Have you ever wondered why there seems to be loads of Irish and Scottish music, but nothing from Wales?
Did you know that Deck the halls is a Welsh tune? And did you know that it comes from an ancient Celtic bardic tradition? In fact we have a whole ton of music, songs, and traditions that have ancient origins, including the Mari Lwyd and the world’s oldest harp music. So why has no-one heard it before? In this video we’ll be looking at the past, present and future of traditional music and customs in Wales, and where you can find the good stuff.
A very special thanks to Phyllis Kinney, Harri Llewelyn, Gerard Kilbride, Gwen Màiri, Jordan Price Williams, Welsh Whisperer, Calan, Angharad Jenkins, Patrick Rimes, Gwilym Bowen Rhys, and Emily Jane Coupland for your knowledge and your support! Ffwrnes Gerdd clips by Gethin Scourfield-Gerard KilBride for S4C
Gwenifer Raymond – Strange Lights over Garth Mountain
Welsh-born fingerstyle guitar devotee Gwenifer Raymond‘s second album contains five tracks less than You Never Were Much of a Dancer, over pretty much the same running time. This is significant because it gives each longer piece (most are around six or seven minutes) space to breathe and Gwen time to flex and explore. Although You Never Were Much of a Dancer was an accomplished debut, it still felt like Gwen was demonstrating her skills and doffing her cap to the players who helped influence and shape her sound. Strange Lights feels like a huge leap forward; every note sounds original and creative. That space in the songs is also critical to how the album plays. There is still plenty of Gwen’s punky frenetic picking across the set, but it is juxtaposed with moments of calm (touched with menace of course; it’s still a Gwenifer Raymond album). Take opener Incantation as an example; after the briefest of percussion intros, Gwen begins playing a low tattoo, which leads into a slow-picked line that hits top strings before heading into a slightly more anxious part. The bass notes run through the whole song, giving it structure, but the tune is complex and intriguing, not quite allowing us to relax. This incantation could still take you somewhere dark.
Things heat up for Coal Train down the Line, this album’s train song. After another fairly calm intro, Gwen’s fingers start moving and after half a minute she hits a groove that gathers pace until the engine is hurtling. A train song is a staple feature of solo guitar music, but this piece is far from posturing to tradition; indeed, it is as brimming with ideas and complexity as all of the other tunes here. There are moments of intense playing in several places, but each is balanced with a strong melody line and interesting direction. Living up to a gory title, Gwaed am Gwaed (Blood for Blood), is the most hostile piece, with flat notes hidden throughout that give it a rough cut texture and a sinister edge. Even the melody line that crops up at points is unnerving. More forgiving is Marseilles Bunkhouse, 3am, a fascinating song that shifts pace at several points, letting a sense of drama and paranoia build until a quickly picked line with buzzing bass string bursts out at the halfway point.
Gwen plays with pacing throughout Strange Lights to great effect. Stand out piece Ruben’s Song begins with a lullaby of a line before gathering momentum a la Coal Train down the Line and then deciding to switch into a tightly played upbeat melody song. A deceptive little creation, it’s a lot of fun and shows off Gwen’s deft playing and her ability to write a cracking hook. Eulogy for Dead French Composer is another multi-faceted tune, with as many moods as a piece of classical music. The final title song maintains the drama of the previous Eulogy, but while the playing is softer and quite sweet in places, the oddness of the shifts and fidgety nature of the piece lends it the strange character of its title. Completely fascinating, daring and complex, it’s a splendid piece that neatly sums up the progressive nature of this album and Gwen’s playing as a whole.
Sung in Welsh, produced by South African artist Muzi, Rhys’s latest is a chamber folk-rock minor masterpiece
After last year’s expansive, magnificent Babelsberg, Gruff Rhys has pared things back, although not by much. Where Babelsburg went the full orchestra, Pang! confines itself to the chamber, its songs not draped in instrumentation, but coloured with brass and woodwind where necessary, to supplement the pastoral acoustic mood of the album. There is, though, another form of expansiveness: for all its grounding in very British folk-rock styles, Pang! is a global record – there’s an explicit influence from South Africa (it was produced by the South African electronica artist Muzi) with some lyrics sung in Zulu, and in some of the instrumental detailing – the jittering electronic bells of Ara Deg, the interplay of guitar and percussion on Bae Bae Bae.
Overshadowing all of this, though, is the fact that aside from the brief snatch of Zulu, Pang! is sung entirely in Welsh. In some ways that’s helpful: your love of Rhys’ lyrics depends, as ever, on your enjoyment of words that are allusive and opaque, rather than direct. The English translations suggest Rhys is again worrying away at the state of the world in his own idiosyncratic way – the title and the title track express complete doubt about, well, more or less everything; Eli Haul is preoccupied with the effects of the sun (“Remember to wear a cap and spectacles on your travels”; Niwl O Anwiredd translates as Fog of Lies, which is self-explanatory. Even the more lyrically intimate Ôl Bys/Nodau Clust (Fingerprint/Earmarks) is wreathed in distrust: “Holy is your word / Holier is your password.” But the lyrics being incomprehensible to those without the gift of Welsh allows the less linguistically gifted to focus instead on the melodies.
There’s a delicious circularity to Pang! and Bae Bae Bae, both springtime streams of songs that seem to speak to centuries of music (don’t come to this album expecting any electric guitar fireworks; it’s all acoustic and measured). Only on Ôl Bys/Nodau Clust is there any hint of insistence, and that comes from a juddering rhythm rather than fierceness in any other element – in fact, the harmonised chorus is almost churchy in its construction. And so Gruff Rhys offers another minor masterpiece, destined to be all but ignored by those not devoted to his cult. More’s the pity.
It may only be small, but Wales has always punched above its weight in Hollywood . So here’s our list of the 50 best Welsh films through the ages – some you may have forgotten, some you may never have heard of and others you’ve watched more times than you can remember.