Wales - An Introduction
By Christina Roden
Originally published 2000, revised, 2010 Originally published 2000, revised, 2010

The Celtic culture of Wales (Cymru in Welsh) has prevailed over centuries of political repression, dour religious fundamentalism and changing fashions. Modern musical revivalists, left with only a few threads of oral tradition to build upon, combed the countryside, books and manuscripts in an effort to restore their birthright. And the results have been well worth the trouble -- Welsh music is drenched in long-breathed, poignant, richly harmonized melodies. Song structures often go far beyond A-B-A, with two, or even three themes unfolding before the refrain. Major and minor scales predominate, although surviving Bardic modes are also used. Nowadays, folk singers of all backgrounds, choral groups large and small (despite the present vogue for mixed and children's ensembles, the classic all-male variety still command the strongest following), virtuoso harp players, and lively ceilidh dance bands are waiting to be discovered at clubs, concerts, Gwyl Werins (folk festivals) Twmpaths (dance parties), and Eisteddfods (formal music competitons), in rural and urban areas alike.

Although labels outside of Wales have licensed some choice material, most of the best recordings are to be found on such independent imprints as the Fflach Tradd and Caernarfon-based Sain (“Sound”) labels. That the cover notes are written in Welsh, although English translations and explanatory essays are sometimes provided, can make choosing which albums to purchase a daunting experience. One key word to look for is gwerin, which translates roughly to "folk," although the meaning of this term in Wales can be more flexible than diehard acoustic music fans might agree with. Incidentally, recordings that are partly, or even completely, sung in English should not be dismissed out of hand. As in Ireland and Scotland, and especially in Cornwall, many very old and perfectly authentic Welsh folkways were originally created and have continued to develop in that language.

A look at the instrumental forces in play on a particular recording can supply further clues. The harp, or telyn, is the Welsh version of the fabled Bardic standby, and various models have been played there since the dark ages and even before. The chromatic triple-harp (telyn deires), which consists of two lines of strings on the outside plus a central, sympathetic row, is phenomenally difficult to play but makes precise yet lush music. The bell-like lap, or knee, harp is also popular, and neo-Irish and classical versions are gaining ground. Bagpipes are known as pibacwd in this part of the world. Craftsmen have reconstructed the crwth, a very old type of bowed lyre, and yet another member of the mettlesome Celtic double reed family, the pibgorn, with its cow horn resonator, is once more being heard from.

Second only to the Red Dragon emblem, the harp is the most beloved symbol of Welsh culture. Nansi Richards (1888-1979) who was known as “Telynores Maldwyn” ("the Harper of Montgomeryshire"), not only revived the triple harp but was a living repository of traditional tunes. Robin Huw Bowen is the foremost contemporary exponent of the triple-harp. He has collected hundreds of songs, some of which were gleaned from the legacies of traveling harpers and their disciples. Bowen is to Welsh harp music what Alan Stivell is to the equivalent Breton repertoire, a tireless teacher, crusader and performer. Siân James is a powerful singer, a fine pianist, and a gifted harper. She explores aspects of pop and New Age as well as folk styles but no matter which direction she takes, James' playing and ravishing soprano voice are exquisitely balanced and full of feeling. Gwenan Gibbard has already won an assortment of key competitions. She has been collaborating with a galaxy of Welsh folk stars and is clearly an artist to watch. Catrin Finch was a child prodigy who won several important awards before being invited to succeed Nansi Richards as “Royal Harpist to HRH the Prince of Wales.” She won first prize at the Lily Laskine International Harp Competition and has performed throughout the world. Other performers to search out include Delyth Jenkins, Delyth Evans, Elinor Bennett (Catrin Finch's teacher), Llio Rhydderch and Meinir Heulyn.

