Plastic chairs were lined up in the garden of the French Cultural Center and, on the night of March 2, there was a person sitting on every single one of them. This looked odd, however, because the concert was not at all a sit-down-event.
The bands Dawad and The Guichen Brothers—a total of four Celtic musicians from Brittany in Western France—who opened Phnom Penh’s second Celtic Festival with an intense mixture of traditional Celtic and Cambodian music, had the audience clapping along from the start.
Holding a Celtic festival more than 4,000 km from Britanny is typical of residents of the region, as they are very fond of travelling, said Veronique Salze-Losach from the Cercle Celtique du Cambodge—a small group of friends from Brittany who helped organize the festival.
Midway through the concert, the Celtic performers were joined by five musicians from Cambodia’s Royal Orchestra of Fine Arts who entered the stage in white jackets and wide smiles, and added a continuing base of percussion to the guitar, piano, drum and Celtic bombarde. The white jackets were not coincidental as the Brittany bands were dressed in black, which made the stage colors represent the Brittany flag “Gwenn ha Du”—black and white.
“It has been a project of ours for the last two years to incorporate music from other parts of the world into our own,” said Jean-Charles Guichen of the Guichen Brothers. He and his brother are currently working on a CD, “Brittany Dreams,” on which they are experimenting with an international sound. After 25 years of playing together, the brothers have only recently adapted to more worldly music.
“There are similarities between Cambodian and Celtic music,” Guichen said. “For instance, to every Celtic song, there is also a dance. Some local music here has the same rhythm, so it is possible to dance the dances to Cambodian music,” he said.
The Celtic Festival consisted of the concert on March 2, followed by the big Fez-Noz, or “party night,” at the center’s cafe on March 3.
“The Fez-Noz is a little more lively—there are no chairs and people dance to the music,” Salze-Losach said.
The aim of the festival, she said, was to bring the two cultures together, which is why the stage was decorated with both the Gwenn ha Du and the Cambodian flag. Brittany may not be an independent state, Salze-Losach explained, but it has its own flag, dialect and traditions, and is more culturally connected to France’s Normandy and Northern Europe than to the rest of France.
To underline the link between the cultures, Dawad and The Guichen Brothers chose to end their concert with three traditional Cambodian songs, celtisized by the bands. While the audience may have been sitting down during the two hours of Celtic music—although definitely not sitting still—now was the chance to get up, which the majority did, clapping to the last tunes of the evening.
After the music ended, people remained off their chairs, giving both of the bands a standing ovation.
“That was great,” said 28-year-old Cambodian student Ama Sopoi.
“I thought it was a very interesting mixture of Cambodia and Celtic music, and it made me feel like Cambodians could [appreciate] it too. It tasted a little different, but it still tasted Cambodian,” he said.
The Celtic and Cambodian musicians played in Siem Reap town on Monday and at the French Cultural Center in Battambang town on Wednesday.
Funded by the French Embassy, the festival was organized by the French Cultural Center and supported by the musicians who played for free, with profits going to the NGO Friends/Mith Samlanh.