by Jonathan Lee
The oldest known song in the British Isles dates back 1,400 years and it’s written in Welsh.
Pais Dinogad was sung in Rheged, a kingdom of Yr Hen Ogledd (the old North), in what is now modern day Cumbria and the Scottish Lowlands. The song is a simple lullaby, telling a baby of his father, Lord Dinogad, who is out hunting in a time long before Anglo-Saxons or even Gaels had arrived in this part of Britain.
It probably wouldn’t be described as an absolute banger if we’re completely honest (although this lyre-wielding, tattooed, metal-head gives it a real good go). It’s nonetheless incredible that it’s still being sung at all today, and that its lyrics are broadly comprehensible to modern Welsh speakers.
There has long been an association with Wales as ‘the land of song’. Singing has been a core part of Welsh identity and culture for a very long time; from early medieval use of call-and-response in folk customs such as the Mari Lywd, to 75,000 rugby fans belting out the national anthem in three part harmony at the Millennium Stadium. Male voice choirs and eisteddfodau continue the ancient tradition of song in both rural and urban communities, and for decades our most famous exports have, for the most part, been singers and musicians (recent sporting greats aside).
Whether delivered in Welsh or English, there is a distinct quality to modern Welsh music – a kind of sad, sentimental motif which is surprisingly continuous across artists.
And it’s not just Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Shakin’ Stevens, or Bonnie Tyler. It’s not just the operatic singers such as Bryn Terfel, Aled Jones, Charlotte Church, and Katherine Jenkins. And it’s not just the rock heavyweights like the Stereophonics, the Manic Street Preachers, John Cale, or Feeder. Wales has a rich, thriving, alternative music scene. English and Welsh language, rural and urban, north and south. It is formed mostly in the clubs, pubs, and music venues of the cities in the south but the artists themselves represent the length and breadth of the country, and through their songs you can glimpse the soul of a nation.
Whether delivered in Welsh or English, there is a distinct quality to modern Welsh music – a kind of sad, sentimental motif which is surprisingly continuous across artists. It is less of a genre and more of a feeling evoked by the lyrics, the pace and meter, the melody. The feeling is materialised when set in its proper context: a deindustrialised, re-emerging nation still unsure of its cultural identity in a modern neoliberal world. This tumult of nostalgia and loss, apathy and anarchy, despondency and pride, runs like an electric current through much of our music.
The environment this Welsh sound was forged in was one of rapid deindustrialisation in the late 1980s to early 2000s. The future of South Wales was radically altered on 3rd March 1985 with the defeat of the National Union of Miners’ strike by Margret Thatcher’s government. South Wales had enjoyed the highest level of support among its miners for industrial action across the entire UK, with 99.6% joining the strike at the start of the action, and only falling to 93% after a year of being starved out on zero pay and zero benefits. After the strike ended, the number of working collieries in Wales went from thirty-one to one in less than a decade. Only the worker-owned Tower Colliery in the Cynon Valley was kept open, despite government opposition, until the coal seam was finally exhausted in 2008.
During the nineties, coal-field communities suffered extreme deprivation and many broke down completely, particularly in places where the colliery was the sole employer. At the same time, this period was also a time of rebirth for the country. The Welsh language channel S4C rose to greater prominence through the Broadcasting Act of 1990, the National Eisteddfod received commercial sponsorships of over £1 million for the first time in 1990, a devolved government in Cardiff was created through referendum in 1997, construction began in 1997 on the national stadium of Wales: the Millennium Stadium, and in 1999 Wales hosted its very first Rugby World Cup. In this context of political and cultural renewal on the one hand, and high unemployment and social discontent on the other, there rose a cultural, artistic, and musical renaissance in Wales known as “Cool Cymru.”
Cool Cymru artists like the Super Furry Animals, Catatonia, Gorky’s Zygotic Mwnci, Gwenno, and Datblygu were formed out of the Welsh language music scene in Cardiff in the early 90s. They were at the heart of a Welsh music revolution which fostered bands like the Stereophonics, Manic Street Preachers, 60 Ft Dolls, and Mclusky. The environment this created paved the way for the Indie Rock movement of the 2000’s and Welsh artists like The Automatic, Bullet for My Valentine, Duffy, Funeral for a Friend, Lostprophets, Kids in Glass Houses, The Joy Formidable, and Marina & The Diamonds. Much of Welsh contemporary music owes a lot, including the availability of venues, record labels, and the existence of urban counter-culture audiences, to Cool Cymru pioneers.
