Thursday, 21 August 2014

FolkEast Festival 2014

This year was the third FolkEast festival, set in the grounds of the magnificent Glemham Hall, Suffolk, for the second year running. I have attended this festival every year so far, as it is in my home county, and it never fails to bring joy.

Midday, on Friday 15th August, we set off to this wonderful festival, not camping for the weekend (though that is definitely a desire of mine) but staying for the day. The rain which we had driven through failed to dampen our spirits and we arrived excited as ever, to soak up the long awaited FolkEast atmosphere. This festival somehow has the ability to seem very small and intimate and yet has so much to offer and explore. 

Arriving at a time when there was presently no music on the two main stages, we took the opportunity to explore the stalls of crafty and foody delights. Everyone was so friendly and we came away having printed our own FolkEast t shirts - a fine idea, I think you'll agree! We then headed to the Broad Roots stage to find it nicely full up with lots of people enthusiastically dancing to the sounds of The English String Band.

The Soapbox stage is a big part of FolkEast, based in a cosy tent in the woods, showing off the wealth of local talent from the surrounding areas. We saw young singer/songwriter Tilly Dalglish play this stage, this time with multi-instrumentalist Finn Collinson. This was an absolute treat - Tilly has a beautiful voice, combined with her mandolin playing and Finn's talent over various instruments, it made for a fantastic set.

Next up we saw the John Ward Band play the Broad Roots stage. Now, I have seen him play before - a fantastic local musician and singer/songwriter, but I had never seen him play with his full band. We were not disappointed. They played a mixture of classic traditional songs, for example Byker Hill and then some written by John as well. Almost all followed a nautical theme reflecting their passion for the East Anglian coast's heritage. 

We caught the end of The Rails after seeing John Ward and I wish that we had been able to see the whole set. They were excellent, taking a more folk rock approach to the music - their debut album 'Fair Warning' is out now and definitely worth a listen.

Now, before this day, I had not listened to much Blowzabella at all, so we approached seeing them through a veil of mystery. They are all exceptional musicians and played some incredible tunes, many written by them, they sang some traditional songs as well. As the sun was setting over Glemham, crowds assembled and much dancing was taking place. I absolutely loved them and would definitely take up an opportunity to see them again, if one arose.

Finally, the name that was on every man, woman and child's lips; Bellowhead.
We spent the hour before Bellowhead's set among other passionate fans, with the atmosphere of anticipation building. By then, the sun had well and truly set and everyone was eagerly awaiting them to finish the (actually rather intriguing) setting up process. The set was, as expected, absolutely fantastic - so entertaining and energetic. They played quite a few tracks from their latest album "Revival", opening with 'Let Her Run'; some maybe less well known ones such as 'Fakenham Fair' and 'Hopkinson's Favourite'; and some of the old classics including 'Sloe Gin' and 'New York Girls' - those ones that get literally everyone prancing madly around (dancing in some shape or form).

What I'm trying to say is that FolkEast is an incredible festival, getting better and better every year. We had a brilliant time and will definitely be back next year.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Ange Hardy - "The Lament of the Black Sheep"

Somerset singer, songwriter and musician, Ange Hardy - winner of the FATEA Magazine's award for "Female Vocalist of the Year" releases her second album "The Lament of the Black Sheep" this September. Her debut album "Bare Foot Folk" was released last year and contains 14 beautifully crafted songs. From these foundations, Ange has used her second album to explore her own roots and the heritage of her homeland of West Somerset. It is a very personal approach to music, with many songs inspired by her own family and experience. The album features talented guest musiciansJames Findlay on violin and vocalsLuckas Drinkwater contributing double bass and his voice; Jon Dyeran expert flute and whistle playerAlex Cumming on accordion and vocals; and percussionist Jo May. These musicians add complex musical arrangements to Ange's beautiful songs. 

The album opens with  "The Bow to The Sailor", a song about the hardships of working at sea. This catchy song has many fantastically layered vocal passages, an example of Ange's ability as a producer. The vocals and percussion give the song a very fitting feeling of a sea shanty. A particularly atmospheric aspect of this song is Jon Dyer's whistle playing, which perfectly complements the melody.

