ALBUM REVIEW
WORDS: DOMINIC VALVONA




Various   ‘The Ultimate Guide To Welsh Folk: Compiled By Cerys Matthews’
ARC Music,  27th October 2017

A springboard introduction but nevertheless mammoth undertaking, the latest entry in a series of indigenous folk collections from the leading world music showcase label ARC, leaves no patch of land, valley, croft, mining town and backroom of Wales untouched or forgotten in its quest to encapsulate the diversity of Welsh folk music.

Familiar faces, even chart toppers, appear alongside more obscure and atavistic doyens of the genre on, what is, a most generous survey, stretched over two CDs. Following on from previous Scottish and English editions, ARC settles in for a gorgeous sounding ‘ultimate guide’ under the assured curatorship of Welsh polymath Cerys Matthews (MBE no less). Admittedly casting “with the largest net possible”, Cerys has put together a fond and occasionally divine traverse of her native pastures. Anyone who tunes into Cerys’ regular spots on 6Music will no doubt admire her knowledge and championing of fellow Welsh artists, and so it comes as no surprise to find her fronting this collection. It will also come as no surprise to find her included amongst the many luminaries, the Nashville lilted and smoky voiced rearrangement of the hymn-like Sosban Fach, taken from Cerys’ ‘most successful’ solo album Tir, a congruous and worthy addition to a compilation packed with some of the most diaphanous and moving voices in Welsh music history.

Listeners will probably recognize a fair few of the artists and songs; no doubt accustomed to the highly talented songstress Gwyneth Glyn, who I praised and featured most recently with her new solo album Tro. Glyn’s ‘love poetry’ communion collaboration of 2015, Ghazalaw, with Ghazal signing sensation Tauseef Akhtar traversed the Vales of Wales and ‘Muslim and Urdu’ enclave, merging for the first time ever the Welsh tradition to a style of ancestral singing formerly kept separate from the outside world, confined to India. A perfectly romantic and airy example of that cross-fertilization from the album, Moliannwn is a ‘children’s favorite adapted into a softened tabla rattling backed endearing paean.

Staying with contemporary choices, there’s a short but enchanting twee, Magic Roundabout-like instrumental vignette from the sibling heavy Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog (Didl-Dei); fairytale dreamy folk rock from the Welsh Avalon evoking 9Bach (Pontypridd), the trickling brooks and gallop of wild horses meets Western Sahara pulchritude collaboration between Catrin Finch and the Senegalese artist Seckou Keita (Ceffylau), and a plucked acoustic contour of the local diaphanous topography by former Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci frontman Euro Childs (Roedd hi’n nofio y bore bach).





Paying homage to Wales signature beatific harp traditions, Cerys opens the first part of this double compilation with a heavenly performance from the ‘Queen of the harp’ (no idle boast) Nansi Richards; compared no less to Jimi Hendrix for her own unique showmanship of tricks, such as playing behind her back and playing two harps at a time. Angelic indeed, Richards Pwt Ar y Bys (translates as ‘A little something for the fingers’) sounds effortless, light, almost translucent, and is a great introduction from the harp grandee: many of who’s scions and pupils appear scattered throughout this collection. As Cerys says: ‘The harp reigns supreme in Welsh folk music’. And so there is a wealth of its synonymous empyrean tones to be found, including the specialized triple harp evocations of Robin Huw Bowen, with his graceful tip-toeing Romany Gypsy Waltz, and the classical sounding pitter-patter caresses of another influential doyen and teacher of the instrument, Elinor Bennett, on Pant Corlan yr Wyn.

Another signature sound of Wales, the male voice choir, is best exemplified by the deeply moving ethereal ascendant recording Tydi a roddaist, by the North Wales miners Rhos Male Voice Choir. Cerys makes a strong case for such choirs in a compilation that celebrates folk music, tracing its roots back through the mists of time and, rightly so, comparing it to the gospel music of the American south; the voice and communion of an earnest poor community of miners, some of which braved the scars and trauma of a colliery accident the day before to proudly summon the energy and poignancy to deliver a rousing hymn.

As you might imagine there’s some competition in the vocal stakes, with both wizened and breathtaking voices seemingly commonplace; the superlatives running out by the time you reach the Cardiff marvel Heather Jones and her star Celtic turn Lisa Lãn, a most stunning vocal delivery that soars.





The width and breadth as I say is large and expansive, with international troubadours, such as the ‘Welsh Bob Dylan’ Meic Stevens (who is allowed two tracks to match his undeniable status in the Welsh music scene over the decades) sitting alongside the ‘nightingale’ trilling and shrilled eccentric singing of the local elder South Glamorgan legend Phil Tanner; the church hall recorded marching song of the Free Wales Army radical campaigner Cayo Evans alongside the Crosby, Stills and Nash country rock folk of the three-piece Cardiff act the Hennessys.

 

Over a century’s worth of Welsh icons and lesser known (but of course, no less important) local and often amateur talent, spread over a generous collection, the Ultimate Guide is both a visceral and fondly compiled survey; more or less including something from every branch of the folk genre, and even the many international fusions that have helped spread the allure of Welsh music to all four corners of the globe. Even if this compilation falls short of its mighty title boast, then it can at the very least act as an exceptional introduction for further research or immersion.


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