Monday, 9 June 2014

Cerddoriaeth Cymru

In a way, Wales was the perfect move for me. As a nation, it’s very proud of its heritage and that it has retained its own identity, despite the historical onslaught of the English. Wales is one of the six recognised “Celtic nations”; along with Cornwall in the extreme south west of England, and Brittany in the north west of France, it forms part of the Brythonic branch of Celtic culture (Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man comprise the Gaels), and the languages spoken in these three particular areas are very similar. Basically, if you can read Welsh, you can easily understand Cornish and Breton. Or so they say – I’ve never learned anything more than a few basic Welsh phrases (*hangs head in shame*).

The Welsh are rightly proud of their distinction from the English (or Saesons). Having always thought of myself as a bit of an outsider, I was rather surprised to find how well I fitted in. I may have started out as an English bastard when I got here, but now am regarded by many friends as “an honorary Welshman”. To be fair, by and large the Welsh don’t give a shit where you come from. As long as you support the national rugby team, you’ll be fine.

MrsRobster never needed to worry about acceptance as she has Welsh blood in her – her mother was born and raised in Cardiff as a neighbour to none other than Shirley Bassey[1]  – so her affinity with the Welsh is natural.

Of course, Wales is also known as ‘The Land of Song’, and for good reason. When the Welsh speak, in either English or Welsh, it sounds like they are singing. Choral music has long been a tradition, but more recently Welsh rock music has risen to the fore. Welsh music seems to have it’s own characteristics that set it apart from anything else. Both Shirley, and of course Tom Jones, have always been renowned for their big voices, and if you’ve ever been inside the Millennium Stadium at a home international, when the national anthem (Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau/Land Of My Fathers) plays, you soon realise that everyone in Wales can sing loudly and, more importantly, with true passion.

(Warning to English readers: the following clip may bring back bad memories. Proceed with caution. For anyone else who is unfamiliar with international rugby: in 2012, Wales won the Six Nations, the highest ranking rugby tournament in the Northern Hemisphere (other than the World Cup). In the deciding game, Wales thrashed England 30-3. This is the Welsh team singing Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff - with 50,000+ passionate Welsh supporters - immediately before kick off.)[2]

When I came to Wales in 2001, it was at the end of a period when Welsh popular music was dominant. During the mid to late 90s, ‘Cool Cymru’ (as it was labelled by the press) was an offshoot of Britpop, as the likes of the Manic Street Preachers, Stereophonics, Catatonia and Feeder became among the biggest bands in the UK. Obviously I adored some of these bands, but my faves at the time were Super Furry Animals. They pretty much epitomise Welsh rock to me; they don’t sound like they could come from any other part of the world and they have a quirkiness that abounds throughout the Welsh music scene.

Of course, it didn’t all begin in the 90s, y’know. Prominent Welsh artists in pop music can be traced back to the 60s: as well as Tom and Shirl, there were Mary Hopkin, Badfinger and Amen Corner. The 70s and 80s brought with them Dave Edmunds, Man, Budgie, the Alarm, Young Marble Giants and, erm, Bonnie Tyler. But a proper ‘Welsh scene’ as such didn’t really exist outside of the underground. Bands like Datblygu, Anhrefn and Fflaps were touted by John Peel, possibly the only radio DJ outside of Wales to play Welsh language music, but none would even come close to breaking into the mainstream.

l-r: The Alarm, Anhrefn, Datblygu, Fflaps, Young Marble Giants

So the 90s became a watershed moment in modern Welsh culture as all of a sudden Wales was the place everyone wanted to be. The Manics went all anthemic and stadium rock, played Knebworth with Oasis and started having number one singles; the Stereophonics became everyone’s favourite pub-rock band; and Cerys Matthews became Cool Cymru’s pinup girl, fronting Catatonia as they scaled the dizzy heights of pop stardom with Mulder And Scully and Road Rage turning them into stars overnight.

Then there were acts like 60 Foot Dolls, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, Flyscreen and the emerging Feeder (in case you missed it, here’s my ‘swigging tequila with Feeder’ story). We were awash with Welsh pop, so much so that no longer did people naturally associate Wales just with male voice choirs and Sir Tom.

