Alan Stivell,
Back to Breizh
(Dreyfus, 2000)

Alan Stivell could easily be called both the father of modern Celtic music and the person who started the rebirth of the Celtic harp.

Stivell recorded the very first Celtic harp solo album in 1959, and by the early '60s was experimenting with electrifying the harp, which led to the development of the modern, yet traditional, sound for which he is now known. His life has followed a course of great study in the history and culture of the Celtic people, combined with experimentation with a variety of sounds, combining traditional and modern instruments. He was one of the first to combine different genres of music, taking symphonic, Celtic, worldbeat and new age music and developing the Celtique Symphonie - Tir na n-Og in 1979. This gifted musician and visionary has been on the forefront of the modern Celtic music scene from the very beginning, and continues to break new ground with each new effort.

Stivell's latest recording, Back to Breizh, explores Stivell's passion for his Breton heritage. The songs speak of his love of his native land, of his anger at prejudice against his people, and of his joy in connecting with his roots. Stivell's journey to these feelings began back when he was a teenager and discovered his Breton heritage. His love of his people has come through in his music ever since, but seldom has he captured such passion for this heritage as he expresses in this collection of songs about Brittany.

Stivell's harping is impeccable, and he uses the electric harp to great effect in his music. He is also an excellent performer on various forms of bagpipe and the bombarde, and he's a moving singer as well. He displays all of these talents on this recording, with a wide and talented cast of back-up musicians, including Mourad Aït Abdelmalek on percussion, Marcel Aubè on bass and Gwennyn Louarn as a back-up singer.

This recording is not a departure for Stivell in terms of style, since it makes great use of his lush, highly-orchestrated arrangements. The many layers of sound merge into a highly-textured and colorful fabric, keeping the listener's interest with the constantly changing kaleidoscope of sound and the brilliant tonal colors. The music moves from solo harp to a wide array of electronic sounds, to keyboard instruments, to bagpipes, to solo vocals, and back again.

This recording features original music by Stivell, as well as several traditional tunes. Among the stand-outs on the album is the stunning opening track, a love song to Brittany, entitled "Vers Les Îles et Villes de Verre" ("To the Isles of Glass"). Stivell's lyrics convey his passion, with such lines as "Near or far, you are my obsession" and "When I was home again, I trembled and cried." Equally compelling is the final track, "Armorican-Suite." (Armorica is an ancient name for Brittany.) This protest song has a catchy chorus and a stirring style, demanding a fair chance for life without prejudice for the Breton people.

Other tracks include a French-language version of the ever-popular "Brian Boru," complete with a stunning opening harp solo; a tribute song to Brittany's Gaelic Sea, a song of protest against dirty oil in the water, "Sowing Death on Sea"; and an anthem of hope for the Breton people, the title track, "Back to Brittany!"

The songs are all sung in either the Breton tongue or in French. There are English translations of all the songs in the liner notes, which are very helpful. The remaining liner notes are written in French only.

Overall, this is a recording of great depth and passion, as could only be delivered by the father of modern Celtic music. Stivell fans will not want to miss this one, and if you aren't yet familiar with his music, this is an excellent place to start.

[ by Jo Morrison ]

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