Alan Stivell: Bard of Breizh

Alan Stivell: Bard of Breizh

By Stephen D. Winick


For many people in Europe and throughout the world, Alan Stivell is the quintessential performer from Brittany. One of the first and most important players in the Breton folk revival of the 1960s, he acted as a detonator for Brittany's folk boom in the 1970s. He has assimilated techniques and styles from rock and roll, jazz, and, more recently, Afropop and hip hop. In turn, he has influenced players on the French folk scene, guitar heroes in rock and roll, and musicians in all branches of Celtic music. Most importantly, he has done more than anyone in his generation to bring the culture of Brittany, the Celtic region in the west of France, to the attention of the world.

Alan Cochevelou, who would later take the stage name Stivell, was born in the Auvergnat town of Riom. The son of Bretons living outside their home region, he spent much of his youth in Paris. He discovered music early, beginning piano lessons at the age of five, and soon after took up the Celtic harp. The harp was an unusual instrument in Brittany during Stivell's youth; it had been common during the Middle Ages, but had died out in Breton tradition prior to the 20th century. Some harps were being imported from Britain and Ireland, however, and a movement was starting whose aim was to re-create an older style of Breton harp. One of the people experimenting was Stivell's father, Jord Cochevelou. In the 1950s, Cochevelou used the medieval Irish Brian Boru harp as a model from which to construct a new Breton harp. The very first concert on the brand-new instrument was played by the young Alan Cochevelou.

"It was 1953," Stivell remembered in a June 2000 interview. "I was nine years old. It was the first time the Breton harp was played, in fact, for centuries. It was the beginning of a revival in Brittany. But at the same time it didn't come from totally traditional music. Even the harp itself was not traditional, or was no longer traditional. So it was fusion already, first with classical music." Stivell's whole career in Breton music has been about fusion: fusion with rock and jazz and classical music, but also fusion among the different Celtic music traditions.

Soon after his harping debut, and in keeping with his pan-Celtic ideology, the young Alan Cochevelou took up the Scottish bagpipe, joining a bagad, or pipe band. A 20th-century invention that includes Scottish pipes and drums alongside Breton bombardes (a shawm or rustic oboe), the bagad creates a strong, resonant, and martial music for marching as well as for dancing. Stivell's band was the Paris area's Bagad Bleimor. "In '54 I was in the Bleimor [Boy] Scouts, which was also a pipe band, a bagad," he remembered. "It was only when I got a little older that we decided to no more be boy scouts but just musicians. Bleimor was a part of the Paris Breton associations, so there were many festivals, so we were of course meeting other Bretons and other Breton musicians." Stivell spent a total of about fifteen years with the bagad, which he only left after his solo career had taken off in the 1970s. By 1966, Stivell was the band's pipe major, leading Bleimor to the prestigious championship of Brittany.

In the same year, the young Breton decided to try something new: singing. "I took a stage name, Stivell, which was not my family name, and began to sing in different places in Brittany, in France, and already in London. Then, after '68, I left my studies just to play and sing," he explained. Stivell's gentle singing and his brisk, crisp harp playing captivated audiences, and success was fairly immediate. "It was quick enough," he quipped. "I began to sing in '66. In '67 I signed my contract with Phillips." By 1968 he was opening for the Moody Blues in London. This success was all the more remarkable considering that it occurred while his traditional career was still in full swing: in 1966, 1968, and 1969 Stivell and his partner Youenn Sicard won the championships in Breton duo piping, Stivell on Scottish Highland bagpipes and Sicard on bombarde.

Despite all his success, Stivell was afraid that performing in Breton would stand in his way when it came to his dream: fusion between traditional music and pop. "For years my idea was to mainly make a fusion with Celtic music and rock music," Stivell said. "I was in the bagad, I was playing the bagpipe and so on. So I didn't know anybody [in rock music], and even almost would not dare to speak with a guitarist, because in Brittany and in Europe at that time, there was big racism against Breton music."

In fact, social relations between Bretons and the French state were very strained in the 1960s. As separatist and nationalist groups tried to free Brittany from what they saw as French tyranny, the backlash stiffened the government's already considerable resolve to suppress Breton culture. Stivell has his own ideas about the origins of anti-Breton sentiment in France.

"Of course, any aspect of provincial music, out of Paris, was considered as being out of fashion, remote people, and so on," he said. "But in France, it's not only in music but in the culture in general, that the Bretons were considered the worst people. Because the Corsicans, or Catalans or Occitans were not, like the Bretons, making the French remember that they were also barbarians."

The French believe they are descended from the ancient Gauls, Stivell explained. The Gauls were considered barbarians until they became part of the Roman Empire. Since the Bretons are another Celtic tribe, Stivell concluded, they remind the French of their own roots as Celtic barbarians—and the French see it as their duty to civilize Bretons by removing their Celtic culture. "They didn't like us at all," he finished, "and they couldn't pronounce the words 'Breton music' without mocking it and running away."

