GROWING UP in a house where the old vinyl collection featured Bob Dylan, Sweeney’s Men, and Pentangle alongside the Rolling Stones and Slade meant there was a good chance I would end up liking folk music as much as rock.
In my early teenage years I listened to the folk albums to see what they had to offer. Dylan and Pentangle hooked me straight away, Sweeney’s Men took longer, but nestling among them were also records by a Breton harpist called Alan Stivell.
There were three vinyl LPs - A L’Oympia, Chemins De Terre, and Renaissance De La Harpe Celtique - all played so much during the 1970s that 20 years later they were worn out, badly scratched, and now unlistenable.
I was in luck though, we had two copies of Renaissance... and the second one was in fairly good nick. I placed it on the turntable, onto Side 2 by mistake, but it was a happy accident, for I was about to hear the epic side long piece ‘Gaeltacht’.
On ‘Gaeltacht’ Stivell wielded his harp like a guitar and made it as exciting as anything Bert Jansch or Jimmy Page could do. The 19 minute piece soared between the traditional Irish, Scottish, and Manx music, and was imbued with an atmosphere of romance and mysticism.
It was pure prog and could only have been made in the 1970s. Yet ‘Gaeltacht’ was also celebrating a living and vibrant tradition of music from the Celtic nations, making Renaissance... both an album of its time and timeless.
Renaissance... is regarded as not only a high watermark of Stivell’s career but as a landmark recording in Celtic and World music. As Allmusic.com said: “People who hear this record are never the same again. Renaissance De La Harpe Celtique, one of the most beautiful and haunting records ever made by anybody, introduced the Celtic harp to many thousands of listeners around the world.”
Say it loud ‘I’m Celtic and proud’
Alan Stivell, who plays the Town Hall Theatre on Saturday September 24 at 8pm, these days describes the album as a balance between his “two different musical ways: one based on the Celtic harps, and the other based on the Celtic-rock fusion.”
“That album was a mix between what I was playing non-professionally since I was nine, and my works and arrangements, on and around the Celtic harps, I had done since 1966, that’s to say my beginnings as a singer,” Alan tells me during our interview. However Renaissance... also served deeper, more philosophical, purposes as well.
“I was trying to give a positive feeling about a music badly considered in the past by most of the people, at the same time as promoting the idea of Celtica,” he says.
Stivell’s work has always been about promoting, protecting, and breathing new life into Breton music and the music of the Celtic nations, and to awaken interest and pride in the shared cultural heritage of Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, Brittany, and Galicia.
“I felt passion for it and I could not suffer that this culture was rejected and despised,” he says. “In my case, I have not ‘only’ an artistic passion for the Celtic world, but I am also a militant.”
The term Celtic does not (or should not be used to ) describe a distinct race or people with an exact identical culture (Irish music is distinguishable from Galician, say ).
The term Celtic is, like the terms Germanic, Latin, or Slavic, a way of describing a diverse range of peoples who share broadly common ethnic/cultural traits that allow them to be considered an ethnic group within the diverse family that makes up the European population.
Unfortunately ‘Celtic’ has become something of a political football in the culture wars. The problem of people using it to create a separate race has been described above but there is the other side of the coin - those who say there is no such thing as Celtic.
One argument is that the Celts were (or may have been ) a population group at one stage, but since all the European ethnicities are mixed up due to population movements and encounters with other ethnicities, the Celts as a separate group no longer exist.
The second is that colonisation and the loss of language have wiped out Celtic culture and that unless you are a fluent speaker of Irish, Breton, etc, you cannot call yourself Celtic.
How does a passionate Pan-Celticist like Stivell how respond to such views?
“I have studied these questions,” Alan replies. “We claim to be Irish or Breton because we feel the part of our identity which is more Celtic, in the modern sense, is like a treasure. Yes we have other influences, but this one is our treasure.
“Is it weak for most of us? Stronger for others, such as native Celtic speakers? It is our honour, to us all, to keep this inheritance alive. What else will we do? I have given, on my website for example, elements to understand the common tendencies of our music, what I call ‘Celtic music’. Even the DNA, even the faces, say the intimacy of our peoples for many centuries.”
For Stivell, so long as a shared Celtic culture remains alive, practised, and accessible, it is legitimate to speak of a Celtic ethnicity, but it would be a mistake to see him as any kind of narrow nationalist. His 1998 album 1 Doaur/1 Earth celebrated diversity and world cultures and saw the artist collaborate with Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour and former Velvet Underground member John Cale.
“1 Douar was to be extremely eclectic,” says Alan. “For one of the more rocky titles, I felt a connection with the Velvets. As John Cale is originally Welsh, it was one reason more to ask him.”
Galway and Brittany
Stivell was born in Auvergne region of France but grew up in Paris “in the Paris Breton Diaspora, as did many other Breton families”. His father was keen to pass on an appreciation of his Breton heritage to his son and Alan grew up speaking Breton and soon learned to play the harp.
“Before the last world war, my father was dreaming of making the first Breton Celtic harp of the modern times,” Alan recalls. “He achieved this in 1953. His first prototype is still perhaps the best in the world. I asked for harp lessons which I got from a French concert harp teacher, Denise Mégevand. No one was playing this instrument in Brittany since the end of Breton independence in the 16th century.
“All my life has been built on the harp made by my father, but most of my knowledge of Celtic civilisation has been self-education through books.”
The harp has remained the central aspect in Stivell’s music since the mid-1960s. Why is the instrument special to him and what qualities does he feel that it has which no other instrument possesses?
“I love a good nylon, goat, or metal strung Celtic harp,” he says. “They have a very crystal sound, with very hypnotic resonances. This plus the feeling of almost free strings in the air. Since the late 1960s, I have been made about 20 new prototype harps, trying to get, in most of them, the pure crystalline sound.”
Stivell has been a frequent visitor to Ireland since the 1970s and is looking forward to playing in front of Galway audiences again.
“Coming to Ireland is still as magical for me as it was when I was 25,” he says. “This is a very special occasion to perform solo and I look forward to this intimacy and emotional relation with the Galway audience.
“As you expect, my favourite parts of Ireland are where I can hear more Gaelic, not only because of that, but also because these areas show the most fantastic landscapes. A city as Galway, is among the Irish cities where I feel the most home. I still have in my heart the images of a concert around 1973. The members of Clannad were in the audience and we met after in a Breton restaurant.”
For his Town Hall show Alan Stivell will be joined by singer Caitriona Ní Ceannabhainn and harpist Caitriona Cannon. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie