'Life songs' Kai Jones on the voice as trusted companion
“Gotta switch off, Switch off your television.
Start talking, You’ve been a long time looking.
How do you speak, With the voice that’s true?”
Meilyr Jones, Refugees
I love the voice. It wakes me up and sings me to sleep. It makes me high when I’m sad. It settles me down when I’m anxious. It echoes my joy. It fills my heart. It is my best friend through the best and the worst of times; comforting, challenging, inspiring and always educating me. I only have to lend it an ear, and it embraces me and gives me the truth.
The voice I talk of speaks a hundred languages, in a thousand accents. It tells one hundred thousand stories. Sometimes the voice speaks for others. Sometimes the voice does not speak at all. But always, and as long as I can remember, the voice speaks to me.
The voice you hear may be different. But to me the voice is life. As the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow put it, “The human voice is the organ of the soul”. To hear a voice is to hear the very being of a person. And to hear them sing their song is to hear life itself.
The beauty of the voice is that it is the one musical instrument that anyone can play. Singing as a form of human ritual and celebration is found in every culture in the world. Through song we express all the nuances of human experience – grief, anger, suffering, joy, heartbreak, love, despair, happiness, hope. The voice truly gives us all ‘a voice’. And when our voices come together in harmony something magical happens.
Over the next two weeks The Festival of Voice will explore what makes the human voice so unique and powerful. It will celebrate the diversity and complexity of the voice, drawing artists from Wales and the world, staging innovative new commissions, and giving a platform to a dizzying array of genres – from opera, folk, choral, and jazz, to pop, urban, visual art, drama, and experimentalism.
As someone who spends most of my waking hours listening to music, the festival is breath-taking. Not only can I spend time with some of my favourite artists, I get to explore and discover a programme that is rich in variety and inspiration. These are a few of those favourites and discoveries.
I’m obsessed with Rufus Wainwright’s new record, ‘Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets’. A collection of extravagant and absorbing interpretations nicely timed to fit in with the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. Wainwright has a wonderfully beguiling voice, yet he only lets it feature on a handful of the album’s songs, instead taking on the role of arranger and musical director and bringing in a cast of guest vocalists and actors. The orchestration provides the base for interpretations by Florence Welch and the soprano Anna Prohaska, interspersed with recitations by Sian Phillips, Helena Bonham Carter and Carrie Fisher. The last time Rufus was in Cardiff, in 2007, he diverted from his planned set to take advantage of the Millennium Centre’s acoustics – moving away from the microphone and delivering one song fully a capella, and without any amplification. It left the crowd speechless. I suspect his performance on Sunday 5 June at the Wales Millennium Centre will have the same effect.
Anna Calvi’s music is like an enraptured score to a lost David Lynch film, so dressed in sullen noir and desert blues that it can disarm and delight in equal measure. Classically trained and a multi-instrumentalist, Calvi plays guitar with the grace and underlying threat of a matador, her voice a restrained Shirley Bassey wrapped in the brooding charm of Nick Cave. At times Calvi’s songs are like gothic fado, and it’s certainly frustrating that her concert at the New Theatre on Wednesday 8 June clashes with iconic fado singer Mariza. It’s a unique opportunity to see Calvi perform radical orchestral re-imaginings of her songs with the Heritage Orchestra Voices at a theatre that rarely stages concerts.
John Grant is no stranger to Cardiff. He last played here in 2012, giving the Reardon Theatre an intimate and deeply moving preview of songs from second album ‘Pale Green Ghosts’; while he shot the video for his 2010 single ‘Chicken Bones’ on the streets of Cardiff with filmmakers Casey Raymond and Ewan Jones Morris. As a songwriter, Grant has a wonderful gift of sidestepping the listener – his songs shift between achingly painful-yet-beautiful ballads dressed in strings, and fuzzy electronic funk slashed with bursts of synth. Over this Grant pours sardonic black humour and self-deprecating tales of love, loss, and anxiety that mark him out as one of the major lyricists of his generation. A unique, special voice. Make sure you turn up on time to see Meilyr Jones. Meilyr’s ‘2013’ is one of this year’s finest debuts, an endearing and affective album of delicate, sensitive, and confessional chamber pop. Bring tissues and a heart. This is going to be a beautiful show.
Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares are a Grammy Award-winning vocal ensemble from Bulgaria that recreate and reimagine folks songs from the time of the Turkish occupation through the combination of heart-wrenching melodies and complex, rhythmic singing. The Guardian has described their “breathtaking, otherworldly sound [as] somewhere between the Muslim call to prayer and the Beach Boys,” while their dissonant choruses, textured vocal patterns and use of whoops, hollers and full-throated, wavering chords challenge accepted understanding of choral music. In an example of excellent programming, they play Llandaff Cathedral on Thursday 10 June. A must see.
The Choir Clock is a wonderful demonstration of the innovation and celebratory nature of Festival of Voice. Over 18 hours on Friday 11 June, 17 choirs will perform in 18 unique locations across Cardiff, with performances taking places in a different space, on the hour, every hour. Taking people on a journey following a trail of voices, both amateur and professional, the vocal pilgrimage will end at midnight, bringing together all the singers for a spectacular finale.
Five artists I’d love to see at Festival of Voice 2018
Julianna Barwick https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kIQVjRCL6jI
Fatamouta Diawara https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CSth8QhBm1M
The Julie Ruin https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ja0bpkNxSVY
Tori Amos https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1AbNx4h8XYc
I’m an information officer for Learning Disability Wales, a national charity that works to create a Wales that values and includes every child, young person and adult with a learning disability. Currently I’m setting up a befriending project called Gig Buddies that’s matches people with a learning disability and autism with a volunteer who loves the same kind of music so they can go to gigs together.