Twenty-five years ago, Brittany native Jérôme Tréhorel got tired of watching his friends move to New York or Paris in search of excitement. Hoping to convince them that their history-rich homeland in rural northwest France was not a boring place, he threw a party for 500 people featuring some local bands. He didn’t expect it to evolve into the biggest music festival in France.
That first village fête spawned Vieilles Charrues (“The Old Ploughs,” a nod to the surrounding pastures), an annual four-day concert that last year drew a crowd of 278,000 to Kérampuilh, a concert field in the picturesque village of Carhaix. Now, to celebrate its 25th anniversary, Vieilles Charrues is coming to Central Park for a one-day spin-off on October 1. The New York lineup is dedicated to la musique française: Co-headliner Matthieu Chedid, who performs funky chansons as -M-, is one of France’s biggest pop stars. Joining him in top billing is the electro producer Tristan Casara, better known by his stage name, the Avener, whose hypnotic house remixes of country and bluegrass songs frequently land on European top-ten charts. (Notably, this version doesn’t include the international stars, such as Bob Dylan and Lana Del Rey, who have headlined the French concerts.)
“The idea is not to bring the biggest French festival to one of the world’s most famous hubs,” says Tréhorel. “This crazy adventure, as I call it, is a cultural exchange.”
Seeded into this musical exchange is the desire to shine a light on not only French, but Breton, culture. Aside from Brittany’s most famous export, the crêpe, the region’s unique identity is arguably less well-known to Americans. Brittany became part of France in 1532 but remained an autonomous region within the country until 1789, so it has retained much from its Celtic and Gallic roots. “A Breton is a French person with Irish spirit,” explains Laurent Corbel, the president of BZH New York, a nonprofit promoting Breton culture in the city. “We have rich traditions in music, folklore, faith,” says Corbel, “and throwing great parties late into the night.”
His organization, which is presenting the festival, connects Bretons living in New York with one another and their heritage; sometimes it brings Bretons here, as it did last year when it invited Tréhorel for a visit. “I became impressed by the depth and reach of the Breton network in the city,” Tréhorel says. In Bryant Park, he played the French ball game pétanque (reminiscent of bocce) with a group of septuagenarian expats. “One of them wore a Vieilles Charrues hat!” he remembers. “I was touched by the pride [they] have for the festival.”
Still, says Corbel, “a lot of us Bretons in New York had never actually been to Vieilles Charrues.” When Tréhorel set eyes on Rumsey Playfield, with its bandshell overlooking a grassy knoll, he saw “a paradise, a small Kérampuilh. It was obvious to me that since those Breton cousins in New York City will not be able to come and celebrate the 25th edition in Brittany, Vieilles Charrues should come to them.”
For the New York show, Tréhorel made sure to include artists who celebrate the decades-long resurgence of Breton identity. When France undertook centralization efforts in the nineteenth century, the government mandated that French be the only language taught in classrooms; now only 250,000 native speakers of the region’s Celtic language
remain, few enough for UNESCO to deem it “severely endangered.” But since the 1980s, when France passed a decentralization law that allowed the fostering of regional cultures, efforts to revive the language for newer generations have bloomed, and so has Breton pride.
Openers Krismenn & Alem, who are known for pairing Breton lyrics with world-championship-winning beatboxing, are among the younger beneficiaries of this resurgence. They are key to Tréhorel’s mission “to present a new view of Brittany, a modern view, showing that it’s not just folklore.” So is the Celtic Social Club, a revivalist group inspired by the Buena Vista and New Orleans social clubs that fuses rock, reggae, and punk with old melodies from Brittany and other Celtic nations. “This Celtic identity is central to our concept,” says the group’s Scottish-born, Brittany-based singer, Jimme O’Neill, who particularly enjoys seeing crowds perform traditional Breton dances to their music. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. People dance arm in arm in huge lines that spiral round and get bigger as more folks join in — kids, grandparents, whole families.”
Back in Brittany, what started as a mission to liven up Tréhorel’s hometown has helped spark a wave of arts events: There are now a dozen annual festivals in the region, and Vieilles Charrues employs some 2,200 people every summer in Carhaix. Christian Troadec, who helped start the festival, is now the town’s mayor and a French presidential hopeful. And, in the neighboring town of Gourin, there’s a replica of the Statue of Liberty — that iconic export from France to New York.
Vieilles Charrues takes place at Rumsey Playfield in Central Park on October 1.