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In Brittany, in the summer, the sun doesn’t set until after 10. That’s not because it’s so far north but so far west: The province juts as far into the Atlantic as its sister non-nation, Wales, yet the clocks are an hour ahead in Brittany. That’s because all of France is in the same time zone: In France, the sun shines from Paris. To the French, in fact, Brittany is best known as a place where Parisians spend their August holidays.
Paris has its African, Arab, and Chinese quarters, areas where Vietnamese emigrants live above kosher butcher shops festooned with hiphop graffiti and run by Sephardic Jews. Yet France is less than sanguine in general about indigenous minorities. By some estimates, as many people speak Breton as speak Welsh, but no hard numbers exist, because the French government refuses to allow a survey. France gives the same treatment to all its minority languages, including Occitan, a non-Celtic tongue spoken in the south (and also in small bits of Spain and Italy).
The Celtic diaspora has several languages, but the most universal one is actually music. In recent years, Celtic (mostly Irish) jigs, reels, and ballads have dominated the Billboard music charts, thanks in large part to Riverdance and the New Age/crossover appeal of the likes of Enya and Clannad. Celtic rock has been booming since U2 first hit, and lately Welsh rock has surged from Estonia to Japan (though not in the United States).
Indeed, music defines Celtic culture as much as words. There are six official Celtic “nations” recognized by the Celtic League: Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Cornwall, and Brittany (“Breizh” in the local lingo), all of which have (or have had until recently) a Celtic language. Yet the Spanish regions of Galicia and Asturias are also widely accepted as Celtic—even though no Celtic vernacular has apparently been spoken there in centuries—because their music is so obviously linked to that of Ireland, Scotland, and Brittany. So it wasn’t too confounding that, a few minutes after leaving the Lorient train station, I was greeted by a bagpipe-and-drum troupe in Spanish costume.
Though little known in the United States, the Festival Interceltique is Europe’s leading Celtic-music event, annually overwhelming the Breton port of Lorient. Mostly rebuilt after massive World War II damage and featuring the usual French street names, Lorient has little charm or Breton identity—except during 10 days in August. This year, the festival reported that 450,000 people had attended by Aug. 11, with two days yet to run. On the TGV back to Paris the day after that report, partied-out part-time Celts slumped in their seats, comatose in their brand new Festival Interceltique T-shirts.
I bought a T-shirt, too, although I didn’t join in the late-night revelry. I don’t much like either jigs or beer—which makes me an unlikely visitor to an event that looked like a 10-day Celtic version of Adams Morgan Day back before the latter disconnected the beer taps. Huge inflatable Guinness bottles didn’t lure me to the tents—stifling in the near-Mediterranean heat—where Celtic music (and literature, art, food, and so on) were being appreciated. I had come looking for pure culture and impure music.
Although a one-day visit clearly wasn’t enough to do an accurate survey, I found more of the latter than the former. Even at Coop Breizh, the Breton book and music shop, everyone seemed to be talking in the language of most of the publications and CDs: French, not Breton. (This is not how it works in Wales, where speaking the language is the first commandment of Welsh identity; of course, Wales is officially bilingual, which Brittany is not.) Of the CDs I bought more or less blindly, the most interesting owed its inspiration to France’s lost external empire: It was a collaboration between a Breton pipe band and a Senegalese drum troupe.
If the music I heard was all traditional, the scene was hip alt-culture polyglot. In the street markets, the usual food and craft vendors were supplemented by Breton separatist organizations (whose literature was mostly in French) and stands selling musical instruments and artifacts from Africa, Tibet, and Australia. While the musicians played pipes, fiddles, harps, and accordions—and a few electric guitars—the merchants peddled talking drums and didgeridoos. Here were the makings of the sort of cross-cultural music I didn’t really find in Lorient (although I did get some leads I will pursue).
The festival certainly seemed vital, if somewhat disorganized. I went wondering if recent changes in Europe are strengthening or weakening Celtic and other ancillary cultures, and I left without any answers. The new Europe requires respect for minority rights—which may ultimately force France to accept official bilingualism and greater regional autonomy, much as has already been established in Britain and Spain. Yet the global maw of world beat and the Internet—whose language is, conveniently for me, English—could reduce minority culture and regional variations to decorative icing on the universal Pop-Tart served by corporate multinationalism.
And if the planet—that is, the affluent parts of it—really becomes Webbed worldwide, a trip to Brittany may no longer be necessary or even useful. As every landscape begins to feature the same buildings, shops, and fast fooderies—and Brittany’s coastal resorts reminded me of both Bali and Ocean City—the cyber/urban melting pot may be the best place to sustain cultures once preserved by geographical remoteness. London reportedly has the world’s largest Welsh-speaking population, and thus it follows that Paris may be more Breton than Lorient, Rennes, Brest, or other cities in Brittany.
So there was a reason I mentioned Occitan. Arriving back in Paris, I found that a band called Dupain was playing that afternoon at La Villete, the park and museum complex that’s on the fringe of northeast Paris but at the center of the French melting pot. A Marseilles trio that sings in Occitan—the tongue of troubadours and common people back before the royal language, French, became dominant—Dupain consists of a drummer, a hurdy-gurdy player, and a singer who also plays the tar (a North African drum). For this gig—part of a summer series of free world-beat concerts—the band was joined by two female singers and a DJ in making music that seemed part Celtic, part Arabic, and mostly contemporary. The DJ was as negligible as they usually are in a band context, but the drummer’s Africanized beat was anything but quaint, and the hurdy-gurdyist was a revelation: He played bent notes and sustained tones like an Indian master or psychedelic rocker. It wasn’t Celtic, but this was the roots-twisting music I’d crossed the Atlantic to hear. —Mark Jenkins
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