Under these conditions, Stivell was afraid his request to sing in Breton and play Breton music with a guitarist would be taken as a joke. Luckily, he discovered a young Breton player named Dan Ar Braz, who was then developing the skills he would later bring to groups like Fairport Convention and Heritage Des Celtes. When Stivell first met Dan Ar Braz, it was both a revelation that he was not alone, and a promise of more ambitious collaborations in the future. The two began to play as a duo, and slowly went about looking for bandmates. "It was only in '71 that I had a real band backing me, with Dan and other people, so I could really begin to experiment with what I had wanted to do for 10 years already."

That first band contained musicians like violinist René Werneer, who went on to be successful in progressive rock, and guitarist and dulcimer player Gabriel Yacoub, who soon left to found the French folk-rock group Malicome. (Yacoub has been accused of being a defector and betraying his Breton roots, which is utterly silly because he is not Breton. Stivell understands perfectly why he left and would have done the same in Yacoub's place. He admired Malicome, he said, "even if they were influenced by people like Steeleye Span more than they were by me!")

Stivell and his backing band geared up for action, and by 1971 they were a cultural force in Europe. "It was mainly in 1970 to 1972 when the press spoke of us as something important, as a musical movement very different from what was the normal, middle-of-the-road music, but very popular at the same time. It has always been something I wanted to do and I did, to make music that could be called alternative, almost underground music in a way. Because it was so different to the commercial culture, different to what a record company would think could sell very much. For example, I sing in a language that nobody can understand, or almost nobody. But in fact it proved to be popular."

Was his success surprising? "Yes, in its extent, it was. Because at first I was…not paranoid, but a little bit. Because of that feeling of racism, I was thinking that there was no way to sing these things in front of French audiences. And in fact, the audiences were cooler than I expected." In this environment, Stivell released his first solo album, Reflets (1970), which included original compositions, traditional Breton songs and tunes, and a medley of Irish music. He followed it up with a band album, entitled Renaissance of the Celtic Harp (1971), which won the prestigious Grand Prix International du Disque. By turns classical, new age, Celtic, and rock, the music on this disc blended orchestral arrangements, pipe-band music from Stivell's Bleimor compatriots, lead electric guitar, and a bass-and-drums rhythm section. It also blended traditional music from Brittany with themes from Wales and dance tunes from Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. Its passionately pan-Celtic vision coupled with its novel execution changed the way a lot of people thought about Celtic music.

"For me it was something natural, this kind of fusion of Celtic musics," he explained. "It was unique in a way because there was nobody else who felt [that way] then. I have always been very passionate about inter-Celtic relations. Maybe it was because I lived in Paris. When you are in the country, you are sometimes more into the different regions inside Brittany, more than to have a general feeling [toward Brittany as a whole]." His determination to perform jigs and reels, as well as gavottes and plinns from Brittany, ensured that his music would be saleable outside of the province, and would thus bring Breton music to the world.

Already blessed with critical acclaim, Stivell's next objective was widespread popularity. He achieved this in the course of a single evening: February 28, 1972. The occasion was a concert he performed at the Olympia theatre, which was broadcast live on French national radio, bringing Stivell to a huge audience. "It was an event that a lot of Bretons felt as a historical night," he said. "As there were only three radio stations in France, there was one chance in three to turn on the radio and to hear the concert live." For Bretons, having their culture foregrounded that way was a real novelty. "It was a bit like the World Cup of football [for Bretons], everybody was in the pubs listening to the radio that night, so in one day it was a very big thing."

The Olympia concert was also released as an album, à L'Olympia (1972), which sold a million and a half copies and further cemented Stivell's popularity. "The album was one of the best sellers in Europe for the 70s. I think it was felt by all my generation as...a different thing than show business would impose on the public."

Stivell's success was a crucial moment for the Breton music scene. He was one ingredient in the volatile cultural mixture that led to what's often called a "folk explosion." Other players included pipe bands like Bagad Bleimor turning boy scouts into musicians; cercles Celtiques, or clubs dedicated to reviving Celtic arts; Breton protest singers like Gilles Servat and Glenmor making the case for Breton autonomy; the revival of the fest-noz, or night-party, as an opportunity for music making in the absence of concert halls and cabarets; and the founding of Dastum, a tape archive that sent collectors to every corner of Brittany looking for traditional songs and tunes. But for young and impressionable musicians-to-be, the rock-star status of Stivell went further than anything else to promote traditional music. Those who had already been plowing the folk music furrow were encouraged by Stivell's chart-topping turn and the legitimacy it gave to Breton music. And in his wake many youngsters began exploring Breton music and its relation to the rest of the Celtic world.

