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2FJ.RU

Welsh traditional music

Welsh traditional music

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Welsh traditional music

5 502

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2002

Contents:

1. The peculiarities of folk music in Wales..3

2. Plethyn..6

3. Boys of the Lough7

4. Rag Foundation.8

5. Fernhill..9

6. The renaissance of Welsh traditional music.12

1.The peculiarities of folk music in Wales

Wales is the only Celtic nation with a completely unbroken tradition

of harp music, where the music, technique, and style have been passed down

orally from harper to harper over the centuries. Wales is best known for

its large-ensemble choral singing. But this principality lying along

Britain's southwestern shore also has a proud Celtic tradition of smaller,

more tightly knit bands that perform native instrumentals and folk songs.

Wales is a land of song, sung either by male voice choirs or crowds at

rugby matches. But there has been singing of all manner of songs in all

manner of places, from the Canu'r Pwnc chanting of scripture in chapel to

the scurrilous rhymes sung in pubs. All that is commonly known about Welsh

poetry is that it comes in forms of mind-boggling complexity. But there is

a great variety of metre and tone. Bands such as Pigyn Clust are mining

these veins in new and startling ways, juxtaposing melodies, and verse

forms.

In Ireland and Scotland, because traditional music is better

established, the orthodoxies too are stronger. While musicians improve

technically - and there are some phenomenally accomplished players and

singers - there is little innovation, beyond often misguided collaborations

with musicians from incompatible traditions. If the Chieftains finally

stopped coming to town then a similar band playing similar music would soon

fill the vacuum - Lunasa, for instance. Should Aly Bain, the Boys of the

Lough's fiddler, lay down his bow then Catriona MacDonald would step in.

But in Wales musicians are rediscovering, recreating and

reinterpreting their traditional music, which is crucial to the development

of their culture. Of all the Celtic countries it is Wales where the

traditional music is most interesting and most vital.

The bardic and eisteddfod traditions have long dominated Welsh music

and, partly as a result, the Celtic music boom which propelled Irish,

Scots, Breton and even Galician music into the international spotlight,

somehow left Wales behind. Several excellent artists have made inroads

through the years, notably the harp-playing brothers Dafydd and Gwyndaf

Roberts of Ar Log, the singer/harpist Sian James, 70s group Plethyn and

fiery dance band Calennig.

The Welsh have a drastically different style of playing, largely due

to the nature of the music itself. Their music is ornamented through theme

and variation, a more classical style, rather than through the sort of

ornamentation heard in Scottish and Irish music. Due to this love of

Baroque-like style, the Welsh adopted the triple harp as their national

instrument, taking advantage of the three rows of strings to play a wide

variety of variations on traditional Welsh melodies. (Triple-strung harps

have two diatonic rows on either side, and a row of accidentals up the

middle, which the harper plays by reaching between the outer strings to

play).

The harp is of course the instrument most closely

identified with Wales. But though it's accorded the highest respect there,

the fiddle and the accordion are perhaps embraced with greater affection.

CDs sampling the traditions of both have recently been released, but for

many listeners these will be introductions rather than surveys. The

squeezebox anthology Megin (bellows) is especially good. The range of

repertoire, and even instruments, is remarkable, from the robust melodeon

dance music of Meg and Neil Browning from North Wales to John Morgan

(clearly influenced by harp players) whose duet concertina combines the

gravitas of a church organ with the delicacy of a flute. The inclusive

nature of this selection is significant too; players from the south-

eastern, urban, (post-) industrial region rub shoulders with those from the

Marches, the rural and largely English-speaking area running along the

border. It even includes the Brecon Hornpipe and Dic y Cymro played by John

Kirkpatrick - the most famous of English box players who lives on the

eastern side, in Shropshire. So the CD draws on and expresses the complex

reality and the richness of Wales, recognising that music will not be

confined by city nor countryside, language nor national boundary.

