Pour l'amour des Celtes

Celtomania is taking Paris by storm. Phil Sweeney has his fill of haggis and pan pipes in the French capital
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The Independent Culture
Things "Celtic" are very big in Paris this year, including gastronomy. A couple of months ago, the big arts complex of La Villette staged a series of concerts, exhibitions and films entitled "Le Printemps Celte", of which the night-time centrepiece was a Disneyesque entertainments area featuring a mock pub called the Singing Haggis selling Cocktail Celtiques (whiskey, mandarin liqueur and grapefruit juice) and food stalls purveying panse de brebis farcie (haggis), pot au feu d'agneau (Irish stew) and salade irlandaise (cabbage, carrots with sweet and sour dressing).

Musically, the bill included the Chieftains, Christy Moore, Capercaillie, Wales's own Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, the Spanish rock band Celtas Cortos and a dozen Breton acts including Les Bagadous de Tonnerre (a bagadou is a Celtic pipe band), Ar Re Yaouank, new wave Breton rock, and Taxi Mauve, described as "France's premier Irish group". Much the biggest French stars were Dan Ar Braz, the rock guitarist turned professional Celt whose million-selling Heritage de Celtes album was one of two great successes of the genre's revival last year, and Alan Stivell, in whose group Dan Ar Braz started out 25 years ago.

Stivell was born Alan Cochevelou near Rennes in 1944 and his stage name is based on a "possible" etymology of the family name as Kozh Stivellou, meaning "old sources". His first fame occurred in the late Sixties and early Seventies when, inspired by the popular success of American folk - Dylan, Baez, etc - he began to move away from his background of bagpipes, scout bands and esoteric Breton research more in the direction of rock. In 1968 he opened a Moody Blues concert in London. In 1972 a Stivell live album sold 1.5 million copies. Then came punk, the Eighties, and the wilderness years, or rather the Italian years, Italy conveniently experiencing a mini Stivell boom just as France appeared to lose interest. Throughout this period Stivell continued to develop successive models of his electric harp, a hybrid instrument constructed out of plexiglass, wood and aluminium (and sired by the first new Breton harp in 400 years, which was built in 1953 by Stivell's father out of a Fender Stratocaster).

The comeback began when Stivell signed to Dreyfus Records, purveyor of Jean-Michel Jarre to the masses, who invested in heavy TV advertising for 1993's Again, a digital re-recording of Stivell's greatest hits.

In 1994, having determined to create a record "of international quality, comparable without blushing to a Sting album", Stivell engaged as producer Martin Meissonnier - a specialist in redesigns of African music for European tastes - and came up with Brian Boru, a collection of rock-arranged inter- Celtic standards.

To the audience at La Villette, none of this mattered. Shrugging off the effects of panse de brebis farcie, they jigged, sang and clapped along enthusiastically when instructed. Behind his transparent harp, Stivell rocked away, if not precisely a Celtic Sting, certainly a Breton Phil Collins.

n Alan Stivell plays the Barbican, London EC2 on 20 July (0171-638 8891)