Stivell, meanwhile, was too busy to dwell on the effect he was having back home; he was touring all over the world. In May 1974, Boston Phoenix reviewer Michael Bloom caught Stivell's band on the Harvard campus, and mentioned them favorably in an omnibus review of such period icons as King Crimson, Procol Harum and Foghat. Part of his review ran as follows: "Stivell's work [is] cousin to the material from which Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention, Horslips and Planxty draw. Playing in Stivell's band are Rene Werneer, who can rock out a fiddler's reel better than Fairport's Swarb, Pascal Stive, whose use of the Hammond organ as a drone instrument is a tremendous idea, guitarist Dan Ar Bras, bassist Blet Thomas and drummer Michel Santangeli. Their ensemble heavy-metal folk work has earned accolades across Europe as Celtic Rock."

With Celtic rock, Stivell was able to shatter many people's stereotypes about the backwardness of Breton culture, stereotypes that have never recovered. As he put it, "music has had the main impact on bringing consciousness of the Breton culture to the French territory." But no pop musician's hold on the public imagination is eternal, as Stivell would find out in the later 1970s. "[My music] was a bit of a fashion," Stivell explained, "so afterwards they moved on to other things. In 1977 in France, part of the people were getting into punky type of things, and others into disco." There was little room for Stivell in such a market, especially since his own trajectory was then away from rock and toward his folkier side, as well as into jazz and new age. From the blistering rock and roll of Chemins de Terre in 1973, he moved on to the acoustic and very traditional album E Langonned in 1974…an absolutely beautiful effort, but not the type of music Stivell's fans were accustomed to. He followed these with other interesting and introspective albums, including the harp and poetry recording Trema'n Inis (1976), Before Landing (1977), a Breton history lesson with an art-rock soundtrack, and Un dewezh barzh 'ger (1978) , which showed the influence of acoustic jazz and American folk; this last is Stivell's folkiest album, and perhaps the most accessible to American audiences. And if none of these albums had the raw power of his early 1970s efforts, all are filled with fresh ideas and interesting sounds. Right in the middle of the period, with the triumphant Live in Dublin (1975), Stivell provided the great summation of his Celtic rock sound, and the last hurrah of the Dan Ar Bras and Rene Werneer band.

The end of the 1970s saw Stivell engaged in a new project, the production of his landmark composition and album entitled Celtic Symphony: Tir Na Nóg. The piece originated with a simple idea: to do for traditional Breton music what Bartók did for Hungarian folk tunes or Vaughan Williams for English folksongs: create viable classical arrangements that would immortalize them in the orchestral repertoire. "I had this idea that we should do in Brittany a kind of Breton or Celtic classical music," Stivell explained. "But the idea evolved through all the influences I had, so it changed into a project which was more world music with classical instruments and symphonic orchestra, but using sitar, different ethnic instruments, together with rock." The basis of it all was still Breton music, but the overall sound was very intellectual and atmospheric, a big change from the electrifying performances on his rock band albums. When the recorded version was released in 1979 it was a great artistic success, a rich and multifaceted recording, but it didn't have the pop appeal to make it a hit.

Stivell's response to his waning popularity within France was to increase his touring outside the country, playing more often in Europe and the United States. "My most important concert I ever did was in Italy," he recalled. "I had fifteen thousand people for a concert in Milano. I did a tour almost every year in the U.S. So in the 1980s I worked a lot, but less in France." Bravely, Stivell continued following his own musical path, which took him further from pop music and into other realms, principally new age. His 1980s albums, beginning with the transitional Terre des Vivants (1981), and continuing with Légende (1983) and Harpes du Nouvel Age (1985), rely heavily on synthesizers and other ambient electronic sounds behind Stivell's trademark harp.

Stivell was flirting with new age music as far back as Renaissance of the Celtic Harp , but he never really considered himself a new age artist. Of the title Harpes du Nouvel Age ("Harps of the New Age"), which seemed to put him firmly in the new age camp, Stivell was frank: "I was tired of always being considered a folk musician, because I don't consider myself as a folk musician. Before I took my stage name, Alan Stivell, then I was a folk musician. But after, I did something else, which was kind of today's music with Celtic roots. So for a few albums I thought if I wrote "New Age," there was a possibility to be in different places in the shop." He certainly fooled new age fans well enough; in 1986, the U.S. release of Harpes du Nouvel Age won an Indie award as Best New Age Album.

The relative artistic success of Stivell's new age period, which he seems to have wrapped up in 1991 with The Mist of Avalon, is debatable. The tough, punchy, and relatively direct sounds of Chemins de Terre and Live in Dublin are preferable to anything he released in the 1980s, but his musicality shines through even in his relatively turgid projects, and every disc has moments to revel in. On Légende, Stivell's harp playing is particularly crisp and clear in a solo Irish reel, and his quirky vocals are effectively overdubbed into a stirring chorus. The Mist of Avalon contains dense and compelling arrangements of tunes like "Morgan," some beautiful harp playing here and there, and a brash, Led-Zeppelin-meets-Fairport-Convention Celtic rockout on "Le Chant de Taliesin."

