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Welsh traditional music

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Welsh traditional music

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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.85. 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-UPJulie 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

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Welsh traditional music

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Welsh traditional music

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