The song "The Daring Lassie" is a particular favourite of mine. It is about Ange's journey to Ireland where she lived on the streets of Dublin for several months after running away from a care home in Somerset. This is an amazing story, especially as Ange was only 14 at the time. It begins with Ange singing alongside sparse guitar accompanimentJames Findlay then sings the rest of the verse. This works really as their voices are a stark contrast. The song has a memorable chorus and varying texture that make it really interesting to listen to. Like all of Ange's music, it is a song you can listen to over and over again just to hear the different layers. 

The title track for the album, "The Lament of the Black Sheep", is a retelling of the nursery rhyme "Baa Baa Black Sheep" inspired by Ange's son Luke, who as a toddler simplified the song andhappened to reveal the sadness of the story. This song sympathises with the sheep that gives away its wool and incorporates many wonderful harmonies, but is quite stark in its presentation with only a simple guitar line running alongside Ange's layered vocals.

Also inspired by her son, Ange wrote the song "The Lullaby". This song has a wonderful accompaniment consisting of layers of Ange's voice alongside the melody. The song is a Capella, and, as you would expectvery calming despite having an upbeat rhythm.

 "The Gambler's Lot" is about the generations of farmers it sometimes takes to build up a successful business, and is based on Ange's homeland of Somerset. The song comments on how mistakes of individuals can ruin the farm for those in the future. The topic of farming is particularly important to Ange as generations of her family worked in agriculture. This is a strong theme throughout the album represented on the cover by a picture of Anges great-grandfather farming. This picture was taken at the same farm as the pictures of Ange in the sleeve notes.

Other tracks range in theme from librarians to a woman who sends her husband to steal riches for her. Testimony to Ange's superb song writing are the lyrics, reproduced in the sleeve notes,that read like a storyFurthermore, through the arrangements of her songs, she creates atmospheres that suit the talethe songs tell.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Bella Hardy

Writing this on a school bus, the irony is not lost on me: Bella admitted last night just how many of her first songs were written on the one and a half hour long journey to and from school. However, despite this slightly weird song writing circumstances, Bella wrote some brilliant songs in this setting such as ‘Jenny Wren. So let's hope this journey has a positive effect on my writing too...

Singer songwriter and fiddle player, Bella Hardy, first became a recognised figure on the folk scene when she was a finalist for the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award in 2004. Her first album Night Visitingwas released in 2007 and,since then, Bella has become one of the most influential female folk artists.  She has released a total of six solo albums, including the Christmas themed Bright Morning Star. She gained a BBC Radio 2 Folk award for the song ‘Herring girlin 2012 and this year she was crowned Folk Singer of the Year at the Folk Awards, a huge achievement.

I first encountered Bellas music on Mike Hardings Folk Show on BBC Radio 2, when I was perhaps 11 years old. In fact Night Visitingis one the first albums I ever purchased. Since this time I have been very fond of Bellas music. I also think over the years her music has gone from strength to strength, especially her voice which has become even more lovely.

Bella Hardy has also appeared in various collaborations such as Carthy, Hardy, Farrell and Young (“its not an estate agent” Bella joked). I saw them perform last January and I remember being utterly blown away by the amazing blend of stringed instruments and voices. ‘Laylam, the album they created, to this day remains one of my favourites. Recently Bella has taken part in the Elizabethan Session alongside Jim Moray, Nancy Kerr, Martin Simpson, Emily Askew, Hannah James, Rachel Newton and John Smith. In this unique project artists were invited to write songs based on the Elizabethan era. An album is due for release, and there will be a final performance of these songs at Folk By the Oak Festival on 20th July at Hatfield House.

Additionally Bella appears on the album The Liberty to Choosewith James Findlay, Brian Peters and Lucy Ward. This album contains songs from The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs and includes a beautiful a Capella duet of the song The Trees they do Grow Highsung by Bella and Lucy.

I have seen Bella perform on one other occasion which was at Jim Morays 10th anniversary party at the Union Chapel where she performed Three Black Feathers. This song is the first track of Bellas album ‘Night Visitingand also appears on Jim Morays album, ‘Low Culture. Therefore seeing them perform this song together was particularly special.

Bella is currently on tour for thirty shows for her 30th birthday with her band, ‘The Midnight Watch’. The band consists of Anna Massie on guitar, Angus Lyon on keys and James Lindsay on bass.