Since 1991, Stivell has once again been looking for new sounds to mold into Celtic fusion. He came up with two: world music and progressive dance music. The dance influences are best seen on Stivell's 1995 CD Brian Boru, which includes drum loops, rhythm machines, and samples in its sonic arsenal. Songs like "Let the Plinn," "Lands of my Fathers," and "Sword Dance" back Breton and Gaelic tunes with thick, chunky dance-mix grooves. "Today is every day changing," Stivell commented. "So if I want to mix today's music with ancient roots, first I put some rock and roll and electric guitars, then I put some synthesizers, then I bring some rhythm boxes, then we'll have a computer, I'll put some samples. Because for me I'm as curious about new musical techniques as I can be about musical cultures from very far geographically."

Stivell's passion for geographically remote musics can be glimpsed in his early records; there are tablas on Renaissance of the Celtic Harp and sitar on Un dewezh banh 'ger. "When I began to play Celtic harp, I was very curious and interested to hear musics very far from home. I heard some similarities from as far as southeast Asia or from American Indians," Stivell said. His world music sympathies became even more evident on Again, a 1994 retrospective containing new versions of his most successful songs. But the pinnacle of Stivell's world music phase was 1 Douar [One Earth], released in 1998.

"Many people wonder about identity, but nobody seems to know how to answer that question of identity," Stivell explained. "How do you search for an identity without going too far? That's why I did this record, to say, 'I'm a Breton, but before being Breton I'm a citizen of the world.' I did this album insisting very much about this, about being a human being before being a Breton." Guests on 1 Douar included Youssou N'Dour, Khaled, and several other African musicians.

Stivell credits his newfound affinity for African music partly to living for years in Paris, where African roots are strong. "As a young boy I was more into Asian music, just as a matter of taste. But after having heard African music I felt I should put a bit more of African music. There was a relation already in my playing the harp," he continued, "because when I first tried to adapt flat picking on the harp, I went naturally to a kora technique." The addition of drums, kora, and other aspects of African tradition was a natural extension of these roots. By collaborating with other singers like N'Dour, who actually gets to sing the first vocals on the disc, and with the production team from Afro-Celt Sound System, Stivell created a sound at once global, intense, and quite listenable.

1 Douar sounds like a big-production world beat CD with a Breton touch, while Brian Boru is a pan-Celtic outing featuring more Irish and Scottish music than anything else. Back to Breizh (2000), Stivell's latest recording, was conceived of as literally a return to Breton expression ("Breizh" is the Breton word for Brittany). Most of the songs are original compositions in Breton. They are about Brittany, Stivell's love for the land, and Breton-French relations. The whole album addresses Brittany as self-consciously as Before Landing did in the 1980s, which is a change for Stivell. "After I did [1 Douar]," he explained, "for the next album, the inspiration was to say, 'the world without Brittany doesn't exist. The world is a planet with Brittany.' So what, in the next century as Bretons, do we have to exchange with other people? It's our differences. We have to find in ourselves what is really original to bring to the others. It's important to see how many things we have in common with all human beings, which is of course very much. But also it's good to see the diversity, or what's really different from one people to another people or culture. So I insisted on this album about that. That's why I insisted on back to Brittany, more than ever."

Although Back to Breizh has its moments of gentle harp-strumming, Stivell brings a refreshingly hard edge to some arrangements, combining the dance-oriented grooves of Brian Boru with the toughness of his "Celtic Rock" phase. Combine that with lyrics that translate essentially to "remain Breton, and screw Paris!" and you might end up with an album that's politically controversial.

Well, only in some circles, Stivell said. "At this point, I think half of the people in France are now open to Breton culture," he estimated. 'They consider that Breton culture is part of the wealth and the richness of the French Republic. And the other half are thinking we must go on to destroy, to reject, because it's a risk to France; they think the next step is Breton independence. At this point there is a very small minority in Brittany that wants independence. So as the majority wants to stay in the French republic, what is the problem?" In fact, Brittany is already independent in some important ways, as Stivell recognized. . "They consider if administratively we are French, we are French. But in the hierarchy of realities there are other things. For me, the administrative reality isn't the main one. The cultural reality is the main one. So we are Breton, we're not French."

Stivell's eyes twinkled when asked about future projects. He has several irons in the fire, but he wouldn't discuss them. "I cannot say, because even the record company doesn't know," he laughed. What is certain is that he'll continue bearing the torch for Celtic music with fresh arrangements, new ideas, and, above all, the inspired harp playing that started it all.

All writing on stevewinick.com © Stephen D. Winick. The copyright on all images remains with the artist or photographer.