Alan Stivell: Celt around the Clock

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Chemins de Terre“America is not very different from what I saw in photographs and films,” says Alan Stivell on the day after his arrival in this country. “You know, each time we go somewhere, we want to be astonished by things and to have new impressions but, in fact, we are too much prepared by films and everything. And sometimes I feel it’s a pity that now we are astonished by almost nothing. It is nice when we can see something new.”

Alan’s audience agrees. Though he plays a kind of music that was, until only a few years ago, ridiculed in his home country and almost unknown abroad, and though none of his albums has yet been released in the States, the musician practically filled a Hunter College auditorium in New York for his recent American debut. While he and his band performed what has been called “Celtic rock,” large contingents of fans joined hands, forming human chains, and danced their way through the aisles. And, at each song’s conclusion, their cheers and strong applause resounded in the hall.

The rapid growth of his popularity comes as a bit of a surprise to Alan, but he couldn’t be more delighted with the opportunities it provides him. “I want to make the people of the world aware that Celtic music—and the Celtic civilization—exists,” he says determinedly. “To be a big name is an important thing for me, because it helps the education that I want to do.”

Born in 1944 in French Brittany, one of the areas of Europe where the ancient Celtic culture still thrives, Alan was interested in music, and in the history of his people, from an early age. He began studying piano when he was five, and four years later, he switched to the Celtic harp after his father built one with the aid of ancient accounts and drawings. “There had been no Celtic harpists since the 15th century,” Alan explains, “and my father wanted to make a revival of the instrument.

“When I left the piano for the harp, I began to practice with a classical harp teacher, and I mixed classical music with arrangements of traditional Celtic folk tunes. I soon became fascinated not only by them, but by ethnocultural things which were linked with a way of seeing the world. I was interested, for example, in the history of the Celts and in their drawings and literature.

“And I wanted to interest the young, especially the young Breton, in this music. For they were despising it, making a joke of it. You see, the French had created a complex in the Breton mind, so that they were ashamed of their own identity.

“Even at the time of the Kingdom of France, it was already a habit in French aristocracy and literature to consider the Breton a barbaric people, a kind of remain of prehistoric time, a bit like the Indian here. For example, there was a big struggle against the Breton language, to make the Breton ashamed of it. And our music was considered simplistic.

“These ideas persisted until recently. And the young people always wanted to show themselves to be in fashion, so it was even more ‘in’ for the young Breton to consider Celtic music remote than for the young Parisian, for the Parisian had nothing to prove, but the Breton did.”

Alan admits he used to look down on non-Celtic music in much the same way that others belittled his own.”During my childhood, everything that was not Celtic was barbaric for me. When you are young, you are passionate and tend to exaggerate. Before the rock revolution, I was interested in nothing but the music of my culture; what I heard on the radio seemed contrary to it.

“Along came rock and radio songs became much closer to my kind of music. And at the moment, I felt that, some years later, it would be possible to interest young people in Celtic music.”

Through personal appearances and the European release of four albums in as many years, Alan has proven that he was right. He draws large crowds and rave reviews on the Continent, and his most recent LP, Chemins De Terre, was named best folk album of 1973 by Britain’s Melody Maker.

“But you know, I thought I would have to be recognized abroad, especially in England, before the French would notice me,” he states. “And in fact, it was the other way around. When I sang in Paris and on the radio, it was a very important thing psychologically for the Breton. They were used to following what was coming from Paris. And just at that moment, they hear Breton music coming from there.”

Since those first days of Alan’s acceptance, his music has undergone considerable evolution. Back then, he performed mostly alone, and guitar, bass, and organ-playing friends joined him only for especially big gigs. Today, he works regularly with a group consisting of Michel Santangeli (drums), Pascal Stive (organ), Jacky Thomas, known as Blet (bass guitar), Dan Ar Bras (guitar), and Rene Werneer (fiddle). And now, besides his harp, Alan plays such instruments as the Scottish bagpipe, the bombarde (a Breton pipe), drums, and the Irish tin whistle.

In addition, the traditional music that once comprised Alan’s full repertoire currently fills only the first portion of his concerts. During the second half, an up-tempo beat is introduced and “Celtic rock” comes to the fore. “For the first part,” explains Alan, “I want the people to swim in a very special musical atmosphere that I present to them. I intend that this music be received passively and, in the second part, that the audience make a feast. Everybody making the feast and being joyful and dancing. Often people are taking the hands of others and dancing or running around the hall.

“But when we speak of ‘Celtic rock,’ it’s not speaking of a rock rhythm or underground songs or anything like this. What is rock in my music is the fact that it’s free. We are not in a frame, obliged to do the compositions in one way; the interpretation is free. So we use, for example, old and new instruments together. And we do the music as we love it and, if it appeals to the people, it’s a good thing, but not the first thing. So we’re linked by these ideas to rock music, more than by the rhythm.”

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