The traditional music of Wales


Last updated: 11 December 2008

While the revival of folk music in Wales can be traced back to the formation of the Welsh Folk Song Society in the early years of the 20th century, the more modern revival began in earnest during the mid-1970s.

Folk singing competitions were by then already well established in the local and national Eisteddfodau, but their emphasis on classical vocal technique and delivery made these competitions less appealing for singers more accustomed to the less conspicuously 'trained' singing style heard on the folk scene.

So how did Welsh traditional singers sound before the modern revival? The Welsh Folk Museum at St Fagan's sent collectors into rural and urban Wales to record traditional singers during the 1960s and 1970s. The style of singing carols known as Plygain (verses usually sung in three-or four-voice arrangements) was particularly associated with mid Wales, and archive recordings of the carols, along with a selection of 'Stable-Loft Songs' have recently been re-released on the Sain label. Plygain carols and their services have been revived in many parts of Wales in recent years.

A crucial figure in revival of Welsh traditional music is the singer, scholar and activist Meredydd Evans, whose recordings of unaccompanied traditional songs from the 1970s was recently re-released along with some other performances with instrumental accompaniment. Contemporary performers of Welsh traditional song include Siân James, Gwenan Gibbard, Bethan Nia, Julie Murphy and Arfon Gwilym.

In the mid-twentieth century, the unbroken tradition of harp-playing in Wales was maintained largely through one person: Nansi Richards-Jones (1888-1979) (Telynores Maldwyn, or 'The Harpist of Montgomeryshire'). A unique character, her pupils included Dafydd and Gwyndaf Roberts of Ar Log, and Llio Rhydderch, who has recorded four CDs for the Fflach Tradd. label since 1997.

The triple harper Robin Huw Bowen learned much repertoire and technique from Eldra Jarman (1917-2000), the last of the long line of Wales' Gyspsy harpers. Robin was also instrumental in forming a triple harp 'choir', named Rhes Ganol or 'Middle Row' after the triple harp's distinctive feature.

In Wales, the fiddle does not have the same unbroken tradition; and even though there were Gyspsy fiddlers active until the 1960s, we have no recordings of them.

Both the pibgorn and the bagpipe have reappeared in Wales in recent years

Since the 1970s, fiddle players in Wales have been using printed books and manuscripts to rediscover Welsh tunes, and have been busy developing their own individual styles. This means that there is no consensus on a contemporary Welsh fiddle style (if there ever was), but some of the notable fiddlers of the last thirty years include: Iolo Jones and Graham Pritchard (Ar Log), Mike Lease and Paul Hopkins (Yr Hwntws), Bernard and Gerard KilBride, Siân Phillips (organiser of the annual Fiddle Festival of Wales), Stephen Rees and Chris Bain (Crasdant), and Idris Morris Jones and Cass Meurig (Pigyn Clust).

As well as playing the fiddle, Cass Meurig has not only researched the Welsh fiddle tradition, but also plays the crwth. Together with Robert Evans and several others, Cass has helped to revive the crwth as a contemporary instrument.

Both the pibgorn and the bagpipe have reappeared in Wales in recent years; makers such as Jonathan Shorland, John Tose, John Glennydd and Gerard KilBride have played a crucial role in ensuring the availability of these instruments and promoting their use by players such as Ceri Rhys Matthews, Patrick Rimes, and Stephen Rees. Matthews, Andy McLauchlin and Jem Hammond are among the growing number of musicians in Wales exploring the tradition of flute-playing.

Since the 1970s, an increasing number of folk bands have formed in Wales. The most widely travelled of these was Ar Log (formed in 1976), but many others which formed around this period also made an impact on the UK and European folk scenes, including Swansea Jack, Carraig Aonair, Mabsant, Plethyn and Calennig.

The current scene seems increasingly healthy with many groups actively performing traditional music from Wales: Crasdant, the KilBride Brothers, Carreg Lafar, Pigyn Clust, Fernhill, Ffynnon, Toreth, Never Mind the Bocs, Allan yn y Fan, 9Bach, and most recently, the young group Calan.

Words: Stephen Rees

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