By the time I arrived, the kerfuffle had died down somewhat, and it’s a shame I missed it really. Newport in particular had a thriving scene with the legendary nightspot TJ’s at the centre of it all.

l-r: 60ft Dolls, Catatonia, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, Super Furry Animals, Stereophonics

These days, while there isn’t the media focus on Welsh music as being the flavour of the month, this proud little nation still produces more amazing music per head of population than practically any country in the world (cue my Scottish and Irish readers to put the cases for their homelands…). The Manics continue to make really good records; Cerys Matthews gets more and more delightful, wonderful, marvellous and lovely with every note she sings; and while the Super Furry Animals are on hiatus, the solo records of Gruff Rhys and Cian Ciaran are a more than adequate substitute, never failing to keep me intrigued.

I also keep up with the younger and emerging talents though. I love Future of the Left, one of my favourite bands around at the moment. Cate le Bon (or ‘the Welsh Nico’, as she’s sometimes understandably dubbed) makes wonderfully quirky music in the Gruff Rhys mould. Georgia Ruth made the debut album of 2013, a record everyone should check out. Masters in France may well be ones to watch too (I wrote about them here), and the Joy Formidable certainly live up to their name – a brilliant live band who MrsRobster and I will be seeing (for the second time) next month.

Oh, and living in Newport, how can I possibly forget the city’s greatest contribution to Welsh culture? A band who are so synonymous with Newport, one of its members was even elected to the City Council! I speak of course about the wit, poetry and sheer musical genius that is… Goldie Lookin’ Chain. Ladies and gentlemen of the world: Cymru am byth!

Arglwydd Dyma Fi [live] – Cerys Matthews (from Sesiwn Fawr Festival, Dolgellau, 2004)

Mulder And Scully [live] – Catatonia (from Home Internationals gig, Margam Park, 1999)

Receptacle For The Respectable – Super Furry Animals (from ‘Rings Around The World’)

Notes On Achieving Orbit – Future Of The Left (from ‘The Plot Against Common Sense’)

Week Of Pines [live] - Georgia Ruth (from BBC Introducing Live at Hyde Park, 2013)

Your Missus Is A Nutter - Goldie Lookin’ Chain (from ‘Safe As Fuck’)

And yes, I know they're not Welsh, but we all love a bit of Gedgey, and any opportunity to post a Wedding Present track here I'll take it! Here’s a track from the their 2014 Record Store Day EP ‘4 Cân’ (pronounced ‘pedwar can’; translates as 'Four Songs'), which consists of four Weddoes tracks sung in Welsh! Gedge even came to Penarth to record the vocals which a Welsh-speaking mate of his had translated for him. Very authentic!

1000 Fahrenheit [Welsh version] – Wedding Present (from ‘4 Cân’)

PS: Inspired by JC’s regular ‘Saturday’s Scottish Single’ series over at t(n)vv, I’ll be doing something similar with Welsh tracks in the not too distant future. Watch this space…

[1] My mother-in-law tells the story of how she was taken out for walks in her pram in Tiger Bay by a teenage Shirley Bassey. All I know is, since Tiger Bay was redeveloped and renamed Cardiff Bay, you have to be a big spender to live there!
[2] I should explain - although I'm English, I never particularly liked rugby. It was only coming to Wales that I grew to love the game. Therefore, I support Wales over England, particularly as the English team is overrun with ex-public schoolboys with a superiority complex.

1 comment:

  1. To be fair to the Welsh, they have had their fair share of decent bands that have made it. The Irish bands don't do so well in crossing the pond. I don't know why that is. I mean we have our fair share of great bands but making the break into the UK market is a tough nut to crack. For example
    Bell X1 are arguably Ireland's biggest band in the past decade, yet they are almost unknown outside of Ireland. They originally had Damien Rice in the band calling themselves Juniper in the day. They never really got off the ground releasing only a couple of singles. They had great promise but decided to go their separate ways. Damien Rice as we know went on to bigger and better things.
    If you want to talk about accents, look no further than Ireland. Half of them I can't understand!! From Cork, Kerry, Cavan and Donegal you have an abundance of singing in their accents!! Here is an Irish Comedian Tommy Tiernan discussing the cork accent!!