Welsh traditional music

The Welsh have a drastically different style of playing, largely due to the nature of the music itself. Their music

Welsh traditional music



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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' .


Julie 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 the Welsh language when the occasion demands it. Not that they play exclusively Welsh music. They also perform English folk songs, impassioned Breton tunes and vibrant French songs while fully embracing the modern roots ideology, introducing the influences of their many travels, notably African and Eastern European music.

Julie Murphy met Ceri Matthews at art college in Maidstone, and when the course was over she returned to Wales with him, learning the language and absorbing the culture. Although she had no folk background to speak of, Murphy developed a natural feel for performing traditional songs, and she and Matthews started working as a duo. They met Jonathan Shorland in 1986 when they were on the same bill at the Pontardawe folk festival. Shorland joined them on stage playing the pibgorn, a Welsh horn pipe, and they started working together with three other musicians as a music and art group called Saith Rhyfeddod.
Raised in the New Forest, Shorland had become obsessed by reed instruments as a devotee of David Munros music programme on Radio 3 while at Aberystwyth University. He became an expert in Celtic traditions, learning to make bagpipes and travelling extensively in Eastern Europe and Brittany, playing regularly with Breton musicians. He is said to be the first person to introduce the bombard into Welsh music.

Murphy teamed up with Blowzabellas ex-hurdy gurdy player Nigel Eaton, resulting in the experimental Whirling Pope Joan project which made a big impact with its alternative rhythms and challenging material. Also involved in the project was Andy Cutting, a melodeon and accordion ace from Harrow brought up in a family steeped in English traditional music. When invited on a British Council tour in Gaza, Murphy invited Andy Cutting to accompany her. When in 1996 Tim Healey of Beautiful Jo Records invited Julie Murphy, Ceri Matthews and Jonathan Shorland to contribute to a compilation of Celtic music, they roped in Andy Cutting.
The result was Fernhill, who have subsequently toured extensively and produced a series of fine albums which reaffirm the rich spirit of Welsh folk music while moving boldly into new areas. Mixing oboe with bagpipes, diatonic accordion, guitar and numerous other instruments they have challenged all preconceptions about folk music, recognising no dividing line between Welsh dance music and the roots music of Kenya, Pakistan or any point beyond.
They now work mainly as a trio of Murphy, Matthews and Cutting, but all are involved with other musicians as they strive to break down further barriers between musical style and the audience it appeals to.
They have recorded three critically acclaimed albums; the latest, Whilia, was a top twenty album in the Folk Roots poll 2000. Fernhill created a new musical landscape from the indigenous dance rhythms and folk poetry of Wales. Julie Murphy's passionate singing combined with guitar, fiddle, double bass and trumpet produces a sound both gutsy and enchanting.

In 2001 the band contributed a performance to the film 'Beautiful Mistake' about the Welsh music scene which includes performances by James Dean Bradfield, Catatonia, Super Furry Animals, and Gorkys Zygotic Mynci. Julie Murphy also collaborated with ex velvet underground member John Cale; he accompanied her on a track from her solo album Black Mountains Revisited (a MOJO folk album of 99).

6. The renaissance of Welsh traditional music

Manic Street Preachers, Catatonia and even Tom Jones assure Welsh people that their identity is not naff. Gorki's Zygotic Mynki, Super Furry Animals and Datblygu prove that indeed it's cool - and that singing in Welsh is no obstacle to commercial success. People are beginning to remember that the Velvet Underground founder member John Cale's first language is Welsh (earlier this year he was in Cardiff working with musicians who prefer to perform in it).

Neil Browning is part of a growing movement in Wales, one that is not out to preserve the old folk music, but to make it come alive, to breathe again. While he has a great knowledge and respect for the old tunes and the old ways, he is not hestitant to push it as much as the song requires.

Neil has contributed three pieces to the festival. The first is straight traditional music for accordion, guitar and bodhran. The second is an original tune that is decidedly contemporary, adventuring into a global turf while still maintaining a distinct Welsh air to it. The third is another traditional tune (title unknown), but with the accompaniment of classical guitar, it takes on a new and different feeling.

Nansi Richards plays orally learned melodies and variations with clarity and passion. Her variations are vibrant, ringing out with the sound only a triple-strung harp can make. She also plays the more common single-strung harp beautifully on several of the tracks.

There are many reasons for this renewed self-confidence; the growing appetite for the music of other cultures, a degree of political autonomy and, not least, the success of those who did devote themselves to the cause of Welsh. They may not have produced much great music, but they assured that not only is the language surviving, people can converse in it in some security, relax and just get on with life.

So they are beginning to look about them, hack their way through the overgrown and almost forgotten paths to the spring of their traditional music. It's still flowing. The new Rough Guide to the Music of Wales CD opens with a harp tune by Llio Rhydderch, who was brought up in a master-pupil teaching tradition that stretches back to the fourteenth century. There's also a recording she made of her teacher Nansi Richards, who was steeped in the aesthetic and technique of eighteenth century harpers. What is striking and refreshing about both players is their power. If you find most Celtic harp music plinking and fey, the strength as well as the beauty of this ancient music will be a welcome surprise.

The Welsh tradition is untouched," says Neil Woollard, gleefully. "So the music is more open to interpretation. I know we've got the perfect opportunity here, setting the parameters of what you can do.

Tradition" is the organic element of world culture. Pop music by its very nature is disposable. The only future for a great pop song is as nostalgia. The tradition however is timeless and recyclable and is renewed as each generation discovers its roots. - Billy Bragg, musician


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