Alan Stivell's Back To Breizh Harps On The Present

Celtic harpist combines Breton and breakbeats on new album.

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

Harp."

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."