Friday, September 7, 2012

If Music Be the Food of Love

What did history sound like? 

I can hear something working on a farm somewhere; I can hear a motorbike, the occasional jet, passing tractors and grain lorries. It’s tempting to think that history was quiet in comparison.
It wasn’t.  

Every year in Quintin there is a celebration of the linen industry that made this part of Brittany important. During the fête, it’s possible to wander lanes that are usually hidden behind closed doors. These were the poor, dark houses where women twisted the threads into a yarn on a hand-held spindle. They would sit outside as often as possible, in heat and cold, just for the light. There would have been several women, with their children around them, chatting, singing, working their fingers for hour upon hour.

We went for a walk (and lunch, naturally) yesterday at Ile Grande, on the Côte de Granit Rose. It’s a peaceful place. The tide was out, the seabirds wheeled, and the masts of beached boats chinked in the easterly breeze. It’s so easy to think that it was always like this, but it wasn’t. This little island was riddled with stone quarries. In the 14th century, stone from here built Tréguier Cathedral. Right up until the 19th century stone was taken out on barges, loaded at low tide and floated out when it was deep enough to do so. Men worked with hammers and chisels at the rock in all weathers, and the island would have resounded with their rhythmic tapping.

Animals lived close to the farms – inside the longhouses, in the winter months. There would have been axes chopping trees and wood, the slow turning of soil. This would have been no silent countryside, but a place of agricultural industry day in, day out. 

Times may have changed, but the past can be heard, all over Brittany – in the music. 

Breton music echoes the rhythms of the workers who sang the simple songs as they spun their thread, or as they sat at the end of the day with the endless tapping of metal on stone still inside their heads. It’s often a sort of question and answer form – a theme played on one instrument, repeated on another. In the same way, a woman might sing a few lines, and her neighbour copy her, along the hidden lanes and back again. 

There are bagpipes here, but they are nothing like the Scottish ones: even though they were really only introduced in the early 19th century, they have come to sound like Brittany, and at any fête you can almost guarantee a bagadou – a band of pipers and drummers walking through the streets. The cornemuse as depicted in medieval church grotesque sculpture is an early form, and far closer in sound to the Breton version than to Scottish pipes. 

The main instrument, though, is the bombarde – the thing that looks like a clarinet, and sounds medieval. When you hear Breton music played by a small band of men and women, with a drum, a violin, and a bombarde, you hear it in your feet. You want to dance. You know the tune after a couple of verses, and you hum along. 

There are so many fêtes in Brittany, all through the year, all with their own history to honour – linen weavers, onion growers, horse traders, fishermen. At every one of them, you will have the old music and the dancing of people in costume; black based, heavily embroidered jackets (and it was often the men who did the embroidery), lace head-dresses. There are clubs where you can learn the steps, in many towns and villages. 

I don’t know what it is: the Celt ancestry? The working day, the need to get through by any means possible, whilst counting the hours in verses? The hills, where you can’t see the next clustered farm, and each one was a little hamlet all to itself? 

Whatever it is, it’s still there, and it still calls. 

History sounds like toes tapping, hands clapping, and a bombarde, piercing, slightly raucous, and heart-stirring, as a band passes through a stone-built street. It’s the sound of the people who worked with their hands and their backs, and who still had a need and the time for music. 

It’s a question and an answer in the same song: yesterday and today. It’s Brittany.

©lms 2012

Saturday, September 1, 2012

La Rentrée

It’s September 1st, and someone has turned the sun off. 

The schools go back on Tuesday; the shops are full of mothers trying to decide which really is the best calculator, and not the one Child wants because Best Friend has the same model. The mannequins in the clothes stores are wearing wool and raincoats and boots. The colours have turned dark. 

July was wet and ruined the tourist trade’s balance sheets. Now, you have to wonder at people not coming to Brittany because it was raining. If you are going to choose the far north-west of France, the bit that sticks out into the Atlantic, for your main holiday of the year, you know to bring your umbrella. Apparently the financial squeeze made people demand more for their money: sunshine, or the deal’s off. It rained; they stayed at home and sulked. 

I never really got the French grandes vacances until this year. Down south, where half the time we huddled behind closed shutters, fanning ourselves and mopping our brows with wet flannels, we didn’t really see any tourists. They were either at the beach, near La Rochelle, or in private villas with pools. The roads remained quiet. 

Here there are beaches a-plenty, and events organised for every day of the week. There are music festivals – Les Grandes Charrues, which draws people like Bob Dylan, and 180,000 spectators, and Le Petit Village, a couple of kilometres from here, where they have all manner of French artists. 8000 people turned up, and we never heard a thing. Sea-shanty festivals at the coast, rock, pop, punk, folk, jazz , classical – it’s all here. 

There are the son et lumières at ruined abbeys like Bon Repos, and night-time hikes. There’s walking chest-high through the water across the Bay of St Brieuc. There are cycle races, and old car races. Our next village had a speed trial and hill climb round the fields of maize and up the roads and through the farms. (We didn’t hear that either.)This weekend there is a vintage car race round St Brieuc itself – Model T Fords and Porsches and anything in between. 

It’s been an amazing summer. It’s been so hot that I couldn’t sit up here under the roof to work.  We’ve lived in shorts and tee shirts, which we never did down south, where covering up was the name of the game. I even dug out my swimsuit. (Rather like having a wasp in the room, I like to know where it is. I may not do anything about it, but I feel one should keep one’s enemy in the sights.) 

Today, I am back in cardigan, long trousers, and a scarf to keep my neck warm. It’s as though the weather’s giving a nudge to the rentrée, a little kindness to say that it’s time to stop playing now, and get back to work and school. Our Parisian neighbours had a wonderful month, with lots of visitors staying, getting fit and tanned and happy. They went back last weekend, in the rain. 

So now Brittany is ours again. There are still foreign cars around – English, German, Belgian, and some from other départements, but in the next few weeks, they will wander off home, too. The beaches will be empty though the sea will be warm; no-one will be there to see me in my swimsuit, should I be so brave as to put it on. 

There will still be music: this is Brittany , and music is what we do. There will be more festivals all through the year, whatever the weather, because there always have been. 

It feels like the end of something. It feels like the start of Autumn. Now it’s time for the ones who are left behind, when the tourists fade away, to make the most of what we’ve got, just for ourselves.
The bright, noisy, excited visitors have left us, and we will sit back and enjoy the quiet once more.

Maybe I’ll just tuck the swimsuit back into its drawer. It wouldn’t be fair to disturb the peace. 

And I wouldn’t want to make it rain.

©lms 2012