On Wednesday evening I had the privilege of interviewing Bella. Here is our conversation: 

Me: What are your main influences when writing songs?

Bella: Well, I try not to write songs in any particular style. I tend to just write whatever comes to me that day and for that reason basically everything I come in contact with ends up influencing me in some way. I am a really big lover of books and stories and its really that that makes me love folk songs, I think. I really love the stories and the ballads and all of that... because when I was a teenager I was singing unaccompanied ballads and things; I kind of came through that tradition... Quite often I find starting points like ‘Goodmans Wifewhich is on my album ‘Battle Plan. Thats a kind of retelling of the ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsyballad. And Ive got a song called ‘Sylvie Sovay, which Ill sing tonight, which is from [the ballad] ‘Sovay, Sovay.

I absorb all the music I listen to. I love Carole King and Jodie Mitchell... Tom Waits and Paul Simon and all of these things I think all influence me. Especially Carole King I think because I...have lots of her songs ingrained in my head. I think all of this comes into play when youre writing songs and I dont try and edit them while Im writing them... I just write whatever song comes into my head and then work on it from there really...I tend to start with a lot of books as well. Angela Carter is one of my favourite writers. She wrote lots of short stories... So, I tend to read those when I need inspiration.

Me: How long does it take you to write a song on average?

Bella: Ooh, well you see, it can be anything from 2 hours to five years, Im afraid... I have many notebooks, and Im always jotting down thoughts that come into my head. And Ill end up with pages and pages of notes. And sometimes if Im thinking,‘Oh I would like to write a song about this, if I found one line I like and I think, 'Oh thats a good starting point.' Ill go back and look at all the notes I made and get lines from them that tie together. A bit like jigsawing a song together.  So those songs take a really long time... Sometimes, Ill come across something I really enjoy the concept of such as ‘The Herring Girl... there was a documentary on BBC 4, which I missed. But somebody told me about it and because of that I went and researched herring girls... Id written [a] tune and I hadnt found any lyrics to go with it yet and I wrote ‘The Herring Girlin probably an afternoon -probably 3 or 4 hours I imagine it took meAnd sometimes very, very occasionally that happens and I just write it. And actually thats been the case with ‘The Herring Girland with ‘Three Black Featherswhich are two of the songs people like the best. So maybe I should try and make myself do that more often.  When it happens like that its just wonderful because it feels like youve channelled something that wasnt necessarily yours and was just floating around in the ether and youve managed to get it out into the world. So thats a really lovely feeling.

Me: And how does that relate to projects like the Elizabethan Session?

Bella: For that one I think we all did different things to kind of get our brains jolted and get thinking about it... My sister Beth, when I was seven and she was thirteen she was in a play at Hatfield House and it was a kind of youth production. Were not from near there, it was like a national thing and she played Queen Elizabeth the First in a play. And so I have a memory of her having a big orange wig on and a big Queen Elizabeth the First dress. So I wrote a song about that memory first. I got out my A4 jotter and I wrote down all the memories I had about it and all the ways I felt about those memories; all the connotations, all the things theyre connected to; and looked at how my sibling relationships were similar to Elizabeths or very dissimilar to Queen Elizabeth the First's sibling relationships and had a look at the childhoods... So my very first song I did for the Elizabethan session was through that way. And thats called ‘Hatfield.

I did a second song for that project. I thought I couldnt do anything from the Elizabethan era without doing a bit of Shakespeare because I love the stories and I did English literature at university and Ive always really loved Shakespeares plays. So I went back and re-read ‘A Midsummers Nights Dreamand I wrote a song just called ‘Love in Idleness... using kind of Shakespearean language to write a ballad.

Me: What are your favourite places to perform? Do you prefer bigger venues or more intimate locations?

Bella: I dont. I always say, 'Favourites is a fools game, because Im useless at picking favourites... I played [at Theatr Mwldan] before and it’s just terrific. It’s a lovely theatre... I love the arts centres and I love that so many of them have this kind of audience of support and you can really feel the kind of love for a place and a community spirit... The festivals are so much fun because everyone's in that kind of jolly festival mood. But they all have their different challenges. Because at festivals you quite often are just really running in, running on stage and doing it. And the sound on stage might not be the best... It's a lot of fun in a different way. But here you get to make everything sound tiptop and get to work on everything so youre really happy with it and give a really quality...sounding performance. And I still just love standing up and singing unaccompanied songs as well so folk clubs and small clubs make me very happy because you can do that and just get to the story and the root of things and you are usually in the company of people who enjoy that too. So I love that too.

