Interview with Dan Ar Braz, Breton musician and friend of Rory

We wanted to share with our readers the full transcript of our interview with Breton musician Dan Ar Braz. Sections of this interview were included in Part Two of our 1994 festivals article. We hope this interview can be of use to not only Rory fans, but also those who want to know more about Dan’s music and history. 

What are some of your earliest musical influences? 

Too many to mention, but Taste was part of it. When I was very young, [and] due to the fact that my older brother Pierre was listening to Radio Luxembourg, I got involved in the same passion and started to listen to everything that was coming from England and the USA. The Shadows, The Beatles, the Stones, Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, The Who, Dylan and Donovan, the two albums by Taste too … later I discovered John Martyn, John Rembourn and my hero acoustic guitarist Bert Jansch. Since then I [have] always been kind of “Rock and Folk”. 

How old were you when you first started playing the guitar? What made you choose this instrument?

My family was very musical, though no one was really playing an instrument. Guitars were all over the radios I was listening to so it was obvious at some point that I’ve then desired having one. When I turned twelve my parents offered me my first guitar and [from] then on I started to learn a few chords. I had a teacher for two or three lessons but I stopped and preferred to go on my own way to learn and kind of trust my ears. I started to slow down the records to 16 on my pickups and then I could roughly understand what they were playing on the guitar. 

Take us briefly through your musical history and any standout moments. 

[In my] 60 years of music, with good times and really hard ones too, [I’ve] somehow remained a total free musician all through the years. I met Alan Stivell in 1966 and that was the start of it. In 1972 when he played the Olympia in Paris I finally became a professional musician. I’ve played with him [for] 10 years and then in 1977 I released my first solo album Douar Nevez and started a difficult period as a band leader, [which] I wasn’t prepared [for] and willing to be. On my third album The Earth’s Lament [there is] a tune dedicated to Rory simply called “To Rory”. The 80s were not an easy period. I had a band from time to time, sometimes very bluesy and sometimes kind of New Age following the release of my album Music For the Silences to Come (1986) and I’ve managed to play solo around Europe and the US [while] waiting for something to get me out of that daily struggle from club to club knowing I could have done it for the rest of my life. I enjoyed it though and met so many nice people [along] the way. And not only that, I spent most of my time practicing and writing music on the road and some of that stuff became very useful and some eventually ended up [being] successful later in the 90s … 

In 1993 I was chosen to be the one to federate the biggest band I’ve experimented until then. Not far from 80 musicians on stage counting with the two pipes bands … “Heritage of the Celts” was the name of it. Some singers and musicians came from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Galicia. Donal Lunny was in charge of all the Irish section and much more as he had that ability to arrange and organise the music we played. This was the big turn for me and after seven years of existence we ended up with more than 1, 200, 000 albums sold, 2 “Victoires de la Musique in Paris” and we even ended up at the Eurovision contest in 1996. Unfortunately France, [the country] we were suppose to represent, had these nuclear testing in the pacific the year before and we took it right into the face but who cares, we never sold as many albums we did that year. The rest is history. From [there] I kept on recording albums and gigging with various line-ups. Amongst these albums there was La Mémoire des Volets Blancs (2001) with the “Gwerz Rory” … Gwerz in Breton language means “Lament”, and the album was recorded at Windmill Lane Studio in Dublin, which gives it even more sense. Here I am today, still around and gigging around when the phone rings … and practicing my guitar like I did in the first day when I was twelve.  

When was the first time you met Rory? 

The first time was in Montreux back in 1975 … we were just arriving from Paris in a miserable bus. We actually just opened the door and Rory, who just happened to be around the concert hall, naturally came to say hello with Gerry [McAvoy]. I remember [him as] so friendly, [and] shaking [my hand] with real emotion.

Were you a fan of his before you met?

Yes I was a big fan from the early years with Taste. 

What were your first impressions of Rory?

Immediate Kindness and simplicity, [and] so I told myself “you know Dan no need to show off, just be yourself”. That is the lesson I shall never forget from that meeting with Rory. [He was] the first very well known musician I’ve been lucky to meet then. 

Rory and Dan onstage in 1984 at Stade de Panvilliers, 
Quimper, Brittany. 
Photograph by Fanch Hémery

What was it like to jam with Rory in 1984 at the Stade de Panvilliers in France? How did that jam session come about?

Rory played the “Salle Omnisports”. My friend Jean Théfaine, [a] journalist, wanted to have an interview with Rory and asked me to come to help for translation. So I did and took my new guitar with me to show it to Rory. So [we] went [to] the interview and, in the end, I dare [ask] Dónal if [there] could be an opportunity for jamming with Rory at the following concert. He said, “We will see then how it goes”. So I took my guitar just in case and [left] it [in] my car outside the place. The concert was warm and great and, towards the end, Dónal came to me and said, “You’re on” … I had then to jump outside quickly to get my guitar that was so cold being in the car for so long. Got on stage and honestly I just remember being so happy to be on Rory’s side. I don’t remember how I managed sound wise and music wise, but I did my best … my playing was probably so weak compared to the fire set up by Rory. [But] yes I was so happy and so [was] the audience I hope. 

Then, yes, later in the 80s we shared the stage in the “Stade de Penvillers”. I was playing before Rory with my band. We got to meet in Rory’s dressing room, had a drink, two in fact! And later here I am once again on stage with him. That one was much easier for me, my guitar was warm enough this time! 

Did you meet/jam with Rory again between 1984 and your appearance together at Celtic Festival 1994? 

There was a project of Rory producing a guitar album for me. We met in London with his brother and had a meal together and started to talk about it. But unfortunately I was still linked by a contract and the record label didn’t give me my liberty to go on with this project … real shame. But I’m not sure anyway I would have been good enough to achieve that project. The fact that Rory was willing to help me was already a privilege and a present. 

Rory and Dan playing in Quimper, Brittany in 1984. 
Photography by Fanch Hémery

Your jam with Rory at Celtic Festival is one of our favourites. What was that experience like for you?

This time again I phoned Dónal, and he said, “come on Dan and we’ll see how it goes”. Fortunately I came because it was going to be my last meeting with him …Well again I’m not very happy with my playing [as] the delay on my pedal board was all over the place and I didn’t know how to turn it down! But the true emotion was there and it is difficult to express it with any words … 

Rory was very curious about my guitar and I sent him the brochure with all the details about that “Starfield” guitar. Rory that night slept in a hotel in Quimper “The Gradlon” and this was probably his last night in Brittany … Many years before, just facing that hotel, was a restaurant were we ended up with Rory after the concert in Penvillers and Rory, knowing I was struggling to make it as a musician, told the women who was my wife then, “his day will come …” 

What are your favourite memories of Rory?

Just Rory. [I’ve] been so lucky to get to know him. 

What did you take away from your time playing with Rory, both on a musical and personal level?

[To] be yourself, and give it to the people. [Rory’s] passion for guitar I guess saved his life and mine too, so we were kind of survivors. 

What are your lasting impressions of Rory?

I was so sad to see him not feeling well at all. 

Finally, if you had to summarise Rory in three words, what would you say?

Kindness, mysterious, and [a] devotion to any audience. Just a last memory, I went to see Rory at the Olympia in Paris [at the] end of the eighties. He had two shows the same night. After the first one I saw him backstage and he was already [exhausted]. A young man from a very little local radio came up to him and asked for an interview. It would have been understandable [for] Rory [to say] ‘Sorry I need some rest due to the following second show’, but no. Rory said, “yes of course”, and off [they] went to talk about him and his music. This was Rory …