They came from the edge of the Old World to the New. Their culture shaped America’s, in a quiet, unsung way, centuries ago. Just as most of us have forgotten the lost world of New France, we’ve forgotten that many of first European Americans were from Brittany, and had their own culture and ways.
Now Brittany’s sounds, the Celtic language and the unique musical traditions of France’s northwestern reaches, are returning to the US as part of the second Breizh Amerika tour. This time, Breton artists will retrace the old river byways of trappers, traders, and adventurers, performing in Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans, and other American markets this May.
“We think about Celtic music from Ireland, Scotland, or Wales, or we think about European folk traditions. Breton music is both,” explains Breizh Amerika’s instigator, American-raised, Breton-speaking Charles Kergaravat. “Brittany is a Celtic nation, but it also has influence from traditional music from across Europe. We’re a seagoing nation, so the music has been shaped by sailors from places like Ireland, Flanders and Spain.”
Americans owe more to Brittany than a nod to some of the continent’s earliest European settlers. We can thank the coastal region of Brittany in Northeastern France for crêpes, as well as seafood magic, whiskey, cider, butter, the breton striped shirt, the Interceltic Festival of Lorient (where thousands of musicians entertain hundreds of thousands of fans), and a distinctly Breton music tradition called Kan Ha Diskan (literally, “to sing and unsing”).
This call-and-response animates Breton dance parties (fest noz) and makes for lively interactions on stage between musicians. Breizh Amerika is bringing a duo lauded at home for their close connection, Thomas Moisson (a young accordion idol who has played worldwide) and Lors Landat (an in-demand traditional singer who spent years learning from elder musicians).
“The singer tell a story and it’s important to illustrate this story,” notes Moisson. “With Lors, the meeting is natural, and we don’t even need to look at each other to know that the other is going to do next. When we play, we test each other, we put ourselves in jeopardy. It’s the key to our music, to create an unique moment with a living music at each concert, a real sharing moment with the audience.”
Part of this sharing moment will be respected bassist Julian Le Mentec (who has played with Goran Bregovich, Frigg, and Carlos Nunez) and American jazz trombonist and composer Alex Asher, who played on several of Beyonce’s Grammy-winning recordings, as well as with a slew groundbreaking bands. He and Moisson have been exploring the intersection of American jazz and Breton repertoire for years, a closer connection than one might think at first glance.
Though big at weddings since the late 19th century, the accordion gained a foothold in 20th-century Breton music thanks in part to jazz. Brought back by economic migrants from cities like Paris in the 1930s, the chromatic accordion and its jazz manouche sounds became popular, and “it was the start of Breton swing,” says Moisson. Moisson has continued the untraditional tradition of his instrument, finding a hybrid accordion that combines the benefits of earlier diatonic and more recent chromatic instruments.
It all pushes tradition in new directions, giving new dimension to sounds that many American listeners will find intriguingly familiar. Adding jazz to the mix means Breton artists can continue to keep tradition alive by innovating.
“There’s a liberty to jazz, you have to step out of the regimented dancer-oriented folk music,” muses Kergaravat. “That’s going to be one of the most intriguing parts of the project, for the musicians and for the audience.”
About Breizh Amerika:
Breizh Amerika is an organization established to create, facilitate, promote, and sponsor wide-ranging innovative and collaborative cultural and economic projects that strengthen and foster relations and cooperation between the United States of America and the region of Brittany, France.
Through the development and sponsorship of ambitious artistic projects we hope to increase awareness of Breton culture, language and film to American audiences. We are guided by a passion to develop unique exchanges and collaborations between Breton and American musicians and artists, while inciting economic actors to expand opportunities and build durable Transatlantic links through our projects.