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Call to the Dance

An Experience of the Socio-Cultural World of Traditional Breton Music and Dance

Desi Wilkinson

190 pp.

18 illustrations

ISBN: 978-1576471722

Paperback $45.00

Out-of-Print. This book is no longer available from Pendragon Press.


Over the course of the 40 years between 1970 and 2010 Brittany has experienced an intense revival of activity in the area of vernacular traditional music performance and social dancing. Circle dancing there is arguably the most popularly enjoyed community based dance form in Western Europe. In its most traditional form the music and singing which drive the dance are immediate and arresting in their raw appeal. Addressing both scholarly and musical constituencies, Irish musician and academic Desi Wilkinson opens a nuanced window, informed by his own experience, into this vibrant socio-musical reality. The book deals with issues of local identity as expressed through the aesthetic medium of music and dance and includes access to field recordings of selected singers and musicians. Directly related to these recordings are basic transcriptions of both text and music that, taken together, give readers a good template from which to develop some understanding of its aesthetic features. The Pan-Breton selection to be found here is the cohort of round dance music forms that are most representative of the Breton tradition in the 2010s. A description of what has emerged as the most iconic dance form, the suite gavotte montagne, is included. The notional world of contemporary popular Celticism (Celtitude) is tied to folk music performance and Wilkinson examines the particularity of its Breton and francophone construction.


Desi Wilkinson:

Desi Wilkinson is a leading exponent of the traditional Irish flute and a fine traditional singer. He has recorded five albums with the internationally renowned group Cran, two solo albums--the Three Piece Flute and Shady Woods --and a host of other recording collaborations that reflect his eclectic musical interests. Originally from Belfast, Wilkinson has worked and toured with many of the best-known musicians and groups on the Irish folk music scene. From 1992 to 1994 he lived in Brittany, learning, playing and studying Breton music. He speaks French fluently and has combined musical and research interests throughout his career, completing an MA in ethnomusicology at Queens University Belfast in 1991 and a doctorate at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, University of Limerick in 1999. He worked as a full-time lecturer at the International Centre for Music studies (ICMuS), Newcastle University U.K. for ten years (2005-2015) and his work has been published in academic journals and book chapters. He is currently traditional musician in residence at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, where he continues to combine music-making with academic pursuits.


January 11, 2017

Desi Wilkinson, Call to the Dance: An Experience of the Socio-Cultural World of Traditional Breton Music and Dance, Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press (The Wendy Hilton Dance and Music Series No. 18), 2016, xvii+161pp., with 18 illustrations and CD. $42.00 (pbk). ISBN: 9781576471722. Desi Wilkinson�s exploration of traditional Breton music and dance focuses on the remarkable phenomenon of the fest noz (night festival), at which people gather in large numbers to perform circle dances from dusk to dawn. The book�s title Call to the Dance is an expression (from L�appel � la danse) for the musical preamble that precedes the dancing. On hearing the music, those who intend to dance leave the convivial eating, drinking and conversation that are very much part of the occasion, and assemble on a wooden stage; they face inwards in a circle with hands joined or little fingers intertwined, ready to begin. Vivid descriptions of festo� noz (plural of fest noz) support Wilkinson�s main purpose, which is to chart the historical development of the event and to �highlight its social, cultural, aesthetic, political, and economic significance.� The fest noz is not a tradition of great antiquity; it originated in the 1950s, organised initially by �a handful of cultural activists in an effort to provide a new context for the performance of older forms of traditional music and dance.� In the opening chapter �Celtitude� (a French word defined as �ways of being or feeling Celtic�), Wilkinson examines first the diffuse meanings attached to the word Celtic in European history and culture, and then spotlights the role that Irish music has played in revitalizing Brittany�s own music and dance; the Breton folk musician Alan Stivell, in particular, has been influential in bringing together the unconnected Breton and Irish musical traditions through a sense of shared Celtic heritage. A telling illustration shows a green poster with shamrock background advertising a fest noz to celebrate St Patrick�s Day in 2013. From �Celtitude� Wilkinson proceeds to �Bretonnitude�, in which he considers the multiple issues, historical and contemporary, of Breton identity; for a start, Brittany comprises two distinct areas, Basse Bretagne in the west, where Breton is spoken, and Haute Bretagne in the east, which is closer to the rest of France in language and culture. At the heart of the book lies the third chapter �Fest Noz�A Socio-cultural and Economic Innovation�. After recounting how the fest noz has developed since the 1950s to become �the quintessential, twenty-first century Breton cultural event�, Wilkinson details the current operational background: local associations, dance classes, musicians, publicity, food, drink and not least, finance. As a specific example, he describes and brilliantly evokes the atmosphere of a fest noz at Cosquer in Basse Bretagne on 14 August 2012. He concludes by guiding us through the three sections of a dance especially associated with the fest noz since its inception, the Suite gavotte montagne. Many of the dances go back well beyond the 1950s; indeed, Wilkinson draws parallels with branles in the Renaissance dance treatise Orch�sographie (1588). The remaining two chapters examine the performing and transmission of the dance music, and include scores for fourteen dances recorded on an accompanying CD. Seven outstanding groups of Breton singers and instrumentalists participate; all demonstrate the integral role of musical call- and-response (kan ha diskan) in the performing tradition. Instruments include the core duo associated with circle dances, the raucous Breton shawm (bombarde) and bagpipe (binio� koz). The tunes, like the dances, bring to mind the branles in Arbeau�s Orch�sographie; one is actually called �Le jolie petit branle�. Desi Wilkinson, a flautist from Belfast, has been closely involved with Breton music and dance for many years, yet he charts the 60 year history of the fest noz with admirable objectivity. While distancing himself from those he describes as Celtomanes, he reveals how notions of celtitude and bretonnitude have contributed to an event that engenders a sense of community and Breton identity, devoid of strident nationalism. Jeremy Barlow Dance Research(UK) Vol.34 #2 November 2016