Me: And does the novelty of touring ever wear off? Especially on long tours like this...

Bella: ... I say I do enjoy touring once I get into it. But it usually takes me few days to get into the flow of it because of leaving home when you know youve got a few weeks away and youre moving everyday...And then you get into a good book and you see beautiful places and meet so many friendly people that you realise why its so enjoyable. So touring is a lot of fun but its always an adventure every day [and] never dull.

Me: Yes, I can imagine you get to visit lots of really beautiful places.

Bella: You do! And there is a sad side to it sometimes and I always really look forward to travelling abroad and and touring abroad. But touring abroad, youre quite often in hotels and then in theatres and conference suites. You dont actually get to experience the place very well. And Ive just started, now Ive turned 30, to try to take time to actually travel without working and really get a feel for a place because its quite different from when you need to stay on top of it - when you need to make sure your energy levels are up so you can give a good performance in the evening and you dont necessarily get to explore in the same way.

Me: What do you think of Wales in general?

Bella: I love Wales because Im from the Peak District and we used to come to Wales on our holidays. So it really is a place for me which I associate with family and holidays and time off and it's just a beautiful area, you know. Im also from a hilly area and we used to go to Snowdonia and North Wales and Cricciath and things and Pembrokeshire as well.... Im actually going to do a song called ‘Good Fridaytonight which I wrote down... in a harbour down in Pembrokeshire. So I love it here and I think theres a really great surge of Welsh music at the moment, with bands like Calan; theyre fantastic. Theyre really good.

Me: I love Calan!

Bella: There seems to be a real excitement with the music at the moment too and thats lovely to hear. Its such good music that comes from here, the traditional music, so Im a fan.

Me: Why did you choose to perform folk songs and folk music?

Bella: Well, I will tell you very honestly that I always sang, and I always tell people I am a singer, its just who I am. I was always pottering round singing and driving everybody crazy and Im only happy when I get to sing. I worked in an office briefly and was just driving everyone mad singing and I hated not being able to do it. It turns out you cant be paid to sit at home and sing so I started going out and performing and things. Before that I played the fiddle. My granddad's fiddle was knocking around our house and my mum, my sister and me all play it, and I wasnt a huge fiddle fan. I was a pretty bad young person, I didnt want to practise, and all the rest of it. And then I joined the school ceilidh band and that was a lot of fun...

When I was 13 I went for the first time to a thing called the Folkworks Summer School up in Durham... I absolutely loved it and I met a 100 young people who really liked folk music but more than that, [they] really liked each other and [there was] a real community spirit. I absolutely loved them all and I really wanted to see them all and have time with them and get to be their friends... And the only way which we could see each other, because we all lived all over the country, was by going to festivals. But we couldnt afford to buy tickets to festivals because none of us had any money. So we could only go to the festivals if we got free tickets and we could only do that if we played in bands. So, we started playing in bands. And that is why and how I became a professional performer. Well, its certainly why I became a performer and I spent my teenage years playing in bands at festivals. I started building up from that and then became professional when I actually realised thats how I was happiest – just singing - and in order to do that then Id have to get on stage to do it.

Me:  So, do you ever regret going down the folk music route compared to other more mainstream types of music?

Bella:  I never chose to go down any routes. Ive just do the music that I want to do. And for me I love folk music because its timeless and its stories are beautiful and its all about integrity and its all about honesty and about trying to communicate something that youre feeling...without artifice and without trying to turn it into something unreal. And I really like the honesty of folk music... I am a folk musician but Ive never gone, 'I am only going to make this type of music,' which is why I write as many different types of songs as I can. I just write whatever I want to write. I certainly think you can never regret being true to whatever music you want to make and I think that is really important.

Me: What is your favourite album that youve created?

