Thursday, May 02, 2019

National anthems

"There is no Welsh rock scene in reality", claims Meic Stevens in Huw Stephens' documentary film Anorac. The pioneering Welsh-language folk troubadour comes across as disillusioned at best and as grumpy and bitter at worst, bemoaning a lack of support, money and gigging opportunities. By contrast, David Edwards of Datblygu - acclaimed as "the most important Welsh-language band that has ever been" - insists that not only is there a scene but that it is "healthy".

Stephens is careful to avoid pronouncing judgement as to who is right, at least until the end, but the film bears out the truth of Edwards' perspective. BBC Radio 1 DJ Stephens travels around his home country over the course of four days, starting in Cardiff (in Spillers, naturally) with H Hawkline and winding up at Festival No. 6 in Portmeirion with Super Furry Animals. Along the way he talks about the scene's godfathers Y Blew and meets everyone from folkies, punks and indie-rockers to rappers and lo-fi pop duos performing in bus stops (Dau Cefn).

That's not to say, however, that the Welsh-language scene doesn't have its problems. Rhys Mwyn, formerly bassist with punk outfit Anhrefn, talks about bands regularly hitting a wall and feeling the pressure to switch to singing in English to get any further. As the one-time manager of Catatonia, he should know. He also echoes Meic Stevens' complaint that the scene could be more supportive and is, or at least has been, too static and unevolving.

Essentially, this is a tension between tradition and modernity. While one of the folkies featured early on admits that she enjoys finding freedom within the strictures of a traditional form of music, Stephens accepts that the Eisteddfod and Maes B are a "bubble" and Iolo Selyf James, lead singer of Pembrokeshire punks Y Ffug, goes further: "Wales - to quote Richie Edwards - is like a museum, living in the past. And that's not what I want for Welsh culture. It's not what young people's culture should be."

Y Ffug's 'Cariad Dosbarth Canol Cymru' ('Love Middle-Class Wales') is a sharp commentary on the issue, taking aim at jaded, comfortable tradition. Most controversially, the song recommends that the Welsh should forget about, rather than remember, Tryweryn. Given the political significance of the events themselves and the original "Cofiwch Dryweryn" graffiti, and given the subsequent outcry when it was recently desecrated, that sentiment could be regarded as crassly provocative - the equivalent of the Sex Pistols and Joy Division wearing swastikas as a way of baiting their parents' generation. And yet in the film James offers a reasonable and articulate justification - namely, that there is a need to move on from fixating on the past and perpetuating an antipathy to England that has become tedious and debilitating; instead, in his view, Wales should start living in the present and looking to the future.

He goes on to argue for the importance of a vital, modern cultural scene: "You need culture for a language to survive. Young people don't want to speak a language that they have no connection with. If you want to get their interest, then you have to give them culture." On this point, the Super Furries' Gruff Rhys is very much in agreement: "Popular culture has a valuable role. It opens various pathways into the language. It's one of those means of communication that's impossible to control - it's something instinctive."

What matters now, suggests Mwyn, is that Welsh artists ensure that they aren't simply preaching to the converted and that the language is taken beyond the hermetically sealed "bubble" of the Eisteddfod, and beyond Wales' borders. He acknowledges that Lisa Jen Brown of 9Bach and Gwenno have done this, refusing to compromise and achieving modest success, and of course the Super Furries' LP Mwng, released in 2000 at pretty much their commercial peak, was hugely important in this respect.

Are there enough Welsh-language bands and artists with the talent and potential to make a similar move? I think so, yes - Anorac suggests as much. But then the question becomes whether they would find sufficiently receptive audiences outside Wales. That much is more uncertain. Time will tell.

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