When the Crotchety Kid was just nine or ten years old one of his teachers was a woman not so young in years but with all the best attributes of youth in her manner. There was a timeless beauty in her face and the fresh warmth of her personality has never been matched in all the Crotchety days since. She was the perfect teacher. But what really made the Crotchety Kid fall in love with her was her voice.
You see, my classroom Miss¹ had a soft Welsh accent. There is a long history of poetry and music in Wales; it has been celebrated for centuries in eisteddfods² up and down the country. I have always imagined that those cultural activities were rooted in the Welsh language itself because, you see, when our teacher spoke it sounded like the singing of an angel. Even the most prosaic of prose fell gently on the ear like sublime poetry.
I was reminded of those early school days on Friday when a few of us went to the Guildhall Theatre in Derby to see the concert by Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita mentioned in last week’s Track of the Week post. None of the promotional material I saw advertised a support act so it was mildly surprising when four musicians came onto the stage and picked up the traditional instruments of a folk group.
The players formed a shallow arc on the stage. The singer and guitarist stood centre right, slightly farther back than the others, but it was she who led the performance. After announcing herself as Gwyneth Glyn (a quintessentially Welsh name) she went on to introduce the rest of the band: Gillian Stevens (viol, crwth), Rowan Rheingans (banjo, bansitar, violin, vocals) and Dylan Fowler (guitars, electric bass, percussion). It was a rather hesitant opening gambit and a sense of first performance nervousness continued into the first song the band performed.
Over the next hour we were given most of the songs on Gwyneth Glyn’s first major solo album, Tro³, the majority sung in Welsh. This is modern folk music with a traditional feel, well suited to the small and cosy venue. Gwyneth’s voice was pleasant enough and the songs were pleasing, too. But the strength of the band was in their arrangements, making full use of the variety of instruments at their disposal. Here’s the official YouTube video from the Tro album, a track called Cwlwm (the Welsh for knot).
During her set Gwyneth Glyn mentioned that she had played in this theatre before and that this was the band’s last night supporting Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita – she was, it seemed, a seasoned performer – so her band’s somewhat hesitant recital was puzzling. In complete contrast, after the interval, the headline duo exuded the confidence of true masters of their art.
Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita are a duo by serendipity. In early 2012 Finch, a leading Welsh harpist, was due to embark on a tour of the Principality with the Malian kora maestro Toumani Diabaté. Because of a coup in Bamako, Diabaté cut his arrival nearer and nearer to the start of the tour, and Seckou Keita, a Senegalese musician long resident in the UK, stepped in to rehearse with her. The friendship they forged persisted …
Long after their collaboration began the two musicians found another link between their countries of birth: the fish-eating bird of prey, the osprey, migrates between Europe and Africa and one ringed bird is known to have fledged in Wales, wintered (probably) in Senegal or Gambia, and returned to make her own nest in Scotland. That bird was named Clarach and the opening track on SOAR takes the osprey’s name as its title.
Clarach was also the first tune at the live gig, after a recorded ode to the young osprey by Andy Morgan. It was a spell-binding introduction.
The concert continued with the other tracks from the SOAR album, interspersed with brief remarks from Catrin or Seckou. Before the second song, Téranga-Bah, Seckou told us that the title comes from ‘téranga’, a word meaning ‘hospitality’ in the Wolof language of Senegal, and ‘bah’, which means ‘big’ in Mandinka, another West African language. Unsurprisingly, it is a joyous song of welcome and Seckou sings it with a passion inspired by the spirit of his African ancestors.
Soon it was Catrin’s turn to introduce a fusion of European baroque and Senegalese ceremonial music called Bach to BaÏsso. Like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations transforms into BaÏsso, one of the oldest tunes in the repertoire of the Senegambian kora. Adapting the Bach for the kora was a challenge because, as Seckou pointed out, while the harp is a chromatic instrument the kora is not. But there it was fluttering from his fingers and dancing with Catrin’s arpeggios and runs as if it was written with the kora in mind.
The highlight of the gig for me was a piece called 1677. The title is a reminder that in the year 1677 a contingent of French forces stormed and took a Dutch fort on the island of Gorée off the coast of Senegal. This marked the start of French rule in the region and soon turned Gorée into “one of the most infamous slave trading emporia on the west coast of Africa”.
1677 is an instrumental that Seckou describes as ‘blues sounding’ but to me ‘jazzy’ seems more appropriate. It has the rocking rhythm of a slave ship, with plenty of space for rueful reflection. And in that space Catrin and Seckou were trading passages of improvisation. A harp run was answered with a kora riff. A kora melody was complemented with punctuated harp chords. Both musicians added percussive effects by tapping the bodies of their instruments. And neither player skipped a beat as they swapped between lead and rhythm.
Gwyneth Glyn returned to join Catrin and Seckou on stage for one simple, folky song, Listen to the Grass Grow. (The instrumental version of this piece was the track that introduced me to Catrin and Seckou when it appeared on my Release Radar recently.) Then Catrin announced that the next piece would be the last of the evening and a faint murmur of disappointment rose from the stalls. Catrin paused and then said, “Let’s try that again … This is the last song tonight”. And a full-throated chorus of “No!” erupted from the whole audience. Seckou smiled broadly, declared, “That’s better!” and everyone laughed heartily.
The ‘last’ song was Cofiwch Dryweryn, which means “remember Tryweryn”. It commemorates the Welsh village of Capel Celyn which disappeared under the waters of Llyn Celyn, the lake formed when the Tryweryn valley was flooded to supply the English city of Liverpool with water. The anger triggered by that event helped to stimulate a new wave of Welsh nationalism and a revival of the Welsh language. Seckou’s African chanting, far from being incongruous, blends beautifully with Catrin’s half-spoken Welsh words and with the musical lament spun by the strings of the harp and the kora.
The encore was something that the audience recognised and applauded warmly but the Crotchety memory has failed to record what it was. I assume it was from Clychau Dibon, the first album by this duo, which was released in 2013. Whatever it was it was a fitting end to an enthralling concert.
The connections between Gwyneth Glyn and Catrin Finch must go beyond being Welsh and touring together because their respective CDs are both packaged in beautiful booklets with sturdy cardboard covers, lovely photos and plenty of background information. These are two albums for which the physical disc (CD or vinyl) is a must – a download just wouldn’t be the same. The Crotchety household is proud to have added them to its library. They enhance our home visually and sonically; and they serve as a reminder of a teacher who taught me that Welsh is the language of heaven.
Crotchety Man has been unusually busy over the past week so this is a combined Track of the Week and Gig post.
- She was almost certainly married and, therefore, Mrs. somebody-or-other but I can’t for the life of me remember her name now.
- The plural of eisteddfod is eisteddfodau but, as this blog has an international audience, I’m using the more familiar English convention of adding an ‘s’ to make a plural here.
- Tro is the Welsh for turn. The sleeve notes for the album elaborate on that, defining it as “rotation, revolution, turn, a turning (over), stir(ring) (of tea &c.); an encircling; torsion, twist, warp (in timber &c.); coil or circle (of rope &c.), ringlet (of hair); orbit, circuit, lap”.