This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Summer 2011 issue
I have not yet made it to Brittany, that wind-swept coastal region in the north of France, but music from Brittany, haunting and inviting, has colored my entire adult life. The Bretons are another of the Celtic peoples, maintaining proud and independent identity from the rest of France and linguistically being first cousins to the Welsh. But their music is unlike any other Celtic music and carries a unique, plaintive quality no matter what instrument you choose to play it on.
I probably first heard Breton tunes played by harpist and singer Alan Stivell, back when he recorded with an amazing big band in the ‘70s including guitarists Dan Ar Braz and Gabriel Yacoub, both of whom would go on to delightful solo careers. But whether played by a full-on rock ensemble or on solo harp or guitar, the spiraling, inexorable nature of the Breton country dances grabbed onto my imagination and refused to let go.
I’ll share a couple of Breton dances with you this issue, dances that I’ve paired off together since plucking them out of the oral tradition many years ago. They are nameless, like most Breton dances (many referred to simply as “An Dro”, which translates roughly as “A Tune”). I have long played them on guitar in the key of G minor, since they sit so pleasantly in an open G tuning. But this being the folk tradition, there’s no way to know what key they were originally played in, and they seem to be happier in A minor on the mandolin, so there you are: two tunes in A minor.
Like Irish or Scottish tunes, Breton dances are often built around an A part and a B part, each repeated, so a tune can cycle endlessly until either the dance is over or the dancers fall down or the beer runs out. What makes these dances pack a special wallop is that the repeated phrases are often shorter than the A and B parts in Irish jigs and reels. And even when they don’t count out shorter, they seem shorter, making them hypnotically repetitive and lots of fun to play and mess around with.
The first dance here counts out as two parts, each eight bars long, while the second sports an A part only two bars long, followed by a B part only four bars long. How can a tune be this inviting with so little to it? Ah well, one of life’s imponderable mysteries.
I’ve included some notes besides the plain melody to help imply the simple chord changes, but these are wonderful tunes to play with more than one instrument, an accompanist establishing a nice, inexorable rhythmic groove to lay the melodies over. When I play them, I find myself settling into a back-beat, though they will work equally well emphasizing the 1s and 3s or the 2s and 4s.
One last amusing twist… If you’re not playing for dancers who need to keep track of beats and bars and times around the tune, try this cool little organizational trick. Since the tunes tend both to start and to end on the tonic, try transitioning from the first tune into the second by dropping the last half of the last bar and making the final note of the B part the downbeat and first note of the next tune’s A part. This won’t cause you to bop your head or tap your foot any differently, and it adds an element of surprise that can freshen things up. I used this trick when I recorded these tunes on my CD “Journeys of the Heart” back when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
My favorite way to combine these tunes is to play the first one a few times, then launch into the second, and then then after a few times around with that sweet little interlude, go back to the first one, since it can end with such a nice, fat, satisfying flourish. The beat-dropping trick mentioned above works going from the second back into the first tune, too, though since the first note of the first tune is the fifth (E), rather than the tonic, you’ll want to play both notes together, creating the happy A modal chord that will carry you forward.
If you’re interested in finding more Breton tunes to play around with, you can’t go wrong with early Alan Stivell, Dan Ar Braz, or Kornog, one of the earliest Breton bands to tour the US and start the ball rolling. You should also investigate the Festival InterCeltique, held each year in Lorient, for links to some of the superb musicians out there now keeping the various Breton traditions alive.