Jeremy Barlow
Dance Review (UK), Vol. 34, #2, November 2016

November 5, 2016

(Desi Wilkinson is ) an ethnomusicologist (PhD, University of Limerick). A longtime lecturer at the International Centre for Music Studies at Newcastle University, he is currently the traditional artist in residence at University College Cork. Some readers may remember that I, too, am an ethnomusicologist (PhD, New York University, 2008) and have a deep affinity for musician-scholars who engage in this level of research, so you can imagine my excitement when I learned Wilkinson had a new book out, �Call to the Dance: An Experience of the Socio-Cultural World of Traditional Breton Music and Dance.� It was excitement that was absolutely warranted. Wilkinson�s book is a short (xvii + 161 pp.), concise work that �charts the recent historical development of a valued and respected Breton popular cultural identity � both at home and abroad � through the invention and diffusion of an event, the fest noz� and contextualizes its importance. In five chapters, Wilkinson explores the somewhat expansive French language term �celtitude� and the role �Irishness� played in community development. He balances this against the more locally-bound notion of �bretonnitude� to show the different practices and dispositions that characterize Breton culture. This lays the groundwork for an historio- and ethnographic account of the fest noz which does a handy job of demonstrating its cultural import. He concludes his book with a pair of chapters that looks at style, repertory and transmission, a more nuts-and-bolts approach that adds vibrancy to the earlier subjects. The book includes 18 figures and comes with a 14-track CD of Wilkinson�s field recordings that is intended as a companion to chapter four. The recording quality of CD is uniformly high and will prove indispensable, especially to those whose experience with Breton music is minimal. �Call to the Dance� is a thoughtful, well-appointed representation of contemporary issues in Breton music. Wilkinson�s analysis is sharp, his history streamlined, and his ethnography conceived with a reflexive sense of his �place� in the field. Although his prose isn�t bogged down with technical terms, Wilkinson�s approach may challenge readers not used to the rigor of academic convention. Regardless, this book will prove invaluable to people interested in Brittany�s music and culture, especially those looking to understand where they stand today. Daniel Neely, The Irish Echo 2016

