Celtic Classic 2004,
in Bethlehem, PA
(24-26 September 2004)

A week ago, much of the ground of Celtic Classic was flooded when the remnants of Hurricane Ivan hit Bethlehem, PA. But with the help of about a hundred volunteers a day to clean up, everything was ready to go by the last Friday of September, for the 17th annual Celtic Classic festival of music and Highland games.

This year, Celtic Classic had three bands from Celtic areas besides Ireland and Scotland.

King Chiaullee is five young men from the Isle of Man who were on their first visit to the United States. This group had the unusual acoustic combination of two fiddlers, flautist, guitarist and a standup bassist who doubled on bodhran. They did more than just Manx music, since the repertoire from the island is undoubtedly limited due to its size. One of their tunes was said to have a Romanian origin.

Their unmoving flute player was almost Buddha-like in the center of the stage. His instrument resembles (or perhaps is) a large recorder, played straight like a pennywhistle instead of transversely like a classical flute. The two fiddles took low and high parts to carry the melodies of the mostly instrumental set.

King Chiaullee was refreshingly free of stage patter and had few visual moves. Of course, they may have been inhibited by their first U.S. visit. Still, their music was dramatic, as they used a number of medleys to build up speed and intricacy.

The Welsh quartet Crasdant may be best known for having Robin Huw Bowen as one of its members. Huw Bowen plays the Welsh triple harp, a non-pedal instrument that has three rows of strings.

Huw Bowen's intricate playing is somewhat muted in an ensemble, but the harp's beauty was fully appreciated here. Andy McLauchlin played the folk flute, whistle and pibgorn. The latter instrument looks like a long shoehorn and produces a somewhat bleating sound -- appropriate since it is made in part of horn. A lovely young Englishwoman named Theresa did a fine job of filling in on the fiddle, as the regular member of the group stayed home to celebrate fatherhood.

Acoustic guitarist Huw Williams provided both the rhythm and a voice for the group. An extrovert among quiet companions, Williams introduced most of the tunes and all instrumentals, and came out front a few times to clog dance. Williams said traditional Welsh dances had almost entirely died out because the church considered them sinful. But, he speculated, clog dancing survived because it could be done privately.

Brittany is a Celtic land, but its music is very distinctive. Of course, one difference is that the vocals are in French and Breton, since the area is in the northwest part of France. The instruments are also unusual, as Bretons & Co. showed.

Two of the players switched between bagpipes (biniou) and bombarde. The bagpipes were smaller, more Irish than Scottish in size. The bombarde is something like a recorder with a reed, related to the oboe. It is traditionally played with bagpipes, as Bretons & Co. did.

Group leader Alain Leroux plays mandocello and fiddle. They also had a bass player, with a five-stringed acoustic-type instrument, and a versatile percussionist who played hand drums, snare, triangle, small gongs, spoons, and even did hand claps at one point. All contributed to the French and Breton singing at one point or another. Leroux's unfortunate lovelife during the '70s (every girl he met "married another guy") provided comic relief.

For whatever reason, perhaps because the area is poor and isolated, Brittany has kept a sound that is more medieval than other forms of Celtic music. There is also a tradition of dance in the area. Leroux explained that each village has its own dance steps and tunes.

So, often the music sounds like a mixture of medieval and Celtic dance music. It is certainly different than Irish or Scottish. Anyone who enjoys listening to Celtic music should certainly explore Breton contributions.

- Rambles
written by Dave & Laura Howell
published 1 January 2005