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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Alan Stivell and Celtic Rock

posted by on November 6 at 12:44 PM

In the little village of Gourin, in the Bretagne region of France, Alan Cochevelou was born to play the Celtic harp. The year was 1944.

When he was a young boy, his father moved the family to Paris, where they lived until Alan was a teenager. As a teen, he became interested in his Breton background, its language, culture, and most importantly, its music. He studied the native language and practiced on the bombarde, an instrument native to Breton that’s a cross between a whistle and oboe that has a very distinct sound.

In 1956, his father made a Celtic harp in the Breton style. Alan began practicing and playing out in local folk clubs and became famous for his rock-leaning style. He changed his last name to Stivell, which means ďfountainĒ in Breton, as a way of recognizing the growing resurgance of Breton folk music.


In 1971, Stivell released an album called Renaissance De La Harpe Celtique, which took the folk music world by storm. The A-side had five traditional songs all arranged by Stivell, and the B-side was a suite of 11 folk songs from Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. The side starts out with harp only, but by the end an orchestra of traditional Celtic instruments joins in to jam. Itís a fascinating and monumental work that changed the way many traditional instrumentalist were playing folk music at the time. (Incidentally, one of the tracks on the album is called “Ys”, the same name as the recent album by harp-playing freak-folkist Joanna Newsom.)

Of course, it didnít hurt that this was during the heyday of the British Acid Folk scene. Groups like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span topped the charts and vocalists like Anne Briggs and Shirley Collins were being rediscovered. The addition of an instrumentalist into the proggy vein of the scene seemed totally natural.


In 1975, Stivellís rock-oriented Celtic/Breton folk was so popular in Ireland that he recorded a live album from the National Soccer Stadium in Dublin, aptly called Live In Dublin. The sell-out crowd, very audible in the recording, totally loves Stivell and is heard singing along throughout the concert. (Around this same time Alan Stivell came to Seattle for a performance for the Seattle Folklore Society.)


Stivell used his rock arrangements to his advantage with his 1976 Celtic Rock release on the highly influential prog/psyche label Vertigo. The album is a collection of some of his folk-influenced acid rock gems. It became the blueprint for many prog and folk musicians, combining ancient folk textures with rock’s heavy language. Itís a stunning album and includes some of his biggest and most influential tunes. Just listen to “An Dro Nevez” and see if you canít hear it in a number of songs by artists like Kate Bush (who has both had Alan as a guest on her Sensual World album, and guested on his album Again), Steeleye, and Fairport Convention—not to mention the lilting solo albums by Sandy Denny. (“An Dro Nevez” was also used on the recent Andy Votel compilation of Vertigo records called Vertigo Mixed. Itís mixed into tracks by Affinity and Beggars Opera.)


In 1980, Stivell wrote his Celtic Symphony—a dangerous prospect, as any well-known prog-rocker who went down this road in the Ď70s usually ended up ridiculed for their pretention (see Rick Wakeman). Miraculously, Stivell succeeds in his own way. The album includes a more rounded world beat arrangement, including sitars, African drummers, and chanting from the Algerian Berber womenís group Djur Djura. It roughly tells of the search for the mythical Celtic island of eternal youth, Tir Na níOg.

In the Celtic myth, Oisin convinces the fairy Niamh to take him to Tir Na níOg. After a few years on the island, Oisin misses his family and asks to go back. Time has stopped on Tir Na níog, but on the mainland, 300 years have passed. Niamh agrees to let him go, but warns him not to touch the ground: If he does, time will catch up with him instantly. While back on the mainland, Oisin canít help but dismount from his horse, with the expected consequences.

The album is a thinly veiled protest against nuclear destruction and was one of the first to combine many world influences, a trend that would lead to a larger world music community in the following years.

Since that time, Stivell has worked to bring the traditions of Breton and Celtic Music to larger and larger audiences, regularly selling out huge stadiums in Europe with tours that rival anything by Pink Floyd.

His most recent album—his 22nd—Explore includes his standard Breton and Celtic folk mixed with rock, but also throws in reggae and hiphop for the first time.

To hear what Alan Stivell has brought to the world of Rock, go to my blog for downloads.

RSS icon Comments



Posted by Chris Estey | November 6, 2007 12:57 PM

yeah, thats thorough. and sounds really interesting, too.

thx terry.

Posted by jz | November 6, 2007 2:24 PM

This is incredible, thank you!

Posted by Peknolde | November 9, 2007 12:14 AM

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