TRAD Magazine

FolkWorld Issue 38 03/2009; Photo Report

French Folk Music
20 Years of TRAD Magazine

TRAD Magazine:
15 Ans-15 Groupes

The French TRAD Magazine is celebrating its first 20 years! The first issue was published in November 1988 by music journalists Philippe Krümm and Roland Delassus. Two decades later, its current editor Guillaume Veillet moved TRAD's head office from Northern France to Paris, and the November-December 2008 issue (#122) tells the story of this influential French folk and world music magazine. We take the opportunity to have a look at the French roots music scene.

French Folk Music

Main article: French folk music

Traditional styles of music have survived most in remote areas like the island of Corsica and mountainous Auvergne, as well as the more nationalistic regions of the Basques and Bretons.

In many cases, folk traditions were revived in relatively recent years to cater to tourists. These groupes folkloriques tend to focus on very early 20th century melodies and the use of the piano accordion.

The West of France

The West of France comprises the Pays de Nantes, the provinces of Vendée, Anjou and Maine, and the Poitou-Charentes region. Traditions of ballad-singing, dance-songs and fiddle-playing have survived, predominantly in Poitou and the Vendée. Jérôme Bujeaud collected extensively in the area, and his 2-volume work "Chants et chansons populaires des provinces de l'ouest: Poitou, Saintonge, Aunis et Angoumois" (Niort, 1866) remains the principal scholarly collection of music and songs. In recent decades John Wright, Catherine Perrier and Claude Ribouillault (amongst others) have done much to collect, analyse and promote the surviving traditions.

The Marais Breton of Vendée is noted particularly for its tradition of veuze playing - which has been revived by the bagpipe-maker and player Thierry Bertrand - and for traditional singers such as Pierre Burgaud.

Folk dances specific to the West of France include the courante, or maraichine, and the bal saintongeais. Bourrées in triple time have been noted in the 19th century by Bujeaud, and more recently, in Angoumois. Circle- or chain-dances accompanied by caller-and-response singing have been noted in the West, and also in other regions such as Gascony, Normandy and Brittany.

Notable contemporary folk musicians include Christian Pacher and Claude Ribouillault (Poitou) and the group La Marienne (Vendée.)

Central France

Central France includes the regions of Auvergne, Limousin, Morvan, Nivernais, Bourbonnais and Berry. The lands are the home to a significant bagpipe tradition, as well as the iconic hurdy gurdy and the dance bourrée. There are deep differences between the regions of Central France, with the Auvergne and Limousin retained the most vibrant folk traditions of the area. As an example of the area's diversity, the bourrée can come in either duple or triple meter; the latter is found in the south of the region, and is usually improvised with bagpipes and hurdy gurdy, while the former is found in the north and includes virtuoso players.

Bagpipe and hurdy gurdy

Main articles: Bagpipe and hurdy gurdy

The hurdy gurdy, or vielle-à-roue, is essentially a mechanical violin, with keys or buttons instead of a finger board. It is made up of a curved, oval body, a set of keys and a curved handle, which is turn and connected to a wheel which bows the strings that are stopped by the keys. There is a moveable bridge, a variable number of drones and hidden sympathetic strings, all of which can also effect the sound. Simpler forms of the hurdy gurdy are also found in Spain, Hungary and Russia.

The bagpipe is found in a wide array of forms in France, which has more diversity in bagpipes than any other country. The cabrette and grande cornemuse from Auvergne and Berry are the most well-known. These forms are found at least as far back as the 17th century. Prominent bagpipers include Bernard Blanc, Frédéric Paris and Philippe Prieur, as well as bandleader Jean Blanchard of La Grande Bande de Cornemuses and Quintette de Cornemuses. Frédéric Paris is also known as a member of the Duo Chabenat-Paris, a prominent duo who use elements like mixed polyphonic ensembles and melodies based on the bourrée. Bernard Blanc and Jean Blanchard, along with Eric Montbel from Lyons, were among the musicians who formed the basis of La Bamboche and Le Grand Rouge. It was these two bands who did more than anyone to revitalize the traditions of Central France during the 1970s folk revival. The festival of St. Chartier, a music festival held annually near Châteauroux, has been a focal point for the music of Auvergne and Limousin.

The provinces of Morvan and Nivernais have produced some traditional stars, including Faubourg de Boignard and Les Ménétriers du Morvan, respectively. The Nivernais collector Achille Millien was also notable in the early part of the 20th century.

Basque Country

Main article: Basque music

The Basques are a unique ethnic group, unrelated to any other in France and with uncertain connections abroad. The music of the French Basque Country (east of the Basque Country) should be considered against a Pyrenean cultural background. Up to recent times and still ttun-ttun and xirula should be highlighted in traditional folk music (especially in the province of Soule) as a tabor and pipe like pair.

