Let me tell you about the "Welsh Not", a piece of wood, or sometimes lead, inscribed with the letters WN and found in many Welsh Schools during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. Essentially the Not was given to the first child to be heard speaking Welsh and was then passed on to the next until, at the end of the day, the unfortunate child in possession was subjected to punishment of some kind, often a beating or flogging. The idea behind this was to discourage the use of Welsh and to promote the establishment view that English was the language of moral progress and opportunity.
What has this got to do with Welsh Folk? Well, there is a theory that if you suppress the language, you suppress the culture and it can be argued that, in the past, Welsh folk and Traditional music has not had the level of exposure enjoyed by it's Celtic cousins. That, however, seems to be changing with Wales hosting Womex in 2013 and, more recently, Wales being the featured nation at both the 2018 Festival Interceltique In L'Orient and the English Folk Expo in Manchester. something else that will no doubt help the process of change is the creation of Gwobrau Gwerin Cymru - The Wales Folk Awards.
As an idea, the Awards have been around for about 15 years but they have only been made possible now through the hard work and dedication of Trac Cymru, Arts Council Wales, The British Council BBC Radio Wales and BBC Radio Cymru, the culmination of which was a gala evening at The Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay, with the ceremony itself being held in The Hoddinott Hall, normally home to the National Orchestra of Wales.
The format of the awards would be familiar to anyone who is familiar with these types of event, with the nominees for nine categories; Best Instrumental, Best Emerging Artist/Act, Best English language song, Best Traditional Welsh language Song, Best Original Welsh Language Song, Best Album, Best Group, Best Solo Artist and Best Live Act being announced in batches in the weeks leading up to the ceremony. The remaining two categories being the Folk Prize and Lifetime Contribution award. Out of these last two, it was the Folk Prize that intrigued me the most, being open to anybody to submit three original tunes and the award being given the best set as judged by the panel of experts. The inaugural Folk Prize being awarded to Huw Roberts from Anglesey, a stalwart of the North Wales Folk scene and noted player of iconic Welsh instruments the Triple Harp and Crwth, as well as the Fiddle.
The awards evening itself followed a familiar format with the presentations interspersed with live performances from The Trials Of Cato, Gwilym Bowen Rhys, Vrï And Calan, a couple of guest presenters with Folk Alliance International president Lisa Schwartz and legendary DJ Janice Long handing over the Best Original English Language and Best Emerging Act or Artist awards respectively, the whole evening brought together by Two excellent hosts in the form of Cardiff Folk legend and broadcaster Frank Hennessy and Radio Cymru presenter Lisa Gwilym who kept this necessarily bi-lingual evening moving without giving the feeling that things were being rushed.
Whilst excellence was being rewarded, this was also an awards ceremony with one eye very much on the future. Martyn Joseph was a well deserved winner of the best original English Language song category for his song of faith and hope, Here Come The Young And, likewise, D. Roy Saer was a worthy recipient of the Lifetime Contribution award for his work collecting and preserving the traditional songs of Wales, I was impressed that this was given for what the recipient has contributed rather than what they have achieved, something that I think is unique in this type of award. It was, however, predominantly the younger performers who walked away with the prizes on the evening. The Best Instrumental Award went to Alaw, a trio made up of Mabon band mates Jamie Smith And Oli Wilson-Dickson along with producer and guitarist Dylan Fowler, for a pair of tunes, Dawns Soïg/Dawns G?r Marw; A young singer from a village in Snowdon's foothills picked up the award for best solo artist. Gwilym Bowen Rhys is a rock star turned folk star who first came to prominence with Welsh rock band Y Bandana before forming Alt Folk trio Plu with his sisters Elan and Marged and then embarking on a solo career; Two awards went to the same trio, Patrick Rimes, a member of Calan, the Cerys Matthews Band And a regular collaborator with Sir Bryn Terfel, Jordan Price-Williams of Elfen and NoGood Boyo, and Aneurin Jones are Vrï and this Welsh Chamber Folk Trio picked up Best Traditional Welsh Song for Ffoles Llantrisant And Best Album for their debut release Ty Ein Tadau; The Best Original Welsh Language Song award went to a singer whose work encompasses Jazz and Folk, has lived in Wales and Brittany and sings in both Welsh and Breton. Lleuwen has music In her blood, being the daughter of singer & composer Steve Eaves and she won this category for Bendigiedfran, a song based on the story of Bran The Blessed, the giant who used his frame as a bridge to facilitate the rescue of his sister Branwen from her abusers; The Emerging Artist Or Act category went to The Trials Of Cato an Anglo-Welsh trio who first got together whilst teaching in The Lebanon and who, since returning to these shores, have gigged and toured tirelessly to establish a reputation as one of the best live acts on the circuit today; The Best Live Act award went to Pendevig, a 15 piece Welsh Supergroup made up of musicians across a range of genres, including members of Jamie Smith's Mabon and Calan; Finally, the best group award was presented to Calan, a group who have been taking Welsh Traditional music to the world and pushing it's boundaries ever since they first started performing together in 2006. One thing that came out of Roy Saer's lifetime contribution award was that the songs he collected "came out of the fields with mud on their boots" and that those songs were preserved to be used by future generations and not to be kept in a vacuum harking back to a mythical golden age. All these winners have added to the canon of Welsh folk music, not just through contemporary material that addresses modern issues but also by taking the old songs and remaking them for our times by adding influences that are significant to them.
This inaugural awards night was a joyful celebration of Welsh folk and traditional music and it was good to see contributions in both of the nation's official languages being rewarded but now the hard work begins, not just to tell the word about what Wales has to offer but also to indemnity potential future award winners so that we don't end up in a situation where the same faces are up for the same awards year in year out, and nurture that talent.
In recent weeks, I have heard of a friend's son who was told by his college tutor that he wasted his time attending a Welsh medium school and, on the