Monday music: Alan Stivell

 Student life: my brother in the 70s. Not surprisingly, same hair style as Alan Stivell. And same colouring, showing their shared Celtic heritage.

Student life: my brother in the 70s. Not surprisingly, same hair style as Alan Stivell. And same colouring, showing their shared Celtic heritage.

This month being the anniversary of my brother Mark‘s birth, I thought I would pull together a blog post that paid tribute to how he influenced my taste in music, back when I first left home and lived in a share house with him.

Perhaps it wasn’t only his influence, as the nature of shared student households is that a lot of music gets played; but whether or not all of the records were his, from Gregorian chants to Billie Holiday to Bob Marley, I heard them for the first time as a teenager in that run down terrace in Newtown.

I compiled my short list of musicians to share and decided to start looking for videos well ahead of his birthday (25 September) … and then I realised that you can’t have too much of a good thing.

Instead of one post, I’m devoting most, if not the whole of September, to Mark’s music, starting with Celtic/Breton harpist Alan Stivell.

Although this song is called ‘The Three Knights’, (An try marrak) it is really about the tragic death of a young woman at the hands of a brother who appears to have been a tad over-zealous about protecting her virtue.

I recorded the album on which this appears — Journée à la maison — sometime in the 80s and played it until the tape wore out. Three Knights is one of my favourites. Delicate, pure sound, with suitably mournful violin and haunting vocals.

Unfortunately Mark doesn’t seem to have shared my love of this album, because he sold it at some point, but never digitised it. Which is a pity, because no-one else has either. I’ve only found three of the tracks on YouTube and a few fragments on Allmusic.com. Alan Stivell appears to be taking a while to catch on to digital downloads. Just a fraction of his massive output is available as MP3s (on Amazon, but to US customers only – grrr). His own website only has videos, most of them from the same 2012 ‘celtic rock’ concert. Like this feisty reel.

I chose this because even though the sound quality is a little muted, it features Stivell playing the bagpipes, which goes to show that he really is a master, if not the saviour (as Bruce Elder would have it) of the Celtic musical tradition.

It’s a pity Stivell hasn’t posted some of the older videos. I love a good vintage live performance — hence my next choice, ‘King of the Fairies’. I chose this not only for the music itself (lots of lilting penny whistle and violin), but because I like how it shows the intensity of Stivell’s relationship with his music. 

Having had a taste of his versatility and virtuosity, I think you’ll agree with me that it’s no surprise Stivell is sought out by musicians from other genres, such as Kate Bush. In this next clip he’s having fun with Simple Minds. Well, I say fun … in the tradition of the Celts, it’s another terribly tragic, poignant song …

And finally, because it seems to be impossible for me to post about music without including African music, here he is blending his Breton sound with the mbalax and velvet voice of Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour.

Apparently there’s a whole album of this sort of collaboration — Dublin to Dakar — so that’s it from me for now, gotta go check it out.

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