For those of you who are not familiar with the place, Porthcawl is a small town on the Glamorgan coast in Wales. The town had it's origins as a small port exporting coal from mines in the valleys above Bridgend. In the late 19th Century, as the coal trade was transferred to larger ports nearby, the town reinvented itself as a holiday destination and where the coal was once shipped, the miners themselves now came for their annual holiday.
In 1932, the Art Deco Grand Pavilion was opened on the seafront and rapidly established itself as a major venue regularly hosting a number of events including the annual South Wales Miners gala.
In recent years, like most British seaside towns, Porthcawl has gone into decline, a fact exacerbated by the demise of the coal industry, but the town has tried to reinvent itself by bringing new events to the area, including Europe's largest Elvis festival which takes place every September. However, it is a festival that takes place at the other end of the season that concerns us here.
Cwlwm Celtaidd is a well established festival, having been around since the early years of the new millennium. The festival's first home was at Trecco bay caravan park on the edge of Porthcawl but in recent years has set up home at the Grand Pavilion, a move that has brought it into closer contact with it's host community.
The name Cwlwm Celtaidd translates as Celtic Knot and, as such, it sums up the festival's ethos perfectly. The organisers aim is to bring together performers from as many of the Celtic nations as possible in the spirit of friendship and co-operation & this year saw representatives from Wales, Scotland, Ireland, The Isle Of Man and Cornwall gather together at The Grand Pavilion.
The Pavilion itself is an ideal venue for the festival, with the main auditorium, the smaller Stage Door Theatre for more intimate performances and a Café Bar, which was the venue for some more informal sessions. The main auditorium was the venue for the main headline acts on the Friday and Saturday nights with performances in the other spaces timed to allow the audience to get back for the headliners should they so wish.
Normally, there is wall to wall music on both stages starting with the official opening by the California & District Pipe Band. This year though, the organisers changed the format a little on Friday, working on the formula of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" the support act for the Friday night headliners were two Welsh and Irish mass groups led by Alun Wyn-Jones and Rory Best respectively. To your reviewer, the idea of having a live screening of the Wales - Ireland Six Nations game worked well, there were enough supporters of both nations to create an atmosphere of friendly rivalry, no doubt helped by the quality of Ruby Union on display and a Welsh win. An added bonus was that we didn't have to sit through 15 minutes of commentators and former players droning on at half time, being entertained by music and dance from Ireland courtesy of the excellent Achrann and the Kilcummin Set Dancers.
Full time at the Principality Stadium saw the main attraction for Friday night take to the stage in the Grand Pavilion. Jamie Smith's Mabon have played at Cwlwm Celtaidd on numerous occasions over the years but I suspect this is the first time they have had the Welsh and Irish Rugby union teams open for them. This band have long been a Chamberlain family favourite & one that we have seen live many times. On this occasion the set was possibly a bit shorter than normal, owing to the venue curfew but was up to their usual high standards none the less. Most of the music in their set was taken from the band's most recent album, Windblown, starting off with the excellent song The Space Between. One thing that I have noticed in my years of coming to Cwlwm Celtaidd is that the audience really like to dance, something that tracks like, Whiskey Burp Reels, Go Kemper & Drum n Breizh gave them ample opportunity to do with the beautiful, Iolo Whelan composed love song Yr Ennyd giving the dancers a chance to get their collective breath back. One thing that is apparent throughout a Mabon performance is just how talented a group of musicians Jamie Smith, Oli Wilson-Dickson, Iolo Whelan, Paul Downer and Matt Rogers really are. Jamie is possibly the finest young Accordion player in the UK today, something that becomes even more apparent when you see him perform the wonderfully titled Accordionist's Despair, a tune that showcases his considerable talents to the full. Once again Jamie Smith's Mabon delivered a set chock full off good humour, quality songs and tunes and top notch musicianship. If you've never seen them live, do so if the opportunity arises, you won't be disappointed.
