Fête de la Bretagne: A Party Exported, Made in Brittany, France
We can thank the coastal region of Brittany in Northeastern France for serving as the birthplace of crêpes, but the region has exported much more than just decadent pancakes. These exports combined amount to a damn good party, and anyone who can raise a glass or keep a beat is invited. These exports include seafood, whiskey, cider, butter, the breton striped shirt and a distinctly Breton world music tradition called Kan Ha Diskan.
Lucky corners of the US will enjoy the latter of these authentic exports throughout May when The Breizh Amerika Collective tours through New York City, Rochester, Cleveland, Chicago, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque for Fête de la Bretagne, an international celebration of Breton music, food, and language. In an unprecedented level of participation, these US cities will be joining a global network, from Shanghai to Sao Paulo, of hosts to celebrations of Breton culture.
Kan Ha Diskan is world music at its core, that could easily play alongside Indian or Garifuna genres (and has!). The Collective will also remind you of Celtic music. That’s no coincidence as Brittany is one of the six Celtic nations. The ancient musical form Kan Ha Diskan (meaning “to sing and unsing”), as performed by the Collective, includes pulsing accordion, spritely bouzouki, and call-and-response vocals that duel and converse.
[click here for video of the Collective performing for Radio France]
“It is a kind of a friendly battle between the musicians, and the overlay of the end of each phrase fills the tune with energy,” says Alain LeClere, a vocalist with the Collective. “There is always improvisation in the tone and the rhythms, but still keeping in the dance’s frame.”
Throughout this call-and-response, the endangered tongue they’re singing in is a rare sound indeed. UNESCO has declared Breton a ‘severely endangered language,’ spoken by only about 210,000 people worldwide.
Beyond preserving a distinct culture, the duty of a Kan Ha Diskan musician is to guide listeners to the dancefloor and keep them there. “It’s all for dancing,” says Charles Kergaravat, founder of Breizh Amerika. “You have to realize that they are held to really high standards by the dancers. It’s all about rhythm.”
Some of the songs can last fifteen minutes or more. Mercifully, the musicians keep a close eye on the dancers’ collective stamina, punctuating their sets with slower, restful numbers, only to crank it up again for another sweaty marathon.
As a culture, Bretons have never been afraid of a little sweat. “One of the best compliments you can pay to a Breton is telling him he is a hard worker,” says LeClere.
They are as dedicated to their work ethic as they are their dancefloor. In fact, many Americans have Breton blood in their family tree because of this work ethic. During the Industrial Revolution, the Michelin Tire Company took root in central France and became well-acquainted with the elbow-grease that accompanied their Breton employees. In 1907, when Michelin decided to open a factory in Mill Town, New Jersey, the corporation recruited heavily in central Brittany to share this work ethic overseas.
Later, a second wave of Breton immigrants arrived in the US throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In a mechanized world, farms in Brittany no longer needed as many workers, so they flocked through New York City and met great success in all facets of the restaurant industry, preceded by the great reputation of French cuisine. Breton restaurants like Le Bernardin, widely regarded as the best seafood restaurant in the US with its three Michelin stars, remain open and thriving today.
But even if you have no Breton culture among your ancestors, the The Breizh Amerika Collective is more than willing to share and induct you as their own, rope you around the hips into an experience that can only be described as Fest-Noz, an immersive party, powered by intense camaraderie among the singers, musicians, and dancers, an experience so distinctive, it's been declared an intangible treasure of humanity by UNESCO.
“A Breton always keeps and shares his roots,” LeClere states. “He will proclaim it and remain proud.”
Follow The Breizh Amerika Collection on Twitter: @BreizhAmerika
is an organization established to create, facilitate, promote, and sponsor wide-ranging innovative and collaborative cultural and economic projects that strengthen and foster relations and cooperation between the United States of America and the region of Brittany, France.