Two Streams Fed by Rhythm: The Surprising Confluence of Breton and Garifuna Sounds Debuts in May

May 5, 2015

At the edge of the same ocean, two cultural worlds have thrived despite hardship. Their languages are unique and face extinction. Their music booms with joyful rhythm and is all about sparking the dance. Sometimes salty, sometimes moving, songs are often danced. As feet pound in both communities, you’ll hear a voice call out, greeted with voice ringing out in response.

What are these two cultures? You’ll never guess: The Bretons in Northwestern France and the Garifuna of Central America. Now these unexpectedly harmonious sounds and beats come together in collaboration as part of Breizh Amerika, a multimedia cross-cultural initiative to celebrate the beauty of Brittany, its music, food, lifeways, and language. The collaboration will debut on May 14 at New York’s Meridian 23 (7:30 PM start; The musicians will also spend time in the studio, perfecting and documenting their collaboration.

The connections between the Bretons and the Garifuna, a group that traces its origins back to shipwrecked Africans who intermarried with indigenous Arawak, felt implausible to organizer Charles Kergaravat–until he heard Brooklyn-based Garifuna drummer James Lovell and his Garifuna Drum Band. “Percussionists often have an easier time leaping into collaboration with singers,” explains Kergaravat. “So when I heard about James, I decided we should meet. We chatted for a few minutes, and James insisted that we were all just crazy enough to pull this off.”

Lovell and his band will join two sought-after Breton singers of Kan Ha Diskan, the call and response-based form that ignites the dancefloor at Breton parties. Rhythmic and cheeky, the singing style has a corollary in Garifuna music, as songs are often improvised to fit the occasion, shifting and growing to incorporate new tales–and to keep people dancing.

The Breton-Garifuna will explore these connections in more depth, then present their discoveries in New York and across the US this May. It’s part of a larger effort to highlight Brittany’s distinct culture, cuisine, and language, and to place Breton lifeways in a world-wide effort to enliven and maintain endangered languages and the worlds they encompass. Both Bretons and Garifuna face an uphill battle to preserve their tongues–both have barely over 200,000 speakers left–but both have strong musical traditions that have helped raise the banner for greater awareness.

“Even when singing, much of Breton music is all about the rhythm,” Kergaravat notes. “There is a much greater overlap in Garifuna and Breton experiences, and in the sounds we favor, than meets the eye.”

The Breizh Amerika Collective tours through New York City, Rochester, Cleveland, Chicago, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque for Fête de la Bretagne, an international celebration of Breton music, food, and language.  In an unprecedented level of participation, these US cities will be joining a global network, from Shanghai to Sao Paulo, of hosts to celebrations of Breton culture.

Follow The Breizh Amerika Collection on Twitter: @BreizhAmerika

Support this unique collaborative project here!