What if you didn't want to watch the Rugby I hear you cry? Well there was a full programme of music in the Stage Door Theatre on the Friday night but I must admit my attention was on the events at the Principality Stadium, although my partner did make her way down there. The headlining band, Ofelia, are a group that I have been keeping tabs on for a while now. They are an excellent live act and, if there is any justice in the world, have a great future ahead of them. Look out for their debut EP release in April.
Saturday is the day when the festival lets Porthcawl know that it's taking place and there is no better way of doing that than by marching the massed pipes and drums of the California And District Pipe Band From the Grand Pavilion through the town centre to the Bandstand. The band are regulars at the festival and are a great way of getting the public's attention, engaging with them and letting them know about the afternoon of dance displays and music that take place around the town on the Saturday afternoon
Back in the Grand Pavilion, the daytime focus in the main auditorium was on participation with the morning being given over to the Young Musician Of The Festival competition, more of which anon and the afternoon given over to workshops with the chance to experience Scottish Dance with the Ballochleam Highland Dancers, Irish Dance with Kilcummin Irish Dancers and Welsh Dance with Dawnswyr Delyn. Musicians were also given the chance to learn new skills with a beginners Fiddle Workshop with Cesar Joughin, Rhythm Workshop with Jamie Smith's Mabon's drummer Iolo Whelan and, last but not least, a spoons workshop with the inimitable Pat Smith. For those who wanted to play music there was informal sessions run in the Grand Pavilion Café Bar and a series of performances alternating music and downstairs in the Stage Door Theatre hosted by Pat Smith and Ned Clamp. For me, the Saturday afternoon highlights were performances by young musicians. Morfa are trio from South Wales consisting of Clog dancer and Fiddle player Osian Gruffydd, Fiddle player and multi instrumentalist Meg Cox and classical guitarist Rhys Morris. None of these performers are out of their teens and Meg has been performing since the age of four. Aneirin Jones and Dylan Cairns-Howarth were the first two winners of the festival young musician competition and perform together when possible, the limitation being that one is at university in Aberystwyth, the other in Glasgow. Rehearsals are, in fact, less of a problem than performing as they regularly rehearse together via Skype. All of these young performers put in well balanced sets that were very enjoyable and showcased their respective talents very effectively. Once again they showed, if proof were needed, that the future of traditional music in Wales is in great hands & that all of them are names to look out for in the future.
As on the Friday night, Saturday evening saw music in both the Stage Door Theatre and the main auditorium with the former finishing in time to take in the Saturday night headliners upstairs. I must admit that there was only one performance in the Stage Door Theatre this year but I suspect that was more to do with the time setting up and the space required, as will become clear. Robin Huw Bowen is the only professional harpist in the world specialising in the Triple harp, an instrument that, despite it's Italian roots, is now seen as uniquely Welsh. In previous years Robin has performed at Cwlwm Celtaidd as a solo artist, showcasing the tunes that have been written for this unique instrument, many of which Robin himself has rediscovered during his extensive searches in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. For this year though, Robin decided to bring some friends along and gathered together an ensemble, I counted 15, Welsh and Celtic harps to perform in the Stage Door Theatre on the Saturday night.
