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The amazing creativity of bal folk music

There is something truly amazing happening in bal folk dancing for several years now. People going to festivals across Europe, probably noticed the huge numbers of bal folk bands of superb quality. Lately, I felt really amazed by the richness and creativity in bal folk when it comes to music for dancing. I don’t see anything similar in other dances : musicians gathering in multiple bands, mixing influences from all over the world to create music for dancers.

Almost every local scene has its own band(s), every dancer who ever held an instrument tried to compose his own waltz or mazurka.

In this article, I will mention specifically bal folk music and not traditional music. The process is, I believe, very similar but my personal  knowledge of traditional bands is less extended.

Photo : Julien Wieser Folkographie https://www.facebook.com/julienwieserfolkographie/
St Gervais 2016 – Photo : Julien Wieser Folkographie Facebook J.Wieser Folkographie

The uniqueness of bal folk dancing

Let’s have a quick look on other dances. For tango and forro, everybody still praises the music from a “golden period”, around the 40/50’s. There are bands that are composing new music but the majority are sticking to the old standards and play mainly covers (kill me if I hear again “and now, a song by Luiz Gonzaga”). If you want to dance nuevo, you just put your mp3 on pop music. Same for salsa, bachata and co… using actual music (which is perfectly fine of course), but not really composed for dancing.

Electro Swing and electro tango are “remixing” a lot the same old music sheets and make new with old standards. As for blues dancing, you can guess with the name, we are using blues music. As a local DJ, I can tell you it’s a lot of work to sort out the different tunes to find the danceable ones, with the good length and pulse.

I am not very familiar with the music on other scenes so it may seem a bit general (excuse me), and creation for dancers exists everywhere of course, but I really believe bal folk music is on a different scale : everybody knows a musician. And that musician has – at least once – composed for dancing, started a band, or even 4 different bands. One will be bal folk music irish style, one will be traditional, one is mixing with oriental, one is only a cappella songs, and the new one pure string instruments. And everything, every tune, is meant for dancing, studied in format and rhythm for dancers.

And we don’t realize how lucky we are.

An eloquent example of bal folk peculiarity compared to other dance scenes are the festivals. In tango / forro / swing festivals the communication is focused on teachers and maestros, with one or two live music per evening. A Bal folk festival is built like a music festival, with a line-up of 5 to 7 bands on a week end, and less focused on the teachers and workshops.

Mixing influences

It seems there is a competition in Europe about who will have the best “neo folk band”. Maybe we should create a kind of Eurovision contest ? For sure,  that would be interesting.

If I have to quickly make a list of influences added to the “traditional music”, I would say there are different currents :

  • Neotrad romantic : using bal folk codes and instruments, but make it romantic (like Duo Absynthe…)
  • Multicultural : mixing influences from an other country/culture (like Sons Libres, Bal’o Gadjo, Arasta Bazar…).
  • New instruments : human beatbox, brass or unusual instruments (like Beat Bouet Trio, Coiffure Joziane, Sous le Pont…)
  • Electro Folk : with computers and loop stations (Astoura, Super Parquet, Fao Fao, Multi Delta, ba.fnu…)

A sample of so many “different” bands… all dedicated to make music for dancers

Musicians, where do they come from

Children of bal folk

For many musicians it seems that music and dancing are connected since infancy,  as a matter of family tradition. There are family bands like Estrad, or father & son duos like Duo Thébaut, or Duo Theze, or fraternal bands like the 3 brothers of Trio Dhoore, Duo Botasso, the Guichen Brothers… And we don’t even mention the husband & wife bands !

After the revival  of bal folk dancing in the seventies it seems that the new generation who was raised in the bal folk atmosphere, decided today to make music of it’s own, and not only cover past tunes. They are now brilliant (professional for some of them) musicians and very creative in the actual scene. And I think that’s why a lot of young dancers are drawn to bal folk these days, because the music is young,catchy and always renewed.

Photo : Samuel Lagneau
Bal folk of the future is in progress. Photo : Samuel Lagneau Facebook Marshmallow Photo

Fellow dancers and jam sessions

A lot of bands emerged in jam sessions after a bal, in front of a beer.

Many dancers I know were practicing some instrument in their childhood, more or less voluntary. Most of them rediscovered the pleasure of playing in a jam session, and found a new motivation while composing their first mazurka. Naturally they started their own bands with friends from the jam. An increasing number of people around me announced starting an instrument : diatonic accordion, fiddle, guitar,  bodhran and cajon, violin… not to mention the ones singing…

The rules of jam session
The rules of jam session

Bal folk dancing : also connecting musicians

I wanted to show how bal folk musicians are all parts of several bands, so i started a little chart, showing who plays with who in the main bands on the actual scene. I started little, with duo absinthe. And then it went crazy…

Click Here to read the chart

Bal folk bands universe.
CLICK TO OPEN Bal folk bands universe – A chart of main bal folk bands linked with each other. It is not exhaustive of course, but still quite fascinating…

While reading that chart, please keep in mind that :

  • It is not exhaustive
  • Traditional scene is not on it. Bands of Bretagne, Lorraine and Sud-Ouest definitely need their own chart…
  • A lot of these musicians also have a solo project
  • A lot of these musicians are also part of non bal folk bands (rock, pop, classical …)
  • Some of these musicians are siblings / parents / children / husband or wife of other musicians on that chart
  • Some of these projects are not existing anymore

Should we count as well when 3 bands decide to play together ?

A european phenomenon

Another part of that creative current is that a lot of european countries are involved in the process. Belgium, The Netherland,  Italy, Portugal, even Czech Republic and Poland… everywhere you can find bal folk, there are local bands composing for dancing.

Not only they will play for their scene, but there is a strong European scene, the best bands being invited from country to country, some festivals are known as incubators for new bands, for example Gennetines, St gervais and Boombal. A recent example would be the band Beat Bouet Trio who started to travel around Europe after the foreign dancers discovered them  (and loved them) in Boombal. Or Ba.fnu, a well known Czech band.

Tremplins and open stages

In order to promote young bands, you can find some open stages, or musical showcases we call “Tremplin” in french, where bands are competing with a 30 minutes set. It ends up with a vote from the public for their favourite band. A good test and practice for young bands, even if winning means only a couple of free drinks and a future real set.

When I started again to buy cds

I will finish by saying I feel blessed to witness such creativity. Always dancing on live music, in a jam session  or with a well known band from France or abroad with such a diversity of styles is lucky.

In bal folk we like cheap events. But for these high quality musicians and people checking the sound, it means more and more a professional implication. To support culture and creativity has a cost. It is not easy for everyone but quality deserves a fair price. And for sure I find more useful today to drop my tv tax to invest in handcrafted music. And as a matter of fact, buying cds in festival became, for my friends and I, our way to bring back a souvenir. And, looking at my shelf, I have plenty of great memories.