The first time I heard Breton music, I almost murdered someone. I literally lurched out of a deep sleep ready to hack off a head, thanks to the blaring bombarde and binou pouring out of my husband’s speakers. But then—THEN—I heard this singing. It was raw, abrasive, cutting, and absolutely stunning. That singer was Breton legend Érik Marchand, and it is because of that moment of hearing his voice that I fell in love with Breton traditional music (despite the bombarde and binou, which—little-known fact—were the principle reasons why Rome tried to destroy Gaul).
Fast-forward ten years, and Érik Marchand is sitting in the back of the car asking me if I think seatbelts are really necessary. I don’t recognize the word for “seatbelt”, so my shotgun passenger turns to Érik and politely says, in his beautiful French, “seriously, Érik, put on your seatbelt. It’s an American driving.” Érik grudgingly clicks his belt in, muttering to himself, and Christophe LeMenn goes back to mapping our way to Montréal. It’s hot and muggy as hell outside, and the air conditioning is making us all cranky; on top of that, we’re all hungover, hungry, and tired from a weekend-long festival, Chants des Vieilles in Québec, where Christophe and Érik each spent hours performing and teaching. They needed a lift back to the airport, which is how I find myself driving around with two of the best Breton traditional singers alive today.
Without even being aware of it, Christophe fills the silence with surreal sounds. Bings and clashes, booms and basses, high hats, snares. Christophe LeMenn is a human beatbox. As a one-man show, he won over the masses at WOMEX in Wales in 2013 and is considered to be one of the top beatboxers in the field. But what sets him apart is his talent as a traditional kan ha diskan singer. He even toured as a wunderkind with Érik Marchand, among others, before launching his solo act as Krismenn. By combining beatboxing with the hauntingly beautiful tradition of Breton singing, what Christophe LeMenn brings to the table is an addictive mix of new and old, in a complete one-man, not-too-shabby-looking package.
Aaaand….then he met this CRAZY fucker...
(seriously. you must watch this video.)
Needless to say, a musical bromance was born.
The two started playing for fest noz dances in Brittany, a feat you can only truly appreciate once you’ve seen this video:
TWO. PEOPLE. NO INSTRUMENTS.
Krismenn & Alem started up a KissKiss fundraiser to crowdsource an album together (top donors, by the way, would get a song-filled tractor ride to the local bar with Christophe at the helm. Like a boss), and earlier this year finally released their debut masterpiece.
The self-titled EP is exactly as promised: nothing but beatboxing, rapping, and Breton songs. The result is a surprisingly layered effect for being essentially only two mouths making noise. What starts with slow, pensive singing turns into a cataclysm of rapping and beatboxing. With rhythm so tight you could bounce a penny off it, you can easily see how only two men can move thousands into a frenetic circle dance. I give you, say, ten seconds on your first listen before you start doing the French version of The Grapevine around your living room.
On a language-nerd level, one of the elements of the album that strongly appeals is the nearly-exclusive use of Breton, or Brezhoneg, as a song medium. An endangered Celtic/Brittonic language, Breton nearly went extinct in the latter half of the 20th century; but thanks to community-driven schools, Breton is hanging in there by the skin of its teeth. Christophe’s grandparents spoke fluent Breton, but not his own parents, so Christophe took it upon himself to learn the language of his forbearers. “It’s harder and harder for young people to speak with native speakers," says Christophe. "And if we aren’t careful we will quickly lose the music of our language and speak Breton in a boring and flat way.” When I asked for clarification, he explained that the younger generations are learning a new form of Breton. For him, though, it’s important to keep the language of his grandparents alive and well, even if it sounds to his peers like he should be wearing old-people pants and playing pétonque in the park. But the musicality of Brezhoneg is exactly what drives the music to new levels and excites audiences into a frenzy.
Alem was the winner of Vice’s Beatbox Battle World Championships in 2012, and has now been World Champion since 2015. He’s a little bit mind-blowing. He and Christophe met through social media circuits, and are now touring throughout Europe. And lucky for those of you living under the torchlight of Lady Liberty, Krismenn and Alem will be making their USA début in New York, headlining for the Vieilles Charrues festival — a festival which started in Brittany but is now celebrating its 25th anniversary in none other than Central Park. This one-day event is sure to be a mind-blowing festival of dancing and top-notch Breton music, and tickets are selling quickly.
So take my advice: buy this album. If you’re in the New York area, see their show. This is a fantastic representation of both traditional and innovative Breton music that avoids the trap of being either Europop or filled with bombarde, both of which could detrimentally bias your opinion of Breton music. Instead, stick with the pure, energy-filled, wonderful EP from Krismenn & Alem, who come with my personal stamp of trad-music-nerd approval. Enjoy it—no seatbelt necessary.