Bella: Ooh. No, no thats like choosing children. Ive done six solo records now including a Christmas one. And I certainly really enjoy the newest one which is Battleplan which came out last April because, on that one, I am probably as honest as Ive ever been. Ive tended to start out to write lyrics about myself and hide them in [songs about other people]...So it was kind of my emotions and my feelings but given to other people to explain their situations. So Battleplan I enjoy for that reason. I like ‘In the Shadow of Mountainswhich is my second CD because it was the second one and the last one I produced by myself. And its very honestly from the Peak District. I can kind of feel my home there and my whole family sings on the record...And for me that feels like a very personal album, an album that I felt came from somewhere thats very honest and really intimate. And I could never choose a favourite. I have favourites for many different reasons. ‘Songs Lost and Stolenwas the first one I wrote all the songs for and I just enjoyed that so much. ‘Night Visiting was my first record and I wouldnt be here without it.

Me: What is your favourite traditional song?

Bella: I have so so many. I love the ballad of ‘Tam Lin; its not one I sing but I absolutely love it... ‘Rosebud in Junehas always been a favourite. Theres ‘the Bold Fenian Menan Irish song... Theres something about the tune of it that just hooks me right in every time. ‘When I was on Horsebackwhich I do as ‘True Hearted Girlhas always been one of my favourites. Such a beautiful lilting melody so it was lovely to finally get sing that one... I do love all the ballads, so any of the ballads will do for me.

Me: So you won BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer of the Year...How do you feel about that?

Bella: I feel very happy about that because it was totally lovely and really unexpected. On the night I was totally shocked because I thought it was wonderful to be nominated and its a terrible cliché because everyone says,Oh I never expected to win,but I really was a lovely feeling because we really hard on the folk scene and it's lovely that the Folk Awards are there to provide an access into our world to people who might not notice it otherwise. And for that reason I think its a really good thing and it was just a lovely honour to get to go on that stage in my dress.

Me: Is it as good to be nominated as to win?

Bella: I definitely think so with the Folk Awards. I think its such a community event. It feels like a social event for us and its just a way for us all to celebrate all the music made in the last little while together.

Me: What did you want to be when you were younger?

I wanted to be a lamb or a lollipop. I remember answering that question and they were my answers. I think I got to the ‘Lsection of the alphabet when somebody asked me that... After that, when I got a bit older I never really was very good at settling on what I wanted to be. Im still not entirely sure what I want to be when I grow up to be honest. But Im quite enjoying being a musician so I think Ill stick with that for a while. 

Me: Sounds like a good idea. Tell me a bit about the reasons behind this tour.

Bella: Well its my 30th birthday; thats the reason behind this tour. And I really wanted to find a way to kind of celebrate with a lot of people who Ive met over the years and to connect with the audience Ive been building over the seven years Ive been touring. So, I decided that Id visit 30 of my favourite venues ... and just really connect with everybody again and connect with the promoters and...just do a bit of a retrospective. Im singing songs from the whole of my back catalogue. So its nice to just get to go nipping back into all those CDs and so: 'Thirty for Thirty': 30 gigs for my 30th birthday.

Me: And what future plans do you have?

Ah... well that would be telling. But I have been writing a lot of songs in the last year and I dont like resting on my laurels so you shall be hearing a new album probably very soon. 

It was certainly lovely to be able to talk to Bella Hardy and I would really recommend trying to catch her on her current tour. 

Sunday, 6 April 2014

SongChain (Clych Canu) – Theatr Mwldan 03/04/14

SongChain incorporates ten of Wales’ most talented musicians and singers who deliver a unique and exciting tour enriched in Welsh folk music and tradition. Robert Evans, Dylan Fowler, Gwyneth Glyn, Delyth Jenkins, Beth Williams-Jones, Stephen Rees, Gwilym Bowen Rhys, Patrick Rimes and Jamie Smith; all known for their solo work as well as contribution to bands such as Calan and Jamie Smith’s Mabon; collaborate in this inspiring project mostly based on the heritage of folk music in Wales. During the performances there is, in my opinion, a lovely balance between English and Welsh spoken. Also, Songchain is made special by the leaflets which contain set lists with details of the songs (in both English and Welsh).

