Cymru Calling! The Continued Defiance Of Welsh Language Music

Dyma ni, ble wyt ti?

The Welsh moon looms, shimmering over a sleepy Betws-y-Coed. Here in Gwynedd, North Wales, an omnipresent natural beauty graces the eye from every scenic direction, a poetic invocation of tranquillity washing across the mind like a distant Atlantic tide. As an array of showcase performances line themselves up around the corner, the unbreakable thread of Welsh cultural identity – entangling nature, language, history, and music – draws steadily into one’s focus. Despite years of systematic oppression by English neighbours, contemporary Welsh language musicians are the modern orators, shaping the vocabulary of their country’s narrative. It is clearly high time our London-centric industry wakes up and listens in.

We are welcomed to this gorgeous corner of Wales by organisers of the Dyma Ni! showcase, an immersive exploration of Welsh music/culture (cerdd), and the habitat (cynefin) unto which its contextual roots take hold. Staying true to its objective, the course of the week would see us absorb the natural beauty surrounding Betws-y-Coed, Bryn Gelli Ddu, Beddgelert and Castell Caernarfon, the scenery intrinsically linked with the ‘Mabinogion’ legends and English invasion, expertly unpacked by our tour guide and punk veteran Rhys Mwyn (Anhrefn/BBC Radio Cymru).

Each blanket of night greets us with an eclectic lineup of showcase performances. The first three find us at Neuadd Ogwen in Bethesda, where we witness the ethereal folk of Welsh triple harp virtuoso Cerys Hafana, stirring protest belters from national icon and beacon of independence Dafydd Iwan, alongside Scottish Gaelic artists Tallisk and Breabach, traditional and innovative respectively, and a hypnotic jazz spin on Breton traditions from Dièse3 & Youenn Lange.

Cymru Calling! The Continued Defiance Of Welsh Language Music

[Cerys Hafana – Rhys Grail]

The journey drifts towards psychedelia, and we thusly find ourselves in the vibrant architectural marvel of Portmeirion; the fifty-years-in-the-making passion project of Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, made famous as the filming location of sixties cult television series The Prisoner.

The village graces us with a mesmerising roster of up-and-coming Welsh artistry, each driven echo ricocheting off the vaulted Town Hall ceiling. Local boy Sage Todz explores lyrical and personal identity through inspired bilingual rap and hip-hop, multi-instrumentalist Kizzy Crawford delivers nostalgic soul, genre cross-pollination and live-looping (also bilingual), and the room grows littered with grins as off-kilter psych stars Melin Melyn masterfully mottle their sonic prowess with distinct tongue-in-cheek wit.

Cymru Calling! The Continued Defiance Of Welsh Language Music

[Sage Todz – Rhys Grail]

Adwaith, the Carmarthen queens of indie-rock, find themselves among the aforementioned; the trio’s repertoire of ethereal post-punk and psych-pop stompers shaking the foundations of Clough’s Italian pillars. Throughout our time in Wales an important question had loomed, but the end of Adwaith’s set confirmed the necessity to at last interrogate the elephant in the room: why, in England, is this music not being recognised to the extent it so deserves?

Riding a wave of sheer momentum following their recent sophomore release ‘Bato Mato’, a string of affirming milestone performances at Glastonbury and Green Man this summer, and becoming the only band to be twice awarded the Welsh Music Prize, Adwaith have shattered multiple glass ceilings. In spite of these successes however, the band still feel they struggle to be taken seriously by London-centric promoters, booking agents and radio stations:

Hollie: “The listeners love it, it’s just the industry people that don’t really know what to do with it, and they just sort of turn their nose up at it.”

Gwenllian: “We’ve realised we don’t really need to go to London to get these big things, you know? We just bypass London and go to Europe where it’s more accepted and they understand what we’re doing more. We’ve been trying to get a UK booking agent for years and it’s always like ‘ah yeah, interest, they’re really good, they sing in Welsh but not really sure, I’ll come to this gig.”

Heledd: “And they always promise to come to a gig and then don’t turn up.”

Hollie: “We’re just done trying to convince some Londoner that Welsh is cool.”

Cymru Calling! The Continued Defiance Of Welsh Language Music

[Beddgelert – Kieran Macdonald-Brown]

For Welsh language artists there is still a battle against an inferiority complex that started as soon as the term ‘Cool Cymru’ was coined. The likes of Catatonia, Manic Street Preachers and Stereophonics, while casting an undeniable imprint on contemporary Welsh music, and changing industry attitudes in their time, were still for the most part coaxed into a necessary commercial shift away from their mother tongue to placate the English market, then still arguably a London-centric industry. Luckily, what we see now are bands steadfast in their own cultural identity, unashamedly writing in the language that makes the artistic sense to them, and bolstered by freedoms granted by streaming and social media for listeners to be their own tastemakers.

There is evidence that, thanks to this revitalised tenacity, the UK music industry’s historic indifference towards minoritised groups is slowly dissipating, and instead we are seeing a shift in attitude towards inclusion, and the support for safe spaces. While it may take London a moment to catch on, a band like Sister Wives represent a change of English attitude towards Welsh language music. The all-female, anarcho-punk druidesses, who sing in both Welsh and English, have been embraced by a welcoming collective in Sheffield which situates itself around the venue Delicious Clam. This acceptance from a city outside of Wales, indicative of gradual change, is a clear first step in familiarising English audiences with non-English music.

Singer and keyboardist Donna speaks of the band’s experience in the Sheffield scene, and changing industry attitudes:

“We’ll always make an effort at Clam to make sure we’ve got a diverse bill, and make sure it’s not just what you used to see ten, fifteen, twenty years ago […] people are exploring and starting to recognise that, actually, maybe the music industry in England doesn’t. Like on 6Music you very rarely hear songs that are not in English.”

“People need to take up space a lot more, shouting their loudest voices in the Welsh language! Music’s one of our main vehicles for doing that.”

Cymru Calling! The Continued Defiance Of Welsh Language Music

At our journey’s end, we have time to reflect. In part we are still reeling from Gwynedd’s breathtaking natural beauty, and still absorbing the legends of old. But the feeling that lingers is one of confidence in young Welsh artists unashamedly writing and performing in their mother tongue, assured in their own rudderless brilliance. London’s validation holds power no more.

For more on Dyma Ni visit their Facebook page.

Words: Kieran Macdonald-Brown

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