Family Gathering In Central Park

Vieilles Charrues, France’s biggest festival, will celebrate its 25th anniversary with a one-day spin-off in New York City, Oct. 1. The makers of Vieilles Charrues, and BZH New York, a non-profit organization promoting the region of Brittany in the Big Apple, are putting the event together.

Vieilles Charrues is not for profit too. Its founder Jerome Trehorel launched it as a garden party with friends 25 years ago. The idea was to demonstrate that Brittany in the north-west of France, wasn’t a boring place – at the time, many especially young people left the region to head for Paris or the coast. The first edition welcomed some 500 people to Carhaix, a picturesque town with around 7,000 inhabitants. The 2016 edition attracted around 278,000 visitors. It was in 1997, when James Brown headlined the festival that Trehorel knew it was going to turn into something big.

Over the years, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Lou Reed, The Cure, Massive Attack, Ben Harper, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith and many more played Vieilles Charrues. This year (July 14-17) the bill included Lana del Rey, Major Lazer and Pharrell Williams. Unlike many festivals in France, Vieilles Charrues does not accept government funding. Yet, ticket prices average around euro 50 per day, which is less than one would pay to see just one of the festival’s headliners at a gig in, say, Paris. This is only possible because more than 6,000 volunteers from 115 local non-profits help out at the festival. In return, their respective organizations receive around euro 100,000 in total from the festival’s earnings to reinvest. Most products needed on the festival grounds are provided by local businesses, generating around euro 4m to 5m for the local economy. The entire budget that Trehorel has to raise each year is around euro 15m, 80 percent of which is generated by the public attending the festival.

Only 20 percent comes from sponsors, which can’t be alcohol brands according to French law. Camping is free as well, and 30,000 to 45,000 guest make use of it. The risk, under which Trehorel operates becomes apparent, when one adds the high taxes – around euro 1m each year in the case of Vieilles Charrues – and ever increasing artist fees. If he doesn’t sell at least 180,000 tickets, he won’t break even. Talking to the promoter reveals that he does not care about money. His idealistic approach is what brought him to New York in the first place. He was invited by Laurent Corbel, one of the presidents of BZH, to introduce his festival’s unique model, and “to present a new view of Brittany. A modern view, showing that it’s not just folklore,” Trehorel explains.

He emphasizes that the idea to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Vieilles Charrues in New York wasn’t born out of a wish to bring the biggest festival to one of the world’s most famous hubs. The whole endeavor – a “crazy adventure” to use Trehorel’s words – is designed as a genuine cultural exchange. Quite a large number of Bretons migrated to New York in the 1930s, and again in the 1950s and 1960s.

There’s a fairly large community, and some of them will be reunited with their friends and families on Oct. 1, as around 500 Bretons have already booked a festival package that includes flights, hotel and the admission. Trehorel, not knowing the American laws and peculiarities, was reluctant to pull it off at first. But after taking the tour of Central Park’s Summer Stage at Rumsey Playfield, which he describes as “paradise,” the decision was made. The Avener, who is already quite famous in the U.S., Matthieu Chedid, who goes by his stage name -M-, The Celtic Social Club with special guest Roy Harter and beat box world champions Krismenn & Alem will take the stage.

They all played Vieilles Charrues in the past. Trehorel and Corbel both intended to keep the grassroots feel of the original: tickets will be priced at $30 ($25 for early birds) with a limited amount of $250 VIP packages. Food will be supplied by local French companies such as D’Artagnan, that will provide the duck for the famous French dish Foie Gras. With a capacity of 5,500 the Vieilles Charrues New York edition will feel more like a family gathering than anything else. Of that, both Trehorel and Corbel are sure. – Gideon Gottfried