There is a brooding sadness which permeates the Welsh sound. A certain wistful, nostalgia for a Wales which is long past, or probably, that has never been. Hiraeth – that hard to translate, bittersweet longing for what cannot be – runs like a raging torrent through our music. The word which encapsulates so well the soul of a nation – both North and South – can be heard through the language, the lilt of the melody, and underlying sorrow of the Welsh sound. From Cool Cymru to Post-Punk Urban we are an emotional lot… deep down, mind.
The emotional weight of music in Wales has even played its part in shaping politics. In 1981, Dafydd Iwan’s folk protest ballad “Yma o Hyd” testified to the resilience of the Welsh people and language, and reinvigorated calls for Welsh independence. It has even been credited for inspiring three Acts of Parliament: the Education Reform Act of 1988, the Welsh Language Act of 1993, and the Government of Wales Act of 1998.
“Ry’n ni yma o hyd, er gwaetha pawb a phopeth, ry’n ni yma o hyd”
‘We’re still here, in spite of everyone and everything, we’re still here’.
The mix of musical sentimentality and Welsh language, with the volatile notions of a civic nationalist consciousness, has not had the effect of toxic nationalism in Wales as you might expect. There is something of a culture of hedging our bets in Wales. An unwillingness in Welsh culture and politics to fully commit, a lesson learned no doubt from historical experience. We are lacking that certain brash boldness of our Celtic cousins across the Irish sea, both politically and culturally, but we are unable to embrace the levels of pretense and assuredness stereotypically characteristic of our English rivals across the River Severn. And yet, there has always been a rebellious streak running through our culture. An anarchy that bubbles under the surface of our society which can rear suddenly and unpredictably. In the 19th century, the Chartist Movement found a firm stronghold in working-class South Wales and culminated in the last large-scale armed rebellion against the British State, the Newport Rising, during which 10,000 men (mostly miners armed with picks) marched on Newport to face the British Army. A number of risings took place into the 20th century across the industrialised valleys, which were hotbeds of socialism and trade unionism. At the same time in West and Mid Wales, the Rebecca Riots saw agricultural workers dress up as women and attack toll-gates which represented unfair taxation.
Since the destruction of Trade Unionism in Wales, this spirit of rebellion has subsided into a malaise across much of the country. The Welsh sound is as much about urban and rural decay as it is about national revival. In Welsh language music, it tends towards the rural. The haunting melancholy of Llandeilo band, Ysgol Sul (Sunday School), blends bleak lyrics of rural isolation over discordant guitar riffs reminiscent of The Smiths. From North Wales, Yr Ods are a group which refuse to be tied to one genre, language, or location. A Gwynnedd band formed at Aberystwyth University, who first made their name in the Welsh capital, whilst also drawing a fanbase from England after appearances at Glastonbury Festival. Their song “Gad Mi Lithro” (Let Me Slip) is another raw, poetic lament to what it is to be young in Wales today.
Few Welsh artists can better describe the mix of urban deprivation, chaos, and insolence than Swansea band Trampolene. The three-piece group of punk poets embody the disaffected, inebriated sound of a hopeless and intractable Swansea. The Naples of Wales, Dylan Thomas’ ‘ugly, lovely, town’ is as louche and proud as ever through the unpolished sound of screaming guitar and drums, accompanied by frontman Jack Jones’ distinctive and sarcastic West Glamorgan whine. Or as he puts it: “Not a pot to piss in, not about to give in, don’t think of us as victims.”
The band which encapsulates the duality that exists in much of Welsh music, are Catatonia. Their music is equal parts jaded sarcasm, borne out of the urban scene of the South, alongside an almost naively optimistic lift through the unique, fairy-like voice of lead singer Cerys Mathews. A product of Cool Cymru, Catatonia burst out of the Welsh language rock scene to dominate in both English and Welsh language. They were founded by a mix of talent from around the country, from different musical styles, and represented everything that Cool Cymru was. In their hit “For Tinkerbell”, Cerys Mathews’ ethereal voice drifts over grungy, power chords while cheesy space synths lift the whole sound up, preventing it from getting too down to earth. In predictable modesty, the band always insisted they were just out to play pop music.
Perhaps in these times of shifting political ground in Wales, and the UK, we will soon hear a brand new sound coming from the Land of Song to soundtrack our increasingly bizarre climate on these islands. Until then, grab a six-pack of tinnies, turn up your speakers and have a listen to the coolest Cymru has to offer.
Featured image: Matt Crossick/PA Wire
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