Those instrumental traditions were not well known, and the

fiddle certainly suffered in the religious revivals of the 19th century,

when many were burned. But at least they did not disappear completely. The

bray harp, the instrument of medieval bards, then the peasants of South

Wales, and bagpipes - of which there were various local kinds - were not so

fortunate. Tunes and references to players remain and in recent years Ceri

Rhys Matthews and Jonathan Shorland have recreated bagpipes and researched

their repertoires, while William Taylor has reconstructed the smaller bray

harp. Such enterprises are academically fraught, but musically very

exciting. That there are no masters from whom to learn the nuances of

phrasing, accent and the trick of grace-notes - those details of

performance which distinguish traditional music - is a grave loss, but it

does give the contemporary musician enviable freedom.

Ned Thomas had noted in his revelatory book The Welsh Extremist that

'when two Welsh speakers meet the topic of conversation is the state of the

language'. What Welsh traditional music was played tended to serve the

cause of a culture in crisis, rather than express it. So like a cramped

toenail, it grew inward. "Between about 1980 and 1990 there was almost no

awareness of what was going on elsewhere," a Welsh musician recently told

me. "Wales became Albania."

In modern times a whole gamut of outstanding bands are making

their presence felt, including The Kilbride Brothers, Rag Foundation,

Aberjaber and folk-rock band Blue Horses, Fernhill.

2. Plethyn

This trio from Powys in mid-Wales, together for 25 years, are

celebrated for close vocal harmonies laid over a spare instrumental mix of

guitar, mandolin, tin whistle and concertina. Siblings Linda Healy and Roy

Griffiths, along with their friend John Gittins, have pioneered a more

intimate singing style, based on the Plygain choral tradition. Nowhere is

that more apparent than in Plethyn's a cappella rendition of the Welsh

traditional song "Cainc Yr Aradwr" ("The Ploughboy's Song"), from this

outstanding 1994 album, whose title is Welsh for "Yesterday's Cider."

3. Boys of the Lough

Boys of the Lough are one of the past masters of celtic music,

combining members from several celtic traditions with a long history; where

other celtic groups last a few years, the Boys are now in their third

decade and retain two of their earliest members. Like that other long-

running act the Chieftans, their music tends to the formal; impeccable

technique and sensitivity, with large, sometimes classical-style

arrangements, and very tight ensemble playing. They lack the fire and

roughness of other groups; the overall feeling is of a group of skilled,

well-integrated musicians playing together for the pure pleasure of it.

The history of the Boys has several twists and turns. The group was

formed in 1967, as a trio of Cathal McConnell, Tommy Gunn of Fermanagh and

Robin Morton from Portadown. Tommy Gunn later dropped out and the remaining

duo recorded "An Irish Jubliee" in 1969. At the sametime, Shetland fiddler

Aly Bain and singer/guitarist Mike Whelans were playing on the Scottish

folk circuit. The two duos met up at the Falkirk folk festival where they

played together and some time later, in 1971 came together for good. Dick

Gaughan of Leith replaced Mike in 1972 and this lineup recorded the first

'official' group album in 1972. Dick, in turn, left in 1973 and was

replaced by Dave Richardson of Northumberland, bringing in new instruments

including, cittern, banjo and mandolin. This lineup continued for several

year, touring widely in Europe and America and releasing 6 albums, two of

them recorded live. Live at Passim's was recorded at Passim's in Cambridge,

Massachusetts, and Wish You Were Here comes from a tour of the Scottish

Highlands and Islands. Robin Morton left in 1979 and was replaced with Dave

Richardson's brother, Tich, on guitar. Tich was killed in a road accident

in late 1983. After some time, the band came together again with new

members Christy O' Leary and John Coakley and have kept that lineup ever

since.

