It might not be Dr. Dre, but
hip-hoppy loops and breakbeats loom large on Back to Breizh
(Dreyfus/Keltia III), the new album by Celtic harpist Alan Stivell.
"I think many musicians feel guilty about being too commercial,"
Stivell, 56, said. "That's why there's not enough Celtic music closer to the taste of young people."
Stivell has never felt awkward or inauthentic about recording his chosen instrument over hip-hop beats and samples in the name of musical progress as well as to pique the interest of young listeners. And Back to Breizh, his first release since 1998's 1 Douar, hardly marks the first time he's ventured into this territory.
"If you listen to some of my previous CDs, there's more programming,
samples, hip-hop and rap influences than on this album, which returns to
a more acoustic sound," he said.
Regarded as Breton's foremost musician, Stivell long ago earned his
reputation by pushing the boundaries and making people aware of the
Celtic heritage of France's Brittany region. Until Stivell's father,
Jord Cochevelou, built in 1953 a
Breton harp (which he based on medieval Irish harps) and 9-year-old Alan played it, the region's traditional music had virtually vanished. Taking the name Stivell (Breton for "the source"), Alan decided to revive single-handedly the music of his people. He was Celtic long before it was "cool" to be.
While still a child, Stivell learned the bombarde (Breton bagpipes), the Scottish pipes and the double-reed shawm, recording his first singles and EPs of Breton music in 1959.
He first came to international attention in 1972, when he released
Renaissance de la Harpe Celtique, a musical clarion call for the
old-timey sound. Aiming to make Breton music accessible and
contemporary, he recorded it in a clamorous folk-rock context on the
live Á L'Olympia (1972). That album shocked many of his
countrymen but appealed to a younger generation that had taken the
electric folk of Fairport Convention and Steeleye to heart.
"I wanted to fuse Celtic music with rock as soon as rock 'n' roll came
into Europe," he recalled. "I've used each new sound and technique
synthesizers, computer music, etcetera as soon as its
existence came to my attention. Some of my albums have been more
traditional than others, in order to show that I have strong roots, but
my musical aim has always been mainly to work with the music of today."
Stivell's pioneering folk-rock gave way to seemingly directionless New
Age noodling for much of the 1980s and '90s. And Stivell admitted that
his music could always be called world music, rock, New Age, techno or
classical as easily as it could be called folk. And with nearly two
dozen albums in his catalog, there's something for everybody.
Back to Breizh that is, "to Brittany" is more
tightly focused than Stivell's more recent albums. The softer side is
still there, as on "Harpe de Vies," but along with acoustic heart he's
also brought the jungle rhythm's bass and noise to tracks such as "Rock
Might we expect Stivell to appear onstage with a DJ, perhaps replicating the scratching of "Ceux Qui Sement la Mort" ("Sowing Death on Sea")? "A scratcher onstage with me one day? Why not?" he said, laughing. "It's an eclectic soundscape out there."