The famous male choirs, whose voices once soared over choking clouds of coal dust, are another crucial strand of the national musical genius. For many people, they are the personification of Wales as the “Land Of Song.” The choirs were at their peak during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as many collieries and other large-scale employers had their own instrumental and vocal ensembles. Today, the choirs function primarily as cultural societies and are devoted to charitable causes and education. The Morriston Orpheus Choir, The Tredegar Orpheus Choir and The Treorchy Male Choir are widely considered to be among the finest of these but the Côr Caerdydd, Côr Meibion Pontypridd, Froncysyllte Male Voice Choir and Swansea Philharmonic Choir are also well thought of. All of them perform traditional material like “Dafydd y Gareg Wen (David Of The White Rock),” “Cwm Rhondda (Rhondda Valley),” “Ar hyd y Nos (All Through the Night),”“Llwyn On (The Ash Grove),”“Myfanwy,” “Lisa Lân (Fair Lisa),” and especially, “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Land Of My Fathers),” which has been the Welsh national anthem since around 1849. But their programs can also contain light classics, show tunes, pop numbers and hymns, so folk mavens would be wise to read the set list before purchasing an album. Of course, it is also possible to download favorite tracks, or else rent the classic film “How Green was My Valley.” The soundtrack contains some rousing and highly authentic Welsh choral singing, even though the movie was not filmed on location but at a replica Welsh Village in Malibu Canyon.

Bards, poets, singer-songwriters and solo vocalists have always been celebrated in Wales. Dafydd Iwan began singing during the 1960s folk revival and is not only revered as a moving, inspiring and deeply nationalistic performer with a warmly robust, masculine presence but as a founder of the Sain record label. Siswann George's resonant mezzo-to-alto evokes the earthy humor and undying pride of the Welsh character. Antique folk tunes, shepherds' and miners' work songs, and Breton references all benefit from George's sympathetic treatments. Meredydd Evans, Huw Jones, Meic Stevens, Tudur Morgan and the brothers Huw and Tony Williams are other luminaries worth investigating.

Bands and ensembles of all sizes and configurations are also flourishing. Ar Log (For Hire) is one of the most durable and best-loved Welsh folk groups. The line-up consists of triple harp and lap harp (played by the two Roberts brothers), accordion, flutes, fiddles (a hauntingly resonant viola as well as the more conventional violin), guitar and mandolin, percussion and occasional electric flourishes. The group Crasdant consists of Robin Huw Bowen on triple harp, supported by Ar Log fiddler Stephen Rees, guitarist Huw Williams, and Andy McLauchlin on assorted woodwinds. They have fashioned an acoustic blend that shares many of the intricacies found in the Irish "ascendancy baroque" tradition and, like Ar Log, they often incorporate percussive step-dancing into the mix.

Mabsant and Cusan Tân are two other bands associated with Bowen. Carreg Lafar (Echo Stone), who hail from Cardiff, are extraordinarily fine instrumentalists who play violin, viola and cello, pibgorn, guitars, pibacwd, and percussion. However, the two vocalists, Linda Owen Jones and Rhian Evan Jones, are what makes this band so utterly outstanding. Fernhill began when Ceri Rhys Matthews, a notable multi-instrumentalist and later, a producer for the Fflach Tradd label, and Julie Murphy met in art school. The duo were joined by piper Jonathan Shorland, and squeezebox wizard Andy Cutting. Concentrating on links between Welsh tunes and the music and dance of Brittany, Murphy, Cutting, and Matthews have since annexed Tim Harries on double bass and Cass Meurig on fiddle. Pigyn Clust sometimes recalls early albums by Ireland's Clannad. Judiciously applied jazzy flourishes are wedded to an all-acoustic, harp-driven sound while the lively mixed vocals are mostly sung in Welsh, with a bit of English tossed in for good measure. They are cautiously breaking new ground, but never stray far from their ancestral fires. Bob Delyn A'r Ebyllion fuses pan-Celtic and rock sounds, while Aberjaber is even more eclectic. - Christina Roden

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