Daniel Neely
The Irish Echo

0, 0000

Call to the dance: an exploration of the socio-cultural world of traditional Breton music and dance, by Desi Wilkinson, Hillsdale, NY, Pendragon Press, 2015, xvii + 161 pp. + 1 CD, ISBN 978-1-5764-7172-2 ($42.00, cloth) One is definitely ‘called to the dance’ in Desi Wilkinson’s publication, which is a most welcome addition to English-language socio-cultural and ethnomusicological studies on Breton music and dance. For a relatively short book, Call to the Dance provides a rich, very warm and often personal overview of interactions with Breton culture. The study, however, is not short on historical, political, socio-cultural or ethnographic data. Wilkinson finds just the right balance between bringing you to the Fest Noz (evening dance events), through his engaging ethnographical meanderings and memories, and bringing you core facts about the tradition. Call to the Dance examines the language, dance, song and music of the ‘Celtic Fringe’ of Brittany, northwestern France, and these features are positioned against the broader historical, political and musical landscape of Western Europe. The 14-track accompanying CD of field recordings of dance songs and music adds an aural dimension to the study. Wilkinson pulls you into the culture in a way that attracts those with previous knowledge of and interaction with the culture, but equally also provides a gateway into the culture for those who come to it anew. He does so by setting the tone of each of the chapters in such a way as to get you closer to the heart or, to borrow one expression used in the book, the ‘raw bar’ (xv) of the culture. The concepts of ‘Celtitude’ and ‘Bretonnitude’ are discussed in some detail before we enter the world of socio-cultural and economic innovation of the Fest Noz as a cultural manifestation event. Wilkinson examines particular aspects of the core dance movements, the styles of song and the types of instrumentation used at these (and other) events. ` Finally, he outlines how this music and dance tradition is passed on before finishing with some pointed remarks and thoughts on his 40 years or so of interaction with the culture. ‘Celtitude’, Wilkinson explains in his view, is: fundamental to an overall appreciation of traditional music in Brittany and to the popularity of the fest noz. I interpret the French language term Celtitude as meaning ways of being and feeling Celtic. For me the notion of Celtitude implies a psycho-social construct, that is, a set of multi-modal—constantly reconfigured data—signs, sounds, texts, objects, actions, interactions, and perceptions. (1) The appropriateness of the term ‘Celtitude’ helps to frame the core issue of this study because it encompasses the reconfiguration of changing social, political and musical contexts. His succinct description outlines the ‘Celtic’ connections—the flow of interchange between Britain (and later Ireland) and France, and the beginnings of pan-Celtic imaginings set against the wider European National Romanticism movement of the mid-nineteenth century onwards —as a continuum of different notions of meaning in the term Celtic. We are informed historically about how the flow of people from the countryside to the urban centres, such as Paris, was instrumental in shaping contemporary Breton culture. The significance of the decline of Celtic languages and current perceptions of what Celtic means in the 2010s is highlighted, as are the notions of nineteenth-century romantic Celtitude. Wilkinson points out that today ‘for most people Celtitude is not something that is a lived reality; it is more readily conceived of as a vague notion and highly variable, not requiring specificity or justification, but available for use as a weighted cultural identity’ (9). Furthermore, he questions how ‘Celtic’ the music of Brittany actually is. Wilkinson argues that ‘what makes Breton music in any way connected with the empty category of Celtic music is precisely its being called Celtic, which invokes the notion of the anti-hegemonic’ (13), in this case being in opposition to politically and socially imposing centralised powers. The book also includes comprehensive overviews of emerging Breton and Celtic artists in the 1970s, such as the iconic Alan Stivell (a multi-instrumentalist who combined rock and folk music genres), the formation of bagadoù (marching bands composed of bagpipers, bombarde [Breton shawm] (a type of pastoral oboe) players and drummers) and other facets of the evolving Breton musical landscape and its complex relationship with Scottish and Irish music among others. Other layers of the cultural fabric in the 2010s are the many ways of feeling or being Breton, known as Bretonnitude. These ways include the unconscious, intuitive and openly provocative ways of displaying an affinity of Bretonnitude from drinking cider, speaking the Breton language and being politically active through to direct involvement with the music and dance. Discussions about Bretonnitude bring us to the core focus of the study on displays of pan-Breton cultural identity—that of the Fest Noz. Wilkinson shares his own experiences of being at the Fest Noz in detail. These social dance events feature traditional song, music and circle dancing. The writing brings the sounds, the summer heat and the smells of cooking alive. The cultural landscape and its parts are connected into a whole which is cleverly portrayed, down to details of dance steps, the arm movements and the human interaction in the circle dances. To complement the dance, Wilkinson includes descriptions of the accompanying song types, the singers and, especially, the relationship between Kan ha Diskan (call and response) songs and the dance. The instruments, their uses and their links to the dance are also described in detail using information on each of the instrumentalists at these events. All of this information is placed in the context of Breton culture past and present, shared with a warmth and familiarity that could only be achieved after decades of exposure to the ‘raw bar’ of the culture that is still largely ‘caught not taught’ (xv) in its transmission processes. This familiarity makes Wilkinson’s account of the Fest Noz events, and his glimpses into many of the current manifestations of Breton culture, vivid. One is left with an urge to find out more and even participate oneself. If only space would allow for more stories of these events and of those who act in them to be told, because I am sure there are many more. Mats Melin Lecturer, Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, University of Limerick, Ireland © 2016 2 BOOK REVIEW

Lecturer, Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, University of Limerick, Ireland

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