Part of a series of semi-regular posts in the coming weeks to acquaint you with the people, events and happenings at BCMFest 2017 (January 13 and 14). For more information, and to purchase tickets, see the BCMFest website.
The Boston Urban Ceilidh actually pre-dates BCMFest, and at times has been a free-standing event. But it’s almost impossible to imagine BCMFest without the Boston Urban Ceilidh, which always take place on opening night of the festival. If you’ve never experienced the “BUC” before, well, picture a room full of people taking part in various kinds of traditional social dances: an Irish set dance like “Siege of Ennis,” a Cape Breton set, or a classic Scottish ceilidh dance such as “Strip the Willow” — all done to live music. And if you don’t know any of those dances, no problem — they’re all taught beforehand, and there are plenty of veteran dancers around to help you through the rough spots.
This year’s BUC will feature dances from Cape Breton and Scotland, as well as the Breton tradition from France, with music for the latter portion provided by Bagad New York. A “bagad” is an orchestra consisting principally of three instruments: the Scottish bagpipe, the Breton bombarde, and percussion. This type of ensemble, which started developing in Brittany just after World War II, plays traditional music from Brittany, but draws on many influences — from other Celtic nations’ music, to rock, jazz, and other ethnic traditions.
We asked Bagad NY members to talk a little about Breton music and dance:
Q: When most people hear the word “Celtic,” they’re likely to think of Irish, Scottish, Cape Breton. How does Breton music fit in under the Celtic umbrella? How is it similar to/different from the other Celtic music forms?
Bagad NY: Well, Bretons are a Celtic people who emigrated from southwestern Great Britain and Cornwall to the peninsula of Armorica in current-day France between the third and ninth centuries. Though Breton music isn’t — for the most part — from the same canon as more predominant Celtic nations (jigs, reels, airs, strathspeys, etc.), it is still Celtic through its progeny. The ways Breton music is similar to other Celtic traditions are mostly the instrumentation (bagpipes, fiddle, harp, accordions), and that Breton music, like other Celtic traditions, is played often for group dancing. The music is largely call and response, and listeners familiar with the waulking songs of the Hebrides are bound to hear similarities.
Q: Irish, Scottish and Cape Breton music all have become quite popular in recent decades. How about Breton music? Who are some of its key figures?
Bagad NY: Breton music has certainly seen its periods of decline and rebirth; Throughout its history, Breton music has always been looked down upon by the majority of French society as being of the peasantry — and further, the “music of the devil.” Generally, this dynamic, among other factors, has made it difficult for Breton music to catch on outside Brittany’s borders. However, Breton music has experienced a steady rise in popularity over roughly the past five decades, anchored initially by its association with the greater folk music trend. Musicians such as Glenmor brought Breton music into the public eye (ear?) by singing about, and sympathizing with, the Breton secessionist sentiment. Later, musicians like Dan Ar Braz and Alan Stivell continued this momentum. Instrumentally, there were great strides in this time, too, modernizing Breton ensembles to make them more approachable.
Q: Although you have “New York” in your name, we understand that Bagad NY apparently has some significant connections with the Boston area?
Bagad NY: It’s important to note that prior to Bagad New York’s founding in 2009, one of our charter members, Mike MacNintch, had been playing Breton music around the Eastern US and New England for almost 30 years. He’s played in many Breton dancing events in the Boston area with the likes of Tom Pixton, Brian McCandless, and Susie Petrov. Bagad New York has been lucky to have been supported by many individuals, organizations, and events in the greater Boston area including Tom, Brian and Susie, the Folk Arts Center of New England, and NEFFA. Some of us even currently live in the Boston area.
Q: Give us a sense as to what people can expect during your segment of the Boston Urban Ceilidh: What is Breton social dance like? What do people seem to enjoy the most about it?
Bagad NY: First and foremost, we are a big, loud, acoustic band, with bagpipes, bombardes and drums! We’ll guide you through the several dances we’ll play — they’re all very accessible — and let you all take them to the floor. People love the rhythmic dance steps which mesh with our big sound, as well as the maze that you all will find yourselves in at the end of a set. We’re all immensely looking forward to it!
The Boston Urban Ceilidh will take place on Friday, January 13, at 8 p.m. in The Atrium, 50 Church Street in Harvard Square. This event often sells out — consider getting your tickets ahead of time.