Shortly after Robin's ensemble concluded their performance downstairs, the main act for Saturday evening took to the main stage. Calan are another young Welsh band who are growing in stature with every album they release and they are certainly doing their bit to promote Welsh traditional music beyond their native lands with regular tours and festival appearances across the UK and, more recently, the US and Canada as well. With a new album, Solomon, due for release soon it was not surprising that Calan's newer material featured heavily in the set but it was interesting to see how the band has progressed since their formation in 2006 and how their sound has changed. The first, and most obvious, change was the presence of a drum kit on the stage. Tom Rees joined the band especially for their Cwlwm Celtaidd performance and may well be joining the 5 piece in future for larger gigs. As you might imagine Saturday night at a festival is possibly not the time for quiet, introspective, soul searching songs, most, if not all, of the audience were up for a good time and Calan delivered music to get them dancing in spades whether its was traditional dance tunes such as the set opener Dennis' Polka or Ryan Jigs, both of which appear on the band's forthcoming album, or the rocking interpretation of the tale of how The Red Dragon became the emblem of Wales, The Tale Of Two Dragons. We were also treated to stories about the perils of going to the US as a performer. Patrick and Sam's experiences at the hands of US immigration being the inspiration for the tune #DeportationSelfie. Calan, though, are not just about the tunes with Bethan Rhiannon being both a very talented Welsh Clog Dancer and the possessor of a beautiful singing voice, heard to great effect on the traditional songs Yr Enedd Ga'dd Ei Gwrthod (The Rejected Maiden) and Adar Man y Mynydd (Little Birds On The Mountain). Over the years I have never seen Calan fail to deliver an enjoyable set and this year's Cwlwm Celtaidd was certainly no exception. They are a band that successfully mixes the traditional and the contemporary, creating a sound and style that is very much rooted in the Welsh tradition whilst being at the same time of the 21st century. On the evidence of this set, I am looking forward to hearing Solomon when it is released on 14th April, the tracks we heard performed indicate that it is likely to be Calan's best album yet. The band will be touring in support of the album throughout April and May and if they are performing anywhere near you then go and see them, you won't be disappointed. On the basis of what I have seen, it shouldn't be too long before this talented group of young performers will be headlining major festivals in their own right.
Sunday morning dawned bright and breezy with the occasional rain shower which meant that, unfortunately, the traditional Sunday Morning Ceilidh on the beach was cancelled for this year. However, that didn't mean there wasn't any Sunday Morning dancing opportunities for those who wanted it, with the final dance workshops of the weekend being held in The Stage Door Theatre. A Beginners Welsh Clog workshop hosted by Ceri Evans of Dawnswyr Penyfai being followed by an intermediate Clog workshop run by Osian and Rhys from Morfa.
Upstairs in the main auditorium on Sunday afternoon we were treated to a number of dance displays from the likes of Perree Bane (White Coats) from the Isle of Man and Hevva from Cornwall in addition to the final component in something Cwlwm Celtaidd does exceedingly well, the encouragement of the next generation. Without new performers, any tradition will soon wither and die and the organisers of Cwlwm Celtaidd are certainly going above and beyond in their efforts to encourage the next generation of musicians and dancers. Besides giving young, up and coming performers stage time they also run a number of other projects with this end in mind. An integral part of the festival is the annual outreach project which takes festival performers Into local schools giving pupils an insight into the culture and traditions of the other Celtic nations. The encouragement of youth also encompasses a competitive element, the Young Musician Of The Festival competition was established in 2015 with the winner receiving a cash prize and a specially commissioned commemorative plate made by The Ewenney Pottery near Bridgend. This year seven young musicians gathered in the main auditorium on the Saturday morning with the eventual winner being named as Osian Gruffydd, a talented fiddle player and clog dancer who is already making a name for himself in South Wales as a member of the groups Morfa and Nantgarw. The Young Musician competition was joined this year by a schools choir contest. The inaugural competition saw four choirs entering and, despite some late withdrawals, Sunday afternoon saw Ysgol Gymraeg Garth Olwg announced as deserved winners for 2017.
For those who fancied something a little more relaxed on Sunday afternoon there was a programme of performances downstairs in the Stage Door Theatre featuring Band Tawerin, Gracie Richards, Aneirin Jones and Dylan Cairns-Howarth, a young Manx trio called Imbolc, A trio made up of performers from Dawnswyr Penyfai called Eos and Cornish duo MacQuarrie And Toms. All of whom provided sets perfect for sitting back and enjoying after the previous night's excitations.
If I am completely honest, prior to our first visit to Cwlwm Celtaidd, I was a little wary that as an English, Non-Welsh Speaker, there wouldn't be much at the festival for me. Needless to say all my fears were subsequently proved to be completely unfounded, Cwlwm Celtaidd is one of the most friendly, welcoming festivals I have ever been to, with something for everyone no matter what your mother tongue is. If you are looking for an excuse for an early March visit to the seaside then you probably won't find a better one than Cwlwm Celtaidd. Here's hoping this most enjoyable of festivals returns for 2018. Hoperfully I'll see you there.
Words & Pictures David Chamberlain
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