Sunday, February 14, 2010

Play that Breton Music All Day Long (Crédin Redux)

A dream come true: our first Fest Deiz! Over a month ago, we were thwarted by the weather in our attempts to attend one - but today shone crisp and clear! So without further ado (but much ado in a minute), here is a 30-second video of the girls who decided to join the party about 20 minutes into the festivities:

Yes, that's me barely able to contain myself - my darlings doing a tango in the midst of this Celtic music! I love them so for offering themselves to this event through the only dance they know. Eleanor was so eager to participate, and Iris was easily talked into many, many forays out on the dance floor.

So, what is a Fest Deiz? It's something that Mac started researching when we knew we'd be living in Brittany - I've always admired how Mac pursues music, but this one was the greatest gift of all. It's also the daytime cousin to the Fest Noz - a Day Party, a Night Party. The main element is fantastic Breton Celtic music - you heard the bombarde (a reedy flute instrument that you could hear carry the melody just now) - there's also the all-important veuze, or cornemuse (actually, all of the instruments have several names, each locality carrying its own name) - and then the diatonic accordion, which gives everything: rich sound, the chords, and (always, always with this music) that driving, insistent beat. Then you can add a guitar, voices - but most importantly, you have to add dozens and dozens of really nice, friendly people who all want to dance and talk and have a good time.

It was just incredible being there. This Fest Deiz was also a benefit for Haïti, but there are several of these Fests every single week-end - people certainly all seemed to know each other, and you had the sense that they got together like this very often. There's no sense at all that this is something people do to "preserve a tradition" or "cherish their roots" (although that certainly is happening) - rather, you get the sense that it's just a really cool way to get together and have a good time. There was an ease and a comfort, indeed a seamlessness - no matter how many people came, and how many more joined, the large circle or the group or couple dances were always able to accommodate more, and accommodate them... seamlessly. Over the course of the three hours (yes, three!) that the Fest lasted, the crowd went from around 50 people to well over 200, and I can't tell you who decides what the dance steps will be (no matter how hard we looked, there was no "leader," no one person who set the steps), indeed, everybody seems to know them, and the more we looked, the more beautiful and varied they became. They're not necessarily complex: all a short series of moves, and then repeated, but when you have 200 people winding their way through a room with these, it's incredible. Or 200 people breaking into groups of 4, then reuniting in large circles, then breaking up into groups of 4. Mac and I wondered how many dances we were seeing, "four or five" we wondered? with some variations in between? Boy were we wrong! A little poking around on our favorite Fest Deiz/Noz website reveals this astounding number of possible dances: yes, that's right: 115. !!! Wow!

And as if the amazing music wasn't enough, there were crêpes, too! Here is our first crêpe break (eventually, we figured out that you could eat them inside the hall!). Oliver would go on to have 3, Iris and Eleanor 2, and Mac and I thoroughly enjoyed our cider.

I am acutely aware of having a very poor descriptive vocabulary for music; give me a painting, no problem, but I can't communicate anything beyond "exciting," "thrilling," "pulsing but also driving" - that does nothing! I should spend more time on my colleague's awesome music blog. In the meantime, I'm going to let another 30-second video of the girls really thick in the fray (the room had filled up significantly by then) try to express some of the fun and joy of it all.

They're the little purple blurs you see whirling and whirling between the other people. :-) You can only hear it faintly, for some reason, but that clapping was actually a great part of the dance. You'll also see young and old in the mix - definitely the majority of the people there were in their 50s and 60s, but there were lots of little kids, teenagers, 20somethings joining in as well. Several of the musicians were in their 20s, too. Why stop having this kind of fun? Interestingly, there were a lot of children from other parts of the world there as well (Asia, Africa, Southeast Asia) - they called out to their parents who were all white; so no adults from other parts of the world, but many adopted children. In the midst of the warmth and goodwill of the Fest, it all made perfect sense (even though so often, as the Grand Débat sur l'Identité Nationale recently showed, it can be tough to be non-white French in France) - if this Fest is any indication of the society that makes it up (and of course it is), these children are loved and welcomed and looked after by more people than just their parents. There was one incredible moment this afternoon when Iris, Oliver and Eleanor were dancing in and our of circles of adults (as all of the children were), and all of a sudden (who's in charge? no one! they just know!), the circles became one huge circle and a little bunch of girls and Iris found themselves on the inside of the circle - and it was such a great image: these little girls surrounded by this strong, vibrant group of adults. Would that all children grow up with such a magical ring of protection around them. When we asked Iris at dinner what it was like being inside the giant circle, she looked at us slyly and said "It was cool."

We're not the first curious outsiders to come and be taken by this music. Paul Gauguin famously came to Brittany seeking a sense of the "primitive" that already in the late 1880s was fading into nostalgia (Brittany was one of the first regions of France to modernize its agriculture). Paintings such as this one, Breton Girls Dancing from 1888 (at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.) now looks to me like Gauguin's own attempt at trying to capture some of the mood of a Breton dance. There's an innocence there (is that why he chose young girls as his subjects for the dance?), perhaps from the physical and emotional certitude (the trust?) of always holding someone's hand: you're never alone in a Breton dance, you're always part of a an ever-changing flow. And here is Gauguin visiting this idea on young Breton girls, the next generation of this tradition already dancing - painting their bodies clad in dark serious colors in a loosening circle, opening up the composition onto a classic golden Breton countryside, and framing the scene in fading medieval walls.

So what is a Fest Deiz? The thrill of live music; dances in which tradition leads; the wonder of hundreds of years of music still coursing strongly through generations; your children coming from a million miles away to find a place and laughter and a great time; and a sense of being out of time and place, but very much in Brittany, very much right now. There are dozens of websites devoted to Breton dances and music - this one is very complete and has a list of CDs, offering a hope that we can capture some of the marvels of the afternoon.


  1. What fun! Reminds me of similar events I experienced in Western Ireland as a teenager. We always went to the night ones...
    Enjoy, enjoy!
    Love, Julia

  2. Dear friend! Western Ireland? Teenager? what chapter of your wonderful life did I miss? I'm going to e-mail you right now to find out!!!!

  3. My darlingest friends,

    I have only now begun reading your blog--realizing only yesterday when looking at your Christmas card on the fridge that I should type in the address that was there--DOH! I love how you LOVE, Anne--your children, your man, your is always with total gusto and enthusiasm. You are truly and inspiration and your children are so lucky to have you and Mac as their life guides in this world. God how I wish I could come and visit!

    All my love and keep posting! Hearing your jubilant laugh while the girls danced around the dance floor was the best music I've heard in a long time!

    All my love,