Mick Tems tells us about
The Squeezebox In Wales
Welcome to Wales, the nation at the heart of the Celtic community and a country with a very special musical heritage. The Welsh harp playing tradition is the only one in the Celtic world which has continued unbroken; even at its weakest point it was kept alive by the Welsh Romanies, and there are harp players today who can count the lineage of their tutors back seven centuries.
The Welsh bards developed an oral tradition which was to ensure that no music was written down before the 17th century, and the only surviving manuscript from 300 years ago is written in a strange tabulature which scholars are still trying to unravel with certainty. Henry VIII's Act of Union between England and Wales in 1536 contained clauses designed to stamp out both the Welsh language and Welsh culture -- and music, in particular, received another major body blow with the rise of Non-Conformist religion in the 18th and 19th centuries. Dancing and singing was frowned upon or forbidden, but at least some of the old dance tunes survived, slowed down and made solemn, as hymn tunes which have been passed down to us today.
Nearly 500 years after Henry VIII, the Welsh language has survived and is flourishing in the new political era that has dawned in the past year and which has given Scotland a Parliament and Wales its own Assembly. Today, 500,000 people -- approximately one in five of the Welsh population -- speak Welsh, and in many parts of the North and West it remains the first language of communication.
So where do free reed instruments fit into this ancient landscape, with their comparatively late arrival in an era when Wales was dominated by chapels and ministers preaching fire and brimstone?
They don't, if you listen to Cymdethais Offerynau Traddodiadol Cymru, the Traditional Instruments Society of Wales. COTC only recognizes instruments it considers to be traditional to Wales, including the harp, fiddle, flute and pibgorn. We could argue endlessly over this, but put it this way: The Roberts Family, Welsh Romanies who played their triple harps for Queen Victoria and were instrumental in preserving that tradition, used to relax after the gig by playing mouth organs.
It's clear that accordions, melodeons, concertinas and their relatives made strong headway in Wales after their invention. A huge influx of Italians from Piemonte in the late 19th century guaranteed that accordion societies would find a niche; the Piemontese came to open cafes in the rapidly-expanding coal communities of the South Wales Valleys, which became known as the Welsh Klondyke; the first family to open up was called Bracchi, and to this day the Italian cafes still found throughout the Valleys are always called Bracchis by the local people.
Today, Wales boasts a host of excellent squeezebox players using their instruments in a host of styles. For the purposes of this feature, I'll concentrate on those who have developed the instrument to meet the often-complicated demands of Welsh traditional music.
I'm sure it's true that each new instrument that enters a nation's traditional music has an effect on that music as players bend the tunes to meet the feel and style of their new toy. Look at the effect the banjo, the bouzouki, and the accordeon family, have had on Irish music, for example. One major effect that free reed instruments have had on Welsh music is to give it punch at the bass end, a wumph that was lacking when harps and fiddles were the primary instruments.
Megin (the Welsh word for bellows) will introduce you to John Morgan from Ogmore Vale, who became an accomplished Irish fiddle player before branching out with beautiful, stately arrangements of Welsh tunes on McCann duet concertina. You can hear Cardiff-based Guto Dafis probing the boundaries of some of our better-known dance tunes, plus a couple from Pat and myself (and the whole concept of Megin gave us a new way of looking at the music we'd been playing for more than 20 years). There's Meg and Neil Browning from North Wales (Neil also has his own album, Scwisbocs, out on the Sain label, Wales' major record company) and Boz Boswell and Nick Passmore with their very accordeon-style Eurotake on Welsh music.
Sadly, some first rate players didn't make it onto the album -- Mike Greenwood, who has done so much for Welsh dance, is a good example.
And there is a Welsh concertina now. Marcus Butler, who runs Marcus Music at Tredegar Park Country House in Newport, Gwent, who has provided an excellent sales and repair service for many years, is now producing sensible, sturdy Anglo-concertinas which look and sound far better than the current European imports and yet which still retain a reasonable price tag. Marcus will never get around the Internet in the next 100 years, but you can telephone him at (00 44) (0)1633 815612. - Mick Tems
Many of these recordings are available at cdRoots
You can contact Mick Tems by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Trad Fflach's Web Site
Read more about the music of Wales on RootsWorld
All music is copyright 2000 by the individual artists