As the concerted started, to the distinctive sound of the pigorn, all eyes were drawn to the back of the auditorium to watch the dramatic entrance of Partick Rimes, Stephen Rees and Gwilym Bowen Rhys. They walked down the aisle whilst Patrick and Stephen played the pibgorn and Gwilym played bagpipes. The modern tune ‘Y pibydd Llon’ (‘The Joyful Piper’) was followed by the traditional tunes ‘Beth yw’r Haf I mi?’ (What is the Summer to Me?’ The use of these instruments created a really unusual yet distinctively Welsh sound and at times there were some really beautiful harmonies. During this piece the rest of the musicians congregated on stage in silence. They sat in a semicircle behind an area where the musicians performing could stand. This gave the concert a very intimate atmosphere and all the musicians were visibly enjoying watching each other perform.

Patrick, Stephen and Gwilym stayed at the front of the stage for the next piece, the sea shanty ‘Mae’r Gwynt Yn Deg’ (‘The Wind is Fair’). The harmonies created during this lively song were particularly enjoyable especially as they sang it unaccompanied, taking it in turns to sing the individual verses. This is just one of multiple songs with a naval theme. Later on in the first half Gwyneth Glyn beautifully sang the song ‘Yn Harbwr San Francisco’ accompanying herself on guitar alongside Jamie Smith’s wonderful accordion playing. This is a very pretty song in which a sailor laments about Wales. The addition of Jamie’s whistling late on the song made it particularly memorable and enjoyable.

It was particularly interesting to see Robert Evans play the crwth, which is a stringed instrument played with a bow like a violin but worn round the neck, ‘like a punishment’ as he explained. Robert pointed out that its importance in Wales for 800 years – twice as long as the violin. He played and sang ‘Ar Mhwys Dan Wyro ‘Mhen’ (‘As I Surveyed the Wood Alone’) and the sound of the crwth was very fitting to the melody and Robert’s voice.  Another distinctively Welsh form of music that was played was Cerdd Dant. A cerdd dant (or penillion singing) is a form of sung poetry accompanied by the harp. Gwenan Gibbard played ‘Calon Drom’ (‘Heavy Heart) comprising both old and new lyrics. Gwenan Gibbard has a very pleasant voice which really suits this slightly unusual music form.

Beth Williams-Jones, Gwyneth Glyn and Gwennan Gibbard opened the second half with the attractive song ‘Adar Man y Mynydd’ (‘The Small Birds of the Mountain’) notable for their harmonies. This was followed by Beth Williams-Jones singing ‘Aderyn Pur’ (‘The Pure Bird’) and ‘Gwcw Fach’ (‘Little Cuckoo’). Although I have heard Beth sing with Calan, I have never heard her sing as well this. She has a very clear voice and the song was particularly engaging when, during ‘Gwcw Fach’, she incorporated rhythmic clogging to go with the lively melody. Dylan Fowler accompanied her with intricate guitar playing.

The concert ended with the whole group standing up to sing ‘Carol y Swper’ (‘The Carol of the Supper’). This song was often sung at the end of Plygain services, church services that are held early on Christmas morning. It was a lovely and fitting way to end the concert and one of my favourite moments of the concert.

The Songchain tour continues for the next week and will visit various places in Wales. After that, let’s just hope a CD incorporating these beautiful songs and tunes is released. If I were able to, I would certainly go and see them perform again. The most disappointing aspect of the concert at Theatr Mwldan was that very few people attended even though the concert was fantastic. Therefore, I really recommend that you go and see this unique collaboration. 

Friday, 28 February 2014

The Dammed Nations Tour

On Thursday I had the privilege of watching a rehearsal for the ‘Dammed Nations’ Tour at Theatr Mwldan. This is a collaboration between Nubian and Welsh musicians commemorating similar events that have happened in both countries. It is 50 years since the village of Capel Celyn was flooded to make way for the Tryweryn Reservoir. Nubia experienced a similar fate when the area was flooded to make way for the construction of the Aswan High Dam which displaced 1,200 Nubians. Welsh harpist and singer Siân James and guitarist and singer Gai Toms work beside the Nubian band Nuba Nour in a unique collaboration to remember these two places that were both destroyed in similar ways.

