Alan Stivell and bombard.

Finishing off what he hinted at in his previous album, yesterday’s A L’Olympia, Alan decided to commit to tape his idea of a brand new European music. Chamins de Terre, translates to Songs of the Earth, tried to combine everything from his background. His background in Celtic roots music, new influences from Classical, or Occidental styles and experimentation with pairing electric instruments with decidedly seldom heard ones. He wanted to create an album which started out with the Gaelic music found across the English channel, and use a rock bridge to bring this new music all back home to Brittany.

Alan Stivell – 1973

Recorded at Château d’Hérouville in 1973, out in one of the ‘burbs of Paris, this famous castle-like chateau full of quasi-mystical and spooky happenings that inspired artists like Elton John (Honky Chateau), David Bowie (Low), Jose Afonso (Cantigas do Maio), Iggy Pop (The Idiot), Chris Bell (I Am The Cosmos) etc. to record there as well, lent his music a new progressive sound. Now not afraid to studio effects with traditional arrangements, Alan and his cohorts had the liberty to play around with history. They had already hinted at a more massive sound playing alongside Genesis, Status Quo, and the likes at England’s Reading Festival, now they had to ready their ballast.

Opening the album, you hear the sound of a bodhran providing a heartbeat rhythm to Susy MacGuire, the old Irish traditional, to provide an enticement to those inquisitive listeners who knew lick all of Gaelic, let alone Breton. As the drone of the hurdy gurdy sets in, with a far more spacier harp arrangement, now we know Alan’s not going for a traditional rock arrangement of a folk song, but one further left-field.

Chemins de Terre album cover.

As the first half of the album picks up its pace with the fiery, rocking “Ian Morrison Reel” you start to sense at what Alan is driving at. He could draw from any tradition to create a new one from the ether. Check out “She Moved Through the Fair” a centuries old traditional turned into a polyglot folk ballad; Alan sings it in English, plays the harp in arpeggiating Breton style, uses a bagpipe for Celtic drones, while a tabla taps out a tantric Eastern rhythm. “Cân melinydd” a Welsh nursery rhyme turns into a Americana hoedown just as soon as it decides its Traveller melody has room to roam. The first side finishes with the neo-Baroque reimagining of “Oidhche mhaith” thanking everyone in Scottish for sticking around and letting him sing their songs. Now he can guide them to his land.

“An Dro Nevez” signals the start of the second half of the album. Joining bombard, are the electric guitar, violins, banjo and drums. An instrumental with obvious roots in funkier music and psychedelia, starts to toy with the idea of new Breton. This whole side, sung in Breton, asserts the importance of this minority as its own important entity and culture. When vocals get introduced to this side, sung in a cappella fashion on “Maro my e mestrez”, its in a spiritual form, is a lament for a beloved’s death that can only be reconciled by fighting to live, in spite of death. As the electric guitar gets introduced, the fight continues. “Brezhoneg Raok” jolts you into life. Rolling with a heavy rock drum rhythm, this original written by Alan, is a protest song. Standing up for Breton as a culture, he challenges all Bretons to keep the language (whether musical, written, or spoken) alive and evolving. The song itself, with its twin guitar attack mimicking a harp melody and dense rhythm taking it into the future, with nary a sound of the harp in it, shows a path younger Bretons can take to carry this sound further than he can.

The album finishes off with the majestic triptych of “An Hani a Garan”, “Metig”, and “Kimiad” detailing the need to move on, plant roots, and surviving in spite of any setbacks. By far the most touching song, “Kimiad”, one that Kate Bush loved enough to help cover later on sets the tone for much of Alan’s life. This 19th century song, an elegiac blend of bagpipe and harpsichord, speaks of fraternal warriors who sing songs of their beloved native lands (songs that may be passed on down through generations) in words they might not know how to write, or read, or communicate with each other, but whose poetry in spirit hits them the moment they leave their home and have to face the harsh reality of the world at large. Their sacrifice amounts to more than just our security, it also amounts to keeping a culture alive for future generations, to keep their songs alive regardless of their death. They might not have been raised together, but now they are spiritual brothers.

When a man has to leave the acoustic guitar, to pick up a harp he knows little about, in a language that was little written about, its his spirit, or commune of it with past practitioners, that allows him to feel its movement. Once he knows the movement, it behooves him to spread the gospel further. Its this magnificent fight that Alan wins in this monumental musical landmark. One that rightfully became the emblem for all Breton and Gaelic brethren since then. One that, hopefully, we can learn some lessons from as well. Tomorrow we travel back to England proper, for more of that spirit…

Listen to Chemins de Terre at Grooveshark.

Bonus track, a selection of Gaelic songs performed in Ireland the way only Alan can, in 1978.

and if you have the time, and want to be a cultural warrior, check out this immensely important documentary of Alan (with many great live performances of his from this era), its in French and Breton, but you should be able to feel the spirit, I hope: