I have a new musical hero, the Breton fluter Jean-Michel Veillon who was in London to teach a workshop and was lured to Oxford to do a solo gig.
Here he is, captured in a pub session, presumably in Brittany. What I love about his playing is the way he constantly weaves around the tune – in fact at times it’s quite hard to hear where the tune begins and ends, so nimble are his fingers. He’s one of those players who see a tune as a possibility, playing it an exploration. Listen right to the end and hear how the whole set is one exquisitely unfolding extemporization, silk reeled from the cocoon.
Apart from his exceptional musicianship and his extraordinary Breton-Irish accent, two things struck me at the gig. First, he was very clear that the function of Breton music and dance is to induce trance; as such it arises out of biological necessity. This is something that I’ve always suspected about the Breton thing so it’s nice to hear it from the horse’s mouth.
‘We’re very lucky to have it‘ he said. ‘Something incredible happens when you are playing and thousands of people are dancing the same dance together in a line or circle.’ I see Breton dances as a kind of bhajan. They are about losing yourself to something greater. We forget the Dionysian at our peril.
And second, I had no idea that until the 1970s there was no flute tradition in Brittany. The music was played on bombarde and biniou, occasionally fife, but never flute. He was too modest to say so, but the Breton flute is his creation, his invention. He took his inspiration from Irish players and then adapted their style to the Breton music he’d grown up with (you can read more about how he did it here). And to my ear at least, there’s a strong Indian influence too.
Love and music need no passports, goes the old adage, and I felt a kind of affirmation in what he was saying of what we’re trying to do here in Britain, with Wod and all the other bands. In our quest to find an indigenous trance music we are looking to Brittany just as he once looked to Ireland, not to ape or to imitate, but to find or rediscover something of ourselves.
That’s as tradition should be.
A writer and a folk musician, Andy is the author of ‘Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom’ and has published a range of articles and academic papers on subjects as diverse as psychedelics, paganism, bardism, environmental protest, fairies, shamanism and evolution. A modern day troubadour, he plays mandolin, writes songs, and fronts darkly crafted folk band, Telling the Bees. A leading exponent of the English Bagpipes, he plays for brythonic dancing in a trio called Wod.