This project began last summer when it was suggested by project director Graham Breakwell that Capel Celyn should be commemorated. The decision was then made to combine this with music from the lost Nubian Homelands. However, this collaboration is not just about the history of these places but also the sound. It is certainly an unusual project and the music that is created is beautiful. Nuba Nour, as well as providing vocals, contributes rhythm through the use of percussive instruments but also wonderful melodies played on the oud. An oud is a stringed instrument with a pear shaped body that is played in the same way a guitar. This is not dissimilar to the Welsh musician’s use of sometimes rhythmic and sometimes melodic guitar and harp playing. The result is united with lovely vocals and more percussion instruments. Therefore, it seems as though the sounds produced are not as different as it appears at first glance.

During my conversation with Tour Manager, Michael Whitewood, it was revealed that this was the second set of rehearsals for the tour. He told me that he was very grateful that the funding had been enough to ensure the musicians had sufficient time to fully prepare for the tour.

I was given the fantastic opportunity of speaking to Siân James, who was able to tell me a little more about this collaboration which she described as ‘two cultures remembering history together’. I asked her about how it was like working with a group of people from such a different culture and she said that is was an ‘eye opener’ but ‘interesting’ and ‘great fun’. She spoke about the differences in music between the two cultures. Siân explained that whilst Welsh musicians communicated music through naming chords and learning from sheet music, the Nubian musicians mostly learnt by ear. I mentioned how the Nubian music was very rhythm based and Siân spoke about the song called ‘Forgive Me’, which they had been rehearsing that afternoon. She mentioned that although the subject matter was ‘melancholy’, the sound produced was still ‘joyous’ due to the Nubians’ rhythmic frame drum playing. This song incorporates Siân’s singing in Welsh alongside Nuba Nour’s singing in Nubian. Although the use of two different languages is rather unusual, it was effective. I do not speak either of these languages, but it was still possible to understand some of the emotion of the lyrics being sung.

One of the most enjoyable things about watching these musicians perform was that, although there was a language barrier, they still had their own special ways of communicating with each other. When I asked Siân about this, she mentioned how four different languages were spoken in the group: Welsh, English, Nubian and Arabic. However, despite this barrier, they were able to ‘communicate humanity through music’ and, despite not being fluent in each others’ languages, they are all good friends. She mentioned how they had found other ways to communicate, through actions rather than words. It is certainly a subject that recurred during my conversations with other members of the tour.

I also had the opportunity to speak to Hamoudi, Nuba Nour’s excellent oud player, and Mamdouh Elkady, who works at the El Mastaba Centre for Egyptian folk music in Cairo and who was helping to translate between English and Arabic for the musicians. I inquired about what it was like working with the Welsh musicians and was told that they had the same objectives in the project: they were nostalgic about the lost places, they wanted to preserve tradition and keep their own languages, and therefore it all fits together naturally. I asked Hamoudi what it was like being in Wales and Mamdouh translated his response which was that he felt very comfortable in Wales and that he felt at home: the other musicians were like a family to him. He mentioned the friendship amongst the group and because it is his second visit to Wales, he also had other friends here. He also spoke about how Wales is very different from England and that he probably preferred Wales (obviously!).

We also discussed how the process was very complex due to the difficulties in language. Hamoudi responded to this by saying they shared a ‘common spirit’ and therefore they were on ‘common land’ despite the different techniques and background of all these instrumentalists. I think that is one of the most beautiful aspects about this collaboration is how people can be united through music.

This tour kicks off tomorrow in Neuadd Buddug, Bala, before touring throughout Wales and South England. By what I have seen of this collaboration it is destined to be a brilliant tour and definitely worth seeing.  

Monday, 24 February 2014

The Furrow Collective – 'At Our Next Meeting'

The Furrow Collective comprises Emily Portman, Alasdair Roberts, Lucy Farrell and Rachel Newton. Together, these four fantastic musicians and singers have uncovered some beautiful ballads and have compiled them on this wonderful CD. Perhaps this is a slightly strange direction for Alasdair Roberts and Emily Portman, who are known throughout the folk scene for their traditional influenced song-writing: however, this album showcases their thoughtful interpretations of traditional songs. Additionally, the album is centred around dark folklore and storytelling through song, which is certainly something these four musicians do incredibly well. This is further highlighted through the instrumentation which is fittingly sparse at times.

The album opens with the song ‘Wild and Wicked Youth’, also known as ‘Newry Town’. It has a beautiful melody and the blend of Farrell’s and Roberts’ voices with a sparse guitar accompaniment draws attention to the narrative. The ballad is about a highwayman who steals to provide gifts for his wife. He is finally caught and the consequences are significant. Most songs on the album contain these simple arrangements which invite the listener to take note of the story rather than musical complexities.

