Before they fell to the conquering forces of Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, vast swathes of central Europe — including what is now France, Switzerland, and Austria — were ruled by Celtic-speakers.
They were by all accounts a raucous bunch: classical writers describe them as fighting “like wild beasts” (and occasionally naked); they were accomplished head-hunters; and, according to first century Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, Celtic men openly preferred male lovers.
The term Celt itself is a perversion of the word keltoi, used by the ancient Greeks to refer to certain ‘barbarian’ tribes (eternal snobs, they considered languages other than their own to be little more than childish babble, hence the term barbarous). Little is known about the ancient ancestors of these Gaels, Gauls, and Galatians. The only written histories are those compiled by the Greeks and Romans, both sworn enemies of the Celts. As Standingstone.com artfully puts it, “It’s a bit like trying to reconstruct Lakota culture from the diaries of General Custer.”
The Celts Today
Fast-forward through more than 2,000 years of turbulent history, and Celtic-speaking peoples are today found only in the British Isles and western France. Six tongues survive, namely Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton. Today, rather less snobbishly than during the first millennium, the word Celtic is used to describe not only this branch of the Indo-European languages, but also an extraordinary musical legacy.
It’s a legacy not to be confused with the ‘Celtomania’ that swept the popular music scene during the 1990s. As an article entitled Celtic Kitsch that appeared in Salon.com snippily notes: “The arrival of Celtomania has been a mixed blessing… More often than not, the commodity being sold in the Celtic section of your neighbourhood Tower is some sort of nonspecific windswept spirituality — Windham Hill-style tranquillity with a sexy accent.
Once upon a time, the musicians on Irish traditional albums were hairy guys in cable-knit jumpers with fiddles. Now, Enya and the members of Clannad dress like extras in a college production of Riders to the Sea, walk moodily along cliffs and make cryptic allusions to Molly Bloom, the Children of Lir, the Tuatha Dé Danann.”
St. Patrick’s Day in Phnom Penh
Enter traditional stalwarts Kheltica, a Phnom Penh-based folk band which offers an “entente chordial of musical traditions from France and the British Isles.” Its eclectic mix of songs and dances from Brittany blended with traditional Irish and Scottish folk music is rivalled only by that of the band’s make-up: a singer and a mandolin player from Scotland; a British piper; French drummer; Russian guitarist; South African bass player; Malaysian violinist, and French flautist. “We had a Khmer violinist,” says Jean-Claude Dhuez, said flautist, “but since he got married, he’s disappeared!”
The man behind Cambodia’s first ever ceilidh, held in 2005, Jean-Claude admits to not being a true Celt (he was born in northern, not western, France). “I don’t have any Celtic roots — although some people say everyone’s Celtic, especially in France.” What he lacks in genetics, he more than makes up for with enthusiasm: the eight-member group, one of Cambodia’s largest, represents the latest manifestation of a project he’s been trying to get off the ground for almost a decade.
It was worth the wait: Kheltica’s shows are among the most rousing in the capital. When the band plays the FCC on St. Patrick’s Day, brace for a musical maelstrom — and be prepared to take the floor for some swift-footed circle dancing.
Refuse and you might lose your head.