.
"We're taking this traditional music and making it more innovative. The music moves forward," he adds.
One way Breizh Amerika expands on Breton's deep musical roots is through collaboration with American artists. On this tour, Kergaravat connects the music of Breton with Alex Asher, a jazz performer and composer who has worked with Beyonce on several Grammy-winning recordings.
"If I was going to send some chocolates or cake to you in St. Louis from here, it better be some damn good cake," he jokes.
The duo of accordion player Thomas Moisson and singer Lors Landat are as close to being rock stars as one can get in the traditional dance scene in Brittany. These two are lauded for their interplay, driving crowds to dance late into the night with an unending well of upbeat chemistry. The pair will work with Asher and bassist Julian Le Mentec to round out the collective's roster for this explorative tour through several river cities—and then some.
"The goal is not to make money. Breton language, music and culture never gets to leave Brittany. We have a goal to make more people aware. Who knows what will happen? We are having an adventure," he says.
When asked if the Breizh Amerika Collective was missing out by not routing through larger cities such as New York or Los Angeles, Kergaravat balked at such a thought:
"I see a lot of quality audiences in the places that we're going. People that are receptive to this music, people who have an ear. An experienced ear is something that's interesting. The choice of this area seems to make natural sense," he says. After all his years of traveling, Kergaravat still takes a pure, unfiltered approach to touring and performing:
"There's nothing greater than to be able to share a passion with someone."
See the Breizh Amerika Collective on Sunday, May 15 at The Focal Point (2720 Sutton). The show starts at 7 p.m.; tickets are $15, $20 day of show. For more, go to thefocalpoint.org/concerts.