ODYSSÉE

70 years of the Bagad de Lann-Bihoué

2022 Festival Interceltique de Lorient

8 August 2022

It’s the year of the Odyssey. In Ireland and across the literary world, centenary celebrations of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses – based on Homer’s Odyssey – have been taking place.

A two-year artistic partnership, entitled Ulysses: A European Odyssey (https://theevenhand.com/2022/06/06/ulysses-an-odyssey-for-europe/, is starting to unfold through 18 cities – Athens, Vilnius, Paris, Budapest, Trieste, Marseille, Berlin, San Sebastian, Copenhagen, Istanbul, Cluj, Zurich, Gronigen, Eleusis, Oulu, Lisbon, Dublin and Derry – one for each of the 18 episodes in Joyce’s controversial masterpiece.

In the naval port of Lorient in south Brittany, the Bagad Lann-Bihoué – the Breton pipe band which is the official representative of the French navy – is setting out on its own celebratory odyssey via an extraordinary, non-stop musical journey through its colourful seafaring history.

It has been a long time in the planning, the making and the delivery. But, undaunted by unforeseen delays caused by the Covid pandemic, this hardy troupe of military musicians explodes onto the vast stage of the newly configured Espace Jean-Pierre Pichard, wowing the packed house in its home town with a dazzling and unexpectedly theatrical display of musical virtuosity and Celtic spirit.

They are a sight to behold in their snowy white embroidered smocks, navy trousers tucked into white boots, and hats topped with a jaunty scarlet pompom -their signature accessory.

To the left are the ranks of the bombardes (a small, high pitched oboe-like instrument), to the right the cornemeuses (Breton bagpipes) with their crimson tassels and fringes, and, centre stage a forest of percussionists, who perform one of the highlight segments of the evening.

Over the skirl of pipes, wisps of dry ice and a sonorous narrative, three deck hands step forward and haul in heavy ropes from beyond the footlights. The musicians take up their instruments under the direction of their charismatic conductor, quayside lights beam out into the audience and, to the piercing sound of a solo bombarde, the great ship slowly sets sail on its world voyage.

With the strains of their Breton musical tradition never far away, this finely tuned ensemble of players speed us away to other countries, other scenarios – drinking and carousing in harbourside Spanish bars, dancing to the beat of Caribbean drums, braving Amazonian rainstorms (brilliantly captured by clicking fingers, stamping feet and thigh slapping), producing a guitar/whistle/uilleann pipes/bodrhan session straight out of an Irish pub, sashaying to Middle Eastern rhythms and swaying to the delicate sounds of old Japan. There is even pause for a poignant bombarde/saxophone duet on Gabriel’s Oboe from the film The Mission, set among the Guarani natives of South America.

It is a stirring experience to watch the facility with which the players switch from jazz to traditional to rock, moving seamlessly between instruments as they recreate the 70-year story of their illustrious place in French cultural life.

Returning to the port of Lorient after its long, perilous journey, the ship is welcomed home by a galaxy of small lights held on high by the audience. It is a thrilling finale to the midway point of this world-famous festival, which is back in force after two years in the darkness.

2020 is designated as the Year of Asturias, the green mountainous and coastal fringe of northern Spain. Lorient’s sun-baked streets are alive with its vibrant music and costumed dancers.

Walking back to the car after midnight, the waterfront is thronged with thousands of revellers, soaking up the sounds of Asturian pipes and accordions along the quays, cheering a rock concert at the top of the Cours de la Bove, assailed by the spontaneous bursts of bagpipes and uilleann pipes emanating from bars and cafés around every corner. Under its new director Jean-Jacques Baudet, the 51st Festival Interceltique de Lorient is in full swing. Festivaliers of all generations are out in force. Our hearts are filled with the unforgettable sights and sounds of the Bagad Lann-Bihoué. It sure is great to be back.

  • Continues until 14 August.
  • festival-interceltique.bzh

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