Alan Stivell – 1971

Let’s blur the line of history even further. What does French-born musician Alan Stivell (real name Alan Cochevelou) have in any way, shape, or form to do with English neo-folk? Could you believe this same man created the first strains of Celtic rock. The music of all the Gaelic traditions owe a lot of gratitude to this very driven man who looked into his own Breton past to resuscitate Celtic music. He did all of this using the least likeliest of instruments to spur such change, the Celtic harp and France’s own forgotten British connection.

If you need to know anything is that we owe Alan’s father, George Cochevelou, a humongous pat on the back. Born in the Gourin, the northwestern Brittany area of France where he was mostly raised, to George from a young age developed a massive fascination with his ancestry. Bretons, share a past with the southwestern English region and other Cornish strongholds. These people migrated to the Armorican peninsula in search of safety from Germanic tribes invading the rest of England. Rather than lose their English identity altogether they kept and modified the Gaelic language with the vocabulary present in the more Francophonic Gallo region. It wouldn’t be too hard for a Welsh or Scot to sorta understand what their Breton brethren are speaking, to put it short.

Alan Cochevelou

George had always been an artistic person and a great craftsman. Somehow, as he read in books about an instrument ancient Breton people had fallen out of favor playing, the Celtic harp, his fascination grew in recreating it. In spurts, he would design and prototype various versions of it. As his knowledge of the harp grew, so did his knowledge of the music of old Breton and Celtic music, by the 1950s he had learned how to play piano, transverse flute, and oboe to forgotten melodies he’d seen in centuries old sheet music. In 1952, at the age of 63 and Alan by then 9 years old, George devotes all of his evenings and weekends to building the actual instrument. In 1953, he creates a complete working model which he gives to his son. He does so on the belief, that if he taught his son how to play it, he would be able to grow up and revive an ancient instrument for a modern time. The instrument itself had been forgotten because of its notoriously difficult way of playing, strings would sustain endlessly requiring the player to mute that same string, while moving quickly to the next one. No matter to Alan, he dedicated himself fully to figuring all this out with his father alongside him.

By 1959, the boy was so proficient and devoted to this instrument that lots of ideas start flowering around him. As he grew up he started to equally devote himself to the study of Celtic history and arts; likewise his proficiency in the Breton language (a language already in danger of going in extinct), its dance, and other instruments like the bombarde, tin whistle, and the bagpipe grows immensely. In 1960, at the green age of 16, Alan (with the aid of his father’s traditional music manuscript digging) records the first revival recording of the Celtic harp, “Musique Gaelique”. This first single took the French world by storm since they scarcely had heard such Breton music anywhere let alone imagined it outside of history books. Once he recorded his first album Telenn Geltiek: Harpe Celtique he knew a nerve was struck. By then, Alan Cochevelou, so devoted was he to his Breton ancestry, changed his last name to Stivell after the Breton word for fountain/springs (itself a play on his French last name which meant “the old fountains”). However, it wasn’t until 1966 that he’d do something truly audacious.

Reflets album cover.

In 1966, Alan began to experiment with singing at the same time as playing. Something that would let the instrument travel outside of classical concert and recital halls. So difficult was this task to do with his dad’s original harp, that they went back to the drawing board and figured out a way to create a more wieldy bronze-stringed harp. For the first time ever, young people would be able to actually hear recordings of a modern Breton singing in a language they’d long since ignored or spoke of as being begrudgingly antiquated. Mixing Breton vocals with music was revolutionary, the time he spent touring around France (from 1966-68) doing so created the first strains of Celtic music. So different was his sound that when he played with the Moody Blues in England for the first time, he wowed the audience playing what would become one of the first shots across the bow in his 1970 release Reflets.

Reflets was only released in France and French-Canada (Quebec). This album full of jaw-dropping reimagined traditionals like the Cornish “Suite des montagnes”, the Breton “Marig ar Pollanton”, and Celtic “Sally free and easy” presented a drop of the wonderful unheard Brittany sound that Alan wanted to invoke. By 1971, after hearing the rise of English folk-rock, Alan himself in full flight and with the discretion of a worldwide label wanted to go further than before. And, that he did with Renaissance de la Harpe Celtique.

Renaissance de la Harpe Celtique album cover.

Forecasting the dawn of new age, ambient, and/or world music, he combined this new feel with the sound and experimentation of rock music. The opener “Ys”, named after the mythical city ruled by one of Bretons’ symbolic rulers King Cornouaille of (5th century Cornwall kingdom fame) that was swept away by the sea, gives you that faint glimmer of the truly beautiful neo-folk music radiating within. What follows is so indescribably gorgeous, sublime, rocking (at times!) and unforgettable sound that you’d be hard pressed to think of anything sounding like it then, and in many ways today (Joanna Newsom and Toumani Diabate withstanding).

Alan meant to record this album as a tribute to the man who created his instrument. The first half of the album is made up of four tracks that draw from mostly Breton traditionals (some dating back to the 17th and 13th century). My favorite side though, is “Gaeltacht” the track which takes up all of the B-side of this album. Translating to “A Journey Across Gaelic Countries”, Alan sonically starts using his harp to mix and match jigs, reels, waltz, with modern folk styles, spanning all the lineage of 7 Celtic nations into one glorious blur. In doing so, speaking not only to the commonality of experience, but the shared sound his music had with his brethren separated only by the Mor Breizh. This album was just a taste of the new Celtic rock tradition he would fully explore even further in the near future. I don’t even know the man himself intimately but there is something about this music that just digs deep like nothing else, I can only imagine what must have been running through George’s soul when he heard all the fruits of his creation come to bare…

Bonus, track a taste of what’s coming in the future, the “Suite Irlandaise” on French television:

Listen to Renaissance de la Harpe Celtique at Grooveshark.