Perhaps the most interesting song arrangement on this album is the overlapping of the ballads ‘Handsome Molly’ and ‘Our Captain Calls’. As is pointed out in the sleeve notes, these songs basically tell the same story but from different ‘sides’. It is therefore an incredibly clever arrangement. ‘Handsome Molly’ is told from a man’s point of view about Molly who promised to marry him but reneges. This is similar to ‘Our Captain Calls’ as the persona in ‘Handsome Molly’ wishes to ‘sailing on the ocean’, whilst ‘Our Captain Calls’ contains the story of  the woman who is left behind whilst her partner goes to sea. She claims that he deceived her to gain her money. Lucy Farrell sings ‘Handsome Molly’, and Emily Portman lends her voice to ‘Our Captain Calls’ but the addition of other voices creates poignant harmonies which enhance the sad nature of both songs.

The wonderfully catchy ‘Hind Horn’ is a particular favourite of mine because it contains a lovely refrain. Alistair’s skilful guitar playing adds a rhythmic element to the song which heightens the mood. ‘I’d Rather be Tending my Sheep’ is, as the title suggests, a reflection on the joys of being a shepherd. It is a song in which other options for life our dismissed for a simple pastoral life. It contains a lovely chorus with beautiful harmonies. No instruments play on the track, and it therefore highlights the power of A’cappella singing.

The album showcases ballads and indicates their importance in the folk scene. ‘The Furrow Collective’ certainly has a unique approach to these songs which emphasises the interesting stories they contain.

‘I’d rather be Tending my Sheep’ -

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Jamie Smith's Mabon - Theatr Mwldan - 30/11/2013

Jamie Smith's Mabon comprises five of Wales' finest folk musicians. Together Jamie Smith, Oliver Wilson-Dickson, Adam Rhodes, Iolo Whelan and Matthew Downer create a sound that is traditional yet original. Known for their lively tunes and fantastic original material, this Welsh band is definitely one to see live. The evening included tunes and songs influenced by music styles from all around the world intertwined with Welsh Celtic music. Their 'Taith Adre' tour has visited venues only in Wales and is therefore a celebration of the welsh roots of the band.

The evening began with the toe tapping tune set ‘Huzzah’. The rhythmic bouzouki accompaniment blended perfectly with Jamie Smith’s expert accordion playing. It was masterfully played and a lovely way to start the set.

Jamie Smith possesses a smooth and distinctive voice, that complements his songwriting perfectly. He sang the song ‘Summer’s Lament’ which is very fitting for this time of year in Wales. The song is all about the disappointment of winter and is an incredibly pleasant and relaxing song to listen to, although it does not contain a poignant message. Jamie also sang the song ‘Lady of the Woods’ and requested audience participation. A large proportion of the audience joined in with the catchy chorus which definitely added to the song. The song is about fantasy stories and contains lovely lyrics and a very memorable tune.

They played the atmospheric tune ‘The Tale of Nikolai’ which Oliver claimed he notated on a piece of bark using stones whilst listening to it being played in a cave in Russia! This tune is very dramatic sounding and Oliver’s intricate violin playing is delicate yet powerful. This was followed by the best musical sales pitch I have ever heard, reminding the audience of the merchandise for sale.

It is a shame that there was a lack of space for dancing otherwise I’m sure many people would have been inclined to get on their feet during the very lively, danceable tune sets. ‘The Gordano Ranter’ is certainly one of these tunes. One of Jamie’s finest compositions, in my opinion, this tune was written after an interesting incident in a service station in Gordano.  

My favourite track played during the evening was ‘Caru Pum Merch’. This beautiful song in Welsh is about loving a women through the five stages of her life. Its mysterious instrumentation makes the song very atmospheric and interesting to listen to. The song begins acoustically with Oliver on violin and Jamie’s clear vocals. The addition of percussion instruments by Iolo Whelan, and Matthew Down’s bass playing, counterpoint this very traditional sounding melody but do not create a fusion sound. Instead they are more subtle in creating a dark backdrop for the melody. Overall, it creates a rather beautiful effect. 

Link to Jamie Smith's Mabon website :