Trouz Bras: Making a Big Noise with the Breton Boys
I love craigslist. You can log on looking for basement shelving and come away with a cat and a band. At least that's what happened to me. I adopted Cleo the Maine coon cat, and was in my turn adopted by Trouz Bras, "the only band in North America devoted to the music and dance of Brittany." A week after my audition with Ray Price and Barry Hall, I found myself on stage at Passim, making my debut at the Boston Celtic Music Festival with a French sea chantey. Le Capitaine de St. Malo lived up to the band's name--Trouz Bras means Big Noise in Breton--and I'm delighted to find myself singing call-and-response with a bagpipe. Not to mention a jazzy medieval vielle, a rockin' bass, and the USA's first NEA Master of the Bodhrán. These guys have some chops.
For my first official gig with TB at the Dance Flurry, I have 3 weeks to learn 9 songs in a language I don't speak. What fun! The dance songs are a joy, drawing on my experience as a dancer and dance leader in a way I haven't used since my back and knee injuries in 1998-99. But for me, the most exciting aspect of this new venture is the discovery of a treasure trove of traditional ballads, in the Breton tradition called gwerz.
A gwerz is a ballad, or "complainte," that parallels the Child ballads both in historic, heroic, and/or mythic material and in anchoring the a cappella tradition. The research site I've worked most with so far is Son Ha Ton. Among its deep collections is an online version of Barzaz Breizh, the definitive 600-page Breton song collection from 1839. I'm looking forward to studying the epic ballads of the young Merlin, King Arthur, and the drowned City of Ys.
We have begun with the well-known (in Brittany) Ti Eliz Iza, the tale of a young girl orphaned by the Crusades who enters the convent of Rumengol, making a gift to the Blessed Virgin of her golden hair. The medieval melody is breathtaking (in several senses of the word!), we've added a Steeleye Span-style bass, and I now have the ambition to visit Rumengol in Finistère. There you can tour the 16th-century nunnery of Our Lady of All Aid, patron saint of Brittany. Their chapel dates from the 5th century, and is said to have been founded by King Gradion, ruler of the Kingdom of Ys.
Trouz Bras is a delicious synchronicity of my interests in French, balladry, Celtic music, folk dance, sea music, and the great bardic epics--not to mention a puzzle piece that drops right into the geography of the North Atlantic region. It's going to be a great year with this hot new band. Who cares if I still don't have basement shelves?