'Wales is a land fiercely proud of its national musical traditions' By Simon Horrocks
Croeso i Gymru / Welcome to Wales
‘Have you ever been to Wales, Baldrick?’ asked a certain Edmund Blackadder (in his third incarnation) before advising his hapless friend to avoid the place altogether, not least because ‘huge gangs of tough sinewy men roam the valleys terrifying people with their close harmony singing’.
On that cheerful note, let me bid you a warm ‘Croeso i Gymru/Welcome to Wales!’, the land of song. And, yes, Wales is a land fiercely proud of its national musical traditions which do indeed include choirs, harps and the power of the Welsh language. But, sorry Edmund, any suggestion that this somehow equates to an introverted or xenophobic Welsh music culture couldn’t be further from the truth. That idea would be knocked on the head by the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod alone.
In fact, there’s a strong vein in Welsh music past and present which asserts its national identity by a variety of means while wholeheartedly welcoming and celebrating other musical cultures/voices. Some of my favourite recent examples include unexpected but somehow entirely natural excursions into other languages. I’m thinking here of the way Gwenno concludes her brilliant, other-worldly album Y Dydd Olaf with a track in Cornish or the thrilling bilingual duet Europa Geht Durch Mich which results when Nina Hoss is invited to add her voice to that of James Dean Bradfield.
More sustained examples of Welsh artists engaging with other musical cultures come with two records released within a short time of each other in 2013: Clychau Dibon is, in effect, an extended cross-cultural conversation with the voice of Wales provided by Catrin Finch’s harp and the voice of Senegal embodied by the koras played by Seckou Keita; The Gentle Good’s Y Bardd Anfarwol, on the other hand, tells the beguiling story of Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai through the Welsh voices of Gareth Bonello and Lisa Jên Brown. It’s no coincidence, perhaps, that Y Bardd Anfarwol (which opens with the found sounds of a Chinese street-scene) won the inaugural Welsh Album of the Year prize at the National Eisteddfod, that most ‘national’ of cultural festivals.
You’ve probably gathered by now that I can’t think of a better place than Wales to host the incredible musical artists who are coming from around the world to join the Festival of Voice. For me, looking at the FoV programme is a bit like going into Spillers Records, Cardiff’s legendary record shop – there’s just too much good stuff to choose from! From the Festival’s ‘Welsh section’ I can’t resist the combination of Gwenno and John Cale while my love of African music means the double A-side of Femi Kuti and Mbongwana Star will take some beating.
One of the greatest joys of browsing in Spillers or looking at a festival programme is just following your instinct and giving something new a try. So, how about Sianed Jones (a voice currently unknown to me)? But, wait – a quick glance at her website notes an ‘upbringing drenched in Welsh choral singing of the Eisteddfodau’ – maybe Blackadder was right after all! The very next sentence, though, advises that Sianed’s music is informed by visits to places as varied as Tanzania, Mongolia and Brazil. Don’t know about you but, to me, that sounds like a really intriguing combination, not to mention another date for my Festival of Voice diary.