photo via ELA
After a short hiatus for renovations and new partnership, Bowery Poetry is back—dropping “Club” from its title—and they’re hosting a Garifuna-Breton party! I’ve posted before about endangered languages—both of which these are—but why I specifically want to mention this party is because Jack Kerouac claimed to have descended from a Breton nobleman.
Bretons are people from Brittany, a Celtic nation located in France. During Kerouac’s day and age there were more than one million Breton speakers. The Brythonic language (Welsh, also endangered, is another example of a Brythonic language) was originally well regarded and spoken among the upper classes, but as people began assimilating it became known as the language of the commoners. Today, most Bretons today speak French, and only about 200,000 people—particularly in the western area—speak Breton. In the 1960s, the language was being forced out of schools—just like many Native American and Sami languages were. Today, schools are returning to bilingualism, particularly through the efforts of Diwan schools, which were founded in 1977 as an immersion program. Even so, UNESCO classifies Breton as a “severely endangered” language. For more on the history of the language visit Breton Language and visit the US Branch of the International Committee for the Defense of the Breton Language.
Kerouac’s family was French Canadian, and growing up in Lowell, Massachusetts, his first language was the working-class French-Canadian dialect joual. It’s interesting to note that both Breton and joual are associated with commoners; perhaps this is a key to understanding Kerouac and his literature. As far as my current research shows, he was not familiar with the Breton language. However, I recently saw Christopher Felver’s documentary Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder, which told the story of how one day Kerouac was sitting on the beach in Big Sur with poet and City Lights founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti repeated the phrase “the fish in the sea speak Breton.” Kerouac perked up, hearing the connection to his roots, and asked Ferlinghetti about it and wrote it down in the little notebook he always carried with him. The phrase found its way into his novel Big Sur.
Satori in Paris, which came three years after Big Sur, recounts Kerouac’s travels to France and Brittany in search of his roots. For a fascinating look at Kerouac’s trip and ancestral lineage, check out Dave Moore’s article “The Breton Traveller” on Beatdom.
Here’s the press release for the Garifuna-Breton party:
IS BACK WITH
A GRAND GARIFUNA-BRETON PARTY!
Poetry! Music! Dance!
Sunday*, March 18 from 6pm-11pm
Bowery Poetry, 308 Bowery (at 1st Street)
Endangered Language groups unite in a call to action to focus attention on the fact that more than half the world’s languages will disappear this century
Two cultures who met through the Endangered Language Alliance, will celebrate their differences (Breton being Celtic and Garifuna being Arawak), and their similarities (both on the Endangered Language spectrum), but mainly will just celebrate with live music, dance and poetry. This event is being produced by the Bowery Arts + Science Endangered Language Program, and will be one of the first events at the newly renovated Bowery Poetry space at 308 Bowery.
The strong Breton cultural movement, known as Fest-Noz, has preserved the expression of a living and constantly renewed practice of inherited dance repertoires with several hundred variations, and thousands of tunes. About a thousand Festou-Noz take place every year with participants varying from a hundred to several thousand people, thousands of musicians and singers and tens of thousands of regular dancers.
Descendants of Arawak, Carib, and African warriors, the resilient Garifuna people of Central America and the Caribbean are known for their rich traditional folklore, including music, dance, food and language. James Lovell is a New York based Belizean Garifuna drummer, recording artist, performer, teacher, and Garifuna cultural activist who grew up with stories told by his elders about the bravery of the Garifuna people and their military leader, Chief Joseph Chatoyer, against efforts by the British colonialists to deny them their identity and the right to speak the Garifuna language.
*I double-checked this, and according to the Endangered Language Alliance the event is on MONDAY the 18th.