Alan Stivell (I): early years of the celtic harp genius

Written on the 12th March 2014

I don’t want to write everything about Jethro Tull and The Alan Parsons Project at once, so this time I’ll write about a man who has become one of my favourite folk musicians in the last couple of years. Alan Stivell (born Alain Cochevelou) revived interest in the Celtic harp in the early 70s; however, he also plays other instruments (bombard, great highland bagpipe, tin whistle, and synthesizer). Also, he sings in Breton, English and French, often using more than one language in the same song. I’m a big fan of his early work (his 60s album and most of his stuff from the early 70s), but after that he has some disappointing albums, so I think I’ll write a couple of posts about him, ignoring the albums I’m not really into or I’ve barely listened to.

Although he was born in the French region of Auvergne, his father was Breton, and he started playing the celtic harp at the age of nine. The guy didn’t waste much time, as his first recording came out when he was sixteen, and his first proper album came out in 1964, when he was twenty years old. Telenn geltiek – Harpe celtique is a bunch of Breton, Irish and Scottish traditional songs. I’ve always loved the sound of the celtic harp, which is what Stivell plays here, but I find this stuff more fitting as background music while I’m doing something else. He plays well, very expressively, and the music is extremely relaxing, certainly a good debut.

Stivell would need six more years to release his second album, but it was worth the wait! Reflets is Stivell’s debut as a singer, and it’s pretty clear his voice is up to the task. Again, it’s a bunch of traditional rearranged songs: a couple of instrumentals, one song in English, one in French and the rest in Breton. Also, more instruments are introduced to us, which makes the whole thing much less repetitive. Some songs can’t be found on youtube so I think I’m uploading the whole album, hopefully there won’t be copyright issues. I find it impossible to highlight one or two songs though, as the album is one of his best.

The first real jewel in the album is Marig ar Pollanton. Stivell’s voice sounds sweet here, and it leaves you with a smile on your face even though the song is kind of nostalgic too. Also, the combination of harmonica and harp is very nice. The song is about a twenty year old girl that falls in love with a prisoner and turns down all the marriage proposals she gets (I just read that in the net, the song’s in Breton so I actually had no clue).

Song ar Christr (cider song) has very nice mixed choirs. Sally Free and Easy is an arrangement of an autobiographical song by Cyril Tawnez, an English seaman who was also a folk musician, about a young girl who cheated on him while he was sailing. Stivell sings this song only accompanied by his harp. The two “suites” are the instrumentals in the album, with Suite des Montagnes (second song of the album) being particularly cool with its duet between flutes and harp.

The title track is nice, by the way, but the real stars are other songs. The three last ones, for example, deserve a few lines. Silvestrig is a traditional Breton song from the nineteenth century that talks about a father who cries for the departure to the army of his son Sylvestre. The father tries to convince Sylvestre not to go and he even tries to bribe his captain into letting him go, unsuccessfully. Sylvestre tries to comfort his father telling him he’ll be all right, but he finally dies while coming back home. Stivell’s voice and harp make the song gloomy yet beautiful.

Tenval an Deiz starts with Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Te Deum… ok, if you don’t really know what I’m talking about, it’s  the song you can always hear in Eurovision (not that I’m a fan of it…). Finally, Je Suis Né Au Milieu de la Mer is an adaptation of a Breton poem by Yann-Ber Kalloc’h. Stivell’s harp sounds hypnotic here and reminds me of sea waves slowly making their way to the coast.

As you can see, although Stivell uses a wider variety of instruments than in his first album (well, doing otherwise was pretty much impossible), the harp is still featured heavily. I honestly consider it an excellent album and I do listen to it very often. Reflets, by the way, is considered the first “celtic pop” album. I wouldn’t exactly call it that way, but it’s not something that really bothers me.

I’ll try to make this post a bit shorter than others which were perhaps too long, so I’ll just mention a couple of things about Stivell’s next album, Concert à l’Olympia, a live album from 1972. I don’t usually care much for live albums, and being honest, I don’t listen to this one very often, but its significance is huge, as it definitely put Stivell and Breton music on the cultural map, selling a million and a half copies in its first year, which, considering the year and the music style is quite a lot. Moreover, seven million people listened to the live performance on the radio. It’s comprised of a first part which is rather acoustic folk and a second one which is electric folk.

The best known song is probably Tri Martolod, a song initially about three mariners who sail who sail to Newfoundland and which later evolves into a dialogue between the narrator and a maid he loves. Catchy stuff.

I’d also like to highlight The King of the Fairies, a delightful Irish reel that is progressively accelerated here. The kind of stuff that makes your hair stand on end when you’re in a pub.

And finally, Suite Sudarmoricaine. It’s not only supercatchy, but its lyrics are hilarious. I actually didn’t expect them to be like that at all, rather something more epic, considering the beginning of the song. It’s about a guy who has sex with a stranger, gets some kind of disease, and has his… thing, ahem, chopped off. But it doesn’t end there. A huge dog eats it and dies. I promise I’m not trolling anyone. More pub material, I guess, no disrespect indended.

If anyone’s wondering why I didn’t send links with proper videos… well, there are a few, but while I consider Alan Stivell an amazing musician, the guy has the worst stage presence ever. Seriously. Watching (and I stress: watching) him play his music reminds me of some Steven Seagal movie. Stivell doesn’t move a muscle, he may as well be a statue with some music tool playing inside.

Ok, this is it more or less. Unless some other Stivell CD suddenly gets me hooked, the next and last Stivell post will be about his next two albums (the unmatchable Chemins de Terre and E Langonned) and 1995’s Brian Boru.

Bonus track: ok, here’s something funny. Please don’t take this seriously. I just mentioned Steven Seagal… well, apparently the guy makes music. I actually listened to his CD Songs from the Crystal Cave, and ok, even if I almost killed myself in the end, it wasn’t as bad as I expected. I’m obviously no fan though, but I’d say his movies are worse! If you feel curious… here you are. And yes, the album cover, which features Seagal’s only facial expression seen so far, is hilarious.


One thought on “Alan Stivell (I): early years of the celtic harp genius

  1. Pingback: She moved through the fair | A Little Light Blogging

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