From Oboe to Bombarde

An instrument emblematic of Breton music, and even Breton identity, the Bombarde is an ancient instrument, heir to the Oboe family.

The oboe, an ancient instrument


The oboe is a double reed instrument with a conical bore. Double reed because it consists of two strips of reed which vibrate and produce the sound which is then amplified in the pavilion.

Conversely, the clarinet has a simple reed because there is only a single reed blade which vibrates against the clarinet mouthpiece.


The oboe is a very ancient instrument, since it can be found in ancient times and in the eastern Mediterranean basin, 1st century AD.

The oboe will then travel, probably under the influence of the Arabs, who will spread it over Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.

“Shanai” in India, “Zurna” in Turkey, “Chirimia” in Mexico and Guatemala, “Ghaïta” in the Maghreb, “Suona” in China, “Sralay” in Cambodia… all these instruments have something in common: the fact that they are played with double reeds.

It was not until the 12th century and then the Middle Ages that the oboe took over Europe and established itself in the 16th century in bands of minstrels under various names such as bombards, torches, sordons, doubloons….

We also find the instrument at the court of Louis XIV for dancing.

The oboe will then gradually undergo modifications to make it less sonorous. Played in classical music orchestras in the 18th century, it no longer looks much like this instrument played in the Middle Ages in public squares. In its original version, it will end up disappearing in 1900…. except in 2 regions, Occitania and Brittany, where it will perdure under the name Bombarde.


It is also in these two regions that the duo game - couple - will develop between instruments such as Ciaramella and Zampogna in Italy, Tible and Bag of Gemecs in Catalonia and finally between Bombarde and Biniou in Brittany.



Bombarde and Biniou in Brittany


The evolution from Oboe to Bombarde also led to a change from a conical bore to a cylindrical bore. Thus, you must use the same fingering to play notes in the octave. This is not true for a clarinet which has a conical bore and therefore octave notes require changing the fingering.


The originality of the couple Biniou-Bombarde lies in 2 essential elements that can only be found in Brittany.

First, the Bombarde usually only plays every other musical phrase, leaving it to the Biniou to play the response, thus allowing the “Talabarder” - Bombarde player - to rest.

The second peculiarity, which is unique in the world, is that the Biniou plays an octave higher than the Bombarde.

This association between the Bombarde and the Biniou is called the “couple Biniou-bombarde”, which demonstrates the unity or even the complete fusion that exists between these two instruments and the two “sonneurs” - players.


True virtuosos, the Bombarde and Biniou “sonneurs” are very numerous in Brittany. They meet every year during the “Championnat des Sonneurs de Gourin” in Morbihan where the best “sonneurs” in Brittany compete in dexterity and style to win the championship. A true institution since 1955, the Gourin championship brings together more than 10,000 people every year.


The Bombarde, a flagship instrument



The use of the Bombarde broke away from its Biniou accomplice in the Breton music Revival Movement of the 1970s.

It is played in many Breton music bands, in fest-noz with precursors like “Diaouled ar Menez” then “Ar Re Yaouank”, “Startijen”, “Les Ramoneurs de Menhirs”…



It has also become the flagship instrument alongside the Scottish Bagpipe in “bagadoù”. This is how thousands of Bombarde “sonneurs” are trained in “bagadoù” music schools all over Brittany and beyond. The best ones compete in the bagadoù competition, the final phase of which takes place at the “Festival Interceltique de Lorient “.


Bombarde and Breton identity


The Bombarde is more than just a music instrument. It is a real symbol of identity, the development of another, plural, collective culture where everyone forms a chain to dance as soon as the first notes form.