The mirrored chabrette

We’re ending this tour of Saint-Yrieix on a musical note. In this interview, Gaëtan Polteau and Jean-Marc Delaunay introduce you to the mirrored chabrette, the traditional instrument of Limousin and Périgord, as Saint-Yrieix was one of the places where the instrument was produced.

The chabrette, today called the “chabrette à miroirs” because it has mirrors on its casing, is a type of bagpipe from the Limousin region. The instrument was found—or rather rediscovered—in the 1970s, in the 20th century. It was widely used throughout Limousin and Périgord. It is believed that the chabrette dates back to at least the 18th or 17th century, and links have been made with instruments described during the Renaissance. By design, the chabrette is a clearly intricate instrument with a very technical and highly complex composition. However, it is also an instrument that was widely used, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries at least, by the working class, by ordinary people, so to speak, including during dances. The people adopted these instruments as their own, adapted them, played them—and it's also touching to see the music that was played on these instruments back then.


The instruments found around Saint-Yrieix were different compared to other chabrettes—like this model, for example, with this type of case and this type of design. And with these types of mouldings as well, or designs on the big drone—marquetry, bone and horn details, tin details... Many instruments were found that have a different aesthetic but that are nevertheless part of the chabrette family. The chabrette is a large family with various tonalities and looks. But the distinctive feature of this type of bagpipe, as with many others, is the drone. The drone offers a particular musical element that takes you to a whole different world of sound. Drones can be found in techno and other types of music, too, it’s not a question of instrument or modernity or archaism—it’s a musical phenomenon that transcends time, one that offers a distinctive touch. 

The chabrette-related repertoire that we know is one created by three musicians who were still alive when the instrument was rediscovered in the 1970s. The three musicians came from Roche l’Abeille, Croisille-sur-Briance and Limoges. They gave us a repertoire that is similar to that of other popular musicians from the region. We know of many fiddlers, particularly in Corrèze for example, hurdy-gurdy players in other regions, there are also fife players, and so on. Various instruments were used in folk music, but most of the time in the case of functional music, such as ballroom music, there were many dance tunes, French folk dances, polkas, mazurkas, and so on. Functional music was also played during celebrations, namely street music—particularly wedding ceremony songs and marches, and other types of songs, too. There are also popular hymns such as Christmas carols and songs like the one we played earlier—a “réveillé”. “Réveillés” are hymns sang during collections at Easter time. All these are part of the repertoire that came to us through popular tradition. Then, as Gaëtan said, we noticed that this instrument has a much older history, one linked to music of which written traces can be found, including polyphonic music, for instance, polyphonic dances from the 16th, 17th centuries, and even music from the so-called Baroque period. 

Chabrettes can be played together with other instruments, of course. It’s an instrument that is widely played both on its own and as part of a duet, like we did with Jean-Marc. It’s an instrument that works very, very well with the violin, but also other instruments such as fife, hurdy-gurdy, diatonic accordion... but also songs involving dulcians, the predecessors of the bassoon from the Renaissance—they work very well together, too. Then there is the oboe, the oboe from Poitou and the great oboe from the Renaissance. Apart from that, the question remains open. What I mean by that is that we came to know this traditional music during its final stages through solo musicians, somewhat isolated musicians, whose music we replayed because they had abandoned making music in the 70s. For the most part, it was over by then. So, all this music is now being recovered, revived; we are inventing new forms of it, forms that have not been historically verified. We play among friends, with the instruments they play. We combine instruments and see if it works. This is the start of the instrument’s renewal—that’s how I would phrase it.

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