It's worth remembering the rol of Mixel Etxekopar or Jean Mixel Bedaxagar as xirula players as well as traditional singers. Other popular performers like Benat Achiary take up a more experimental approach. These performers refer to a former tradition collected and restored by figures like Etxahun Iruri (1908-1979) where singing improviser poets (bertsolaris) played an important role in popular culture. Unfortunately, this bertsolari tradition has come almost to a halt, while some efforts are being made to restore it on new generations along the lines of the "southern" tradition, ie of the Spanish Basque Country.

Music from the Basque Country nowadays caters to almost all the tastes of music, with a wide range of music being played in Basque, from choral music (Oldarra in Biarritz) to elaborate music bands (eg Bidaia) to ska or hardcore trends, while it's much praised lately for the fine bare voices that have arose with the likes of Maddi Oihenart, Maialen Errotabehere or Amaren Alabak, to mention but a few.


Main article: Music of Corsica

Corsican polyphonic singing is perhaps the most unusual of the French regional music varieties. Sung by male trios, it is strongly harmonic and occasionally dissonant. Works can be either spiritual or secular. Modern groups include Canta u Populu Corsu, I Muvrini, Tavagna and Chjami Aghjalesi; some groups have been associated with Corsican nationalism.

Corsican musical instruments include the bagpipe (caramusa), 16-stringed lute (cetera), mandolin, fife (pifana) and the diatonic accordion (urganettu).


Main article: Music of Brittany

Distinctly Celtic in character, the folk music of Lower Brittany has had perhaps the most successful revival of its traditions, partly thanks to the city of Lorient, which hosts France's most popular music festival.

The documented history of Breton music begins with the publication of Barzaz-Breizh in 1839. A collection of folk songs compiled by Hersart de la Villemarqué, Barzaz-Breizh helped keep Breton traditions alive.

Couples de sonneurs, consisting of a bombarde and biniou, is usually played at festoù-noz celebrations (some are famous, like Printemps de Chateauneuf). It is swift dance music and has an older vocal counterpart called kan ha diskan. Unaccompanied call and response singing was interspersed with the gwerz, a form of ballad.

Probably the most popular form of Breton folk is the bagad pipe band, which features native instruments like biniou and bombarde alongside drums and, in more modern groups, biniou braz pipes. Modern revivalists include Kevrenn Alre Bagad and Bagad Kemper.

Alan Stivell is perhaps the most influential folk-rock performer of continental Europe. After 1971's Renaissance of the Celtic Harp, Breton and other Celtic traditional music achieved mainstream success internationally. With Dan Ar Braz, he then released Chemins de Terre (1974), which launched Breton folk-rock. This set the stage for stars like Malicorne in the ensuing decades.

In later years much has been done to collect and popularize the musical traditions of the Pays Gallo of Upper Brittany, for which the singer Bertran Ôbrée, his group Ôbrée Alie and the association DASTUM must take much credit. The songs of Upper Brittany are either in French or in Gallo.

Modern Breton folk music includes harpists like Anne-Marie Jan, Anne Auffret and Myrdhin, while singers Kristen Nikolas, Andrea Ar Gouilh and Yann-Fanch Kemener have become mainstream stars. Instrumental bands, however, have been the most successful, including Gwerz, Bleizi Ruz, Strobinell, Sonerien Du and Tud.


More Regional Music:

  • Auvergne
  • Gascony
  • Limousin
  • Gabriel Yacoub

    Gabriel Yacoub @ FolkWorld:
    FW #14, #14, #21, #30, #36

    Icon Sound Ami : Ame : Amen, L'Eau, Le Sel et le Sucre

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    Titi Robin

    Titi Robin @ FolkWorld: FW #32, #38

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    Bivoac @ FolkWorld: FW #37

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    Alan Stivell

    Alan Stivell @ FolkWorld: FW #6, #18, #34

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    LéOparleur @ FolkWorld: FW #34, #36

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    Djal @ FolkWorld: FW #27

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    La Talvera

    La Talvera @ FolkWorld: FW #28, #34

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    I Muvrini

    I Muvrini @ FolkWorld: FW #27

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    Terreneuvas, Trad Magazine Alain Genty and Tony McManus

    More Reviews @ The Folk & Roots Online Guide (FROG) France.

    Photo Credits: (1), (10) TRAD Magazine Titles (by TRAD Magazine); (2) Gabriel Yacoub, (3) Titi Robin, (4) Bivoac, (7) Djal, (8) La Talvera, (9) I Muvrini (from website); (5) Alan Stivell (by Bardentreffen); (6) LéOparleur; (by Walkin' Tom); (11) Alain Genty (by The Mollis).

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