Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Essentially Welsh Pop Music?

Here's my latest contribution to the AmeriCymru discussion forum about Welsh Rock Music, or its lack. Dave Martin posted lamenting how derivative Welsh bands sound. I earlier commented asking if there's any way ultimately to make a Celtic-language sung pop-rock music true to its cultural roots, if so many groups parrot the latest sounds from Anglo-American centers of production.

Dave Martin, I know what you mean, even sober as I am (now!). What Sarah Hill in her book [ "Blerwytirhwng:" See my review on Amazon and this blog] struggles with and to me does not articulate fully is how you take reggae, post-punk, folk rock, or psychedelia and infuse them with an undeniably Welsh essence. That exists (I'd suggest tentatively as an outsider looking in hearing the music but without intimate connection with Cymru I confess-- that's why I am here to listen and learn) in snatches here and there when I hear in what's sung in Cymraeg a whiff of a deeper link to the land and mythos and hiraeth. But, I too am trapped as a faraway fan, like those art schoolers who founded folk rock bands in Britain in the later 60s; I am trying to romanticize gwerin from my urban perch.

Ireland has, if I may compare, a solid trad scene, of course, but they have failed to produce any musicians able to jump from the trad to the pop or rock while sticking to a Celtic language. I have a new wave record in Irish that's dreck. I think it was the only one of its genre ever made.

Horslips in the 70s went back and forth between electric folk, trad, and hard-rock but they emulated in the end the slick West Coast El Lay studio sound and their success foundered as they tried to match Jethro Tull's arena anthems. Liam Ó Maonlaí on "Rian" (Hothouse Flowers), Iarla Ó Líonaird (on Peter Gabriel's label, tellingly), and Peadar Ó Riada on his two records in the mid-90s to my limited knowledge came closest to integrating a complex world-music inspired approach into their trad, blended with an indie-label rockish eclecticism. This seemed the most promising direction, but this also can dissolve seductively into meaningful moans above mushy synths and flutes stacked atop didgeridoos and tribal drums. (See: Peter Gabriel.)

Sorry to sound like the wannabee rock critic, but I concur with Dave's complaint here: there's a persistent difficulty in locating a tangible substance in music from Wales as truly different. You can't stick lyrics in another language atop the same old pop or folk or rock groove from Anglo-American conventions, and claim some triumph for Celtic reclamation of culture. This remains the problem with asserting there's some essential (that adjective again) difference in Welsh-language music that follows London or LA-based trends. Not sure if this will ever happen for anybody in the Celtic lands making music in the wake of the domination of the international pop conglomerate that shapes and segregates and reproduces our market-tested tunes.

Yet, one last comment. Hill notes how long the Welsh-pop evolution took; there was not a professional rock-pop band able to survive on their music alone until well into the 70s, and as long for a full LP! The whole pop music scene took much longer to evolve in Wales, whether folk and pop in the 60s, rock in the 70s, or punk and reggae in the 80s. The organic sound of The Band that Dave admires itself took patience, years of roadhouse gigs, and smart guys' exposure to lots of earlier, diverse, obscure music before it melded at Big Pink. So, perhaps the blend we're denying may take longer still to percolate into a "truly" Welsh medium of expression?

This poster by Ankst head honcho Emyr Glyn Williams I found at the Ankst homepage, Cardiff's epicenter for Welsh-language indie rock. John Cale'd love this! Andy needs no intro. His rival Saunders Lewis may be regarded by lefties as a Catholic Action Française Plaid Cymru Cymraeg Don Quixote, but the more I read of/about him, the more I admire his principles. More on him? See my post a year back about his Penyberth 1936 protest with D.J. Williams & Lewis Valentine. (If I ever get that pending ILL loan for Dafydd Jenkins' "A Nation on Trial," I'll be able to tell you more about Lewis, especially his leading role in the real-life courtroom case after Tân yn Llŷn.)

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