Current Lineup

Aly Bain Fiddle

Cathal McConnell Flute and Tin Whistle, Vocals

Dave Richardson Mandolin, cittern, English concertina, button accordion

Christy O' Leary Uileann pipes, tin whistle, mouth-organ and vocals

Chris Newman Guitar

4. Rag Foundation

Woollard's band, Rag Foundation, from Swansea, is one of several

groups of young urban musicians who have come to traditional music in the

way they have come to the Welsh language, through questioning their

identity, their cultural distinctiveness. They have been described by the

trade press as the most dynamic band to emerge from Wales for many years.

Their current albums 'Minka' and 'South by SouthWest' have been critically

acclaimed by press, TV, radio and festival organisers. They have toured

extensively in many countries as far apart as Canada, Latvia, India,

Holland, Egypt, Hungary and France as well as the UK. Woollard's own story

is quite remarkable: introduced to traditional music by a fiddle player

recording a session for a trip-hop outfit he was in, he began researching

songs of his region, came across Phil Tanner and discovered he was his

great uncle. But Woollard's style owes as much to Tom Jones and Shirley

Bassey - the total commitment to the song of the working class, pub singer

of South Wales - as it does to folk music. When Rag Foundation performed

for the first time in London the people running the venue were surprised

when two busloads of young urban ravers pitched up too. "We have this

following of clubbers who come round with us," Woollard explained. "What

we're doing is dance music, which is what they're into. Ours is just an

older version of it." Even so, it is the power of the traditional song that

inspires Rag Foundation, and Woollard inhabits rather than exploits the

material. "I want to bring these songs to an audience my age, but I don't

want to stick drum and bass all over them. It's in the performance. If

you're honest in your delivery what you're singing about will come across."

5. Fernhill.

Since they formed in 1996, Fernhill have become important cultural

ambassadors for Wales and its music, having toured in 20 countries

including performances for the King of Swaziland and the President of

Mozambique. 'These daring musical deconstructionists have become the prime

movers in a crop of talented bands injecting new life and an exciting

contemporary dynamic into traditional Welsh music' .

LIVE BAND LINE-UP

Julie Murphy vocals

Richard Llewellyn guitar

Cass Meurig fiddle

Tomos Williams trumpet

Andy Coughlan double bass

Paradoxically they only had one Welsh member when they achieved

national attention, bagpiper and guitarist Ceri Rhys Matthews from the

Swansea valley. Yet Essex-born Julie Murphy has lived in Wales for many

years and, totally absorbed in the culture and history of the country,

sings confidently in the Welsh language when the occasion demands it. Not

that they play exclusively Welsh music. They also perform English folk

songs, impassioned Breton tunes and vibrant French songs while fully

embracing the modern roots ideology, introducing the influences of their

many travels, notably African and Eastern European music.

Julie Murphy met Ceri Matthews at art college in Maidstone, and when

the course was over she returned to Wales with him, learning the language

and absorbing the culture. Although she had no folk background to speak of,

Murphy developed a natural feel for performing traditional songs, and she

and Matthews started working as a duo. They met Jonathan Shorland in 1986

when they were on the same bill at the Pontardawe folk festival. Shorland

joined them on stage playing the pibgorn, a Welsh horn pipe, and they

started working together with three other musicians as a music and art

group called Saith Rhyfeddod.

Raised in the New Forest, Shorland had become obsessed by reed

instruments as a devotee of David Munros music programme on Radio 3 while

at Aberystwyth University. He became an expert in Celtic traditions,

learning to make bagpipes and travelling extensively in Eastern Europe and

Brittany, playing regularly with Breton musicians. He is said to be the

first person to introduce the bombard into Welsh music.

Murphy teamed up with Blowzabellas ex-hurdy gurdy player Nigel

Eaton, resulting in the experimental Whirling Pope Joan project which made

a big impact with its alternative rhythms and challenging material. Also

involved in the project was Andy Cutting, a melodeon and accordion ace from

Harrow brought up in a family steeped in English traditional music. When

invited on a British Council tour in Gaza, Murphy invited Andy Cutting to

accompany her. When in 1996 Tim Healey of Beautiful Jo Records invited

Julie Murphy, Ceri Matthews and Jonathan Shorland to contribute to a

compilation of Celtic music, they roped in Andy Cutting.

The result was Fernhill, who have subsequently toured

extensively and produced a series of fine albums which reaffirm the rich

spirit of Welsh folk music while moving boldly into new areas. Mixing oboe

with bagpipes, diatonic accordion, guitar and numerous other instruments

they have challenged all preconceptions about folk music, recognising no

dividing line between Welsh dance music and the roots music of Kenya,

Pakistan or any point beyond.

They now work mainly as a trio of Murphy, Matthews and Cutting,

but all are involved with other musicians as they strive to break down

further barriers between musical style and the audience it appeals to.

They have recorded three critically acclaimed albums; the

latest, Whilia, was a top twenty album in the Folk Roots poll 2000.

Fernhill created a new musical landscape from the indigenous dance rhythms

and folk poetry of Wales. Julie Murphy's passionate singing combined with

guitar, fiddle, double bass and trumpet produces a sound both gutsy and

enchanting.

In 2001 the band contributed a performance to the film 'Beautiful

Mistake' about the Welsh music scene which includes performances by James

Dean Bradfield, Catatonia, Super Furry Animals, and Gorkys Zygotic Mynci.

Julie Murphy also collaborated with ex velvet underground member John Cale;

he accompanied her on a track from her solo album Black Mountains Revisited

(a MOJO folk album of 99).

6. The renaissance of Welsh traditional music

Manic Street Preachers, Catatonia and even Tom Jones assure Welsh

people that their identity is not naff. Gorki's Zygotic Mynki, Super Furry

Animals and Datblygu prove that indeed it's cool - and that singing in

Welsh is no obstacle to commercial success. People are beginning to

remember that the Velvet Underground founder member John Cale's first

language is Welsh (earlier this year he was in Cardiff working with

musicians who prefer to perform in it).

Neil Browning is part of a growing movement in Wales, one that is not

out to preserve the old folk music, but to make it come alive, to breathe

again. While he has a great knowledge and respect for the old tunes and the

old ways, he is not hestitant to push it as much as the song requires.

Neil has contributed three pieces to the festival. The first is

straight traditional music for accordion, guitar and bodhran. The second is

an original tune that is decidedly contemporary, adventuring into a global

turf while still maintaining a distinct Welsh air to it. The third is

another traditional tune (title unknown), but with the accompaniment of

classical guitar, it takes on a new and different feeling.

Nansi Richards plays orally learned melodies and variations

with clarity and passion. Her variations are vibrant, ringing out with the

sound only a triple-strung harp can make. She also plays the more common

single-strung harp beautifully on several of the tracks.

There are many reasons for this renewed self-confidence; the

growing appetite for the music of other cultures, a degree of political

autonomy and, not least, the success of those who did devote themselves to

the cause of Welsh. They may not have produced much great music, but they

assured that not only is the language surviving, people can converse in it

in some security, relax and just get on with life.

So they are beginning to look about them, hack their way through the

overgrown and almost forgotten paths to the spring of their traditional

music. It's still flowing. The new Rough Guide to the Music of Wales CD

opens with a harp tune by Llio Rhydderch, who was brought up in a master-

pupil teaching tradition that stretches back to the fourteenth century.

There's also a recording she made of her teacher Nansi Richards, who was

steeped in the aesthetic and technique of eighteenth century harpers. What

is striking and refreshing about both players is their power. If you find

most Celtic harp music plinking and fey, the strength as well as the beauty

of this ancient music will be a welcome surprise.

The Welsh tradition is untouched," says Neil Woollard, gleefully. "So

the music is more open to interpretation. I know we've got the perfect

opportunity here, setting the parameters of what you can do.

Tradition" is the organic element of world culture. Pop music by its

very nature is disposable. The only future for a great pop song is as

nostalgia. The tradition however is timeless and recyclable and is renewed

as each generation discovers its roots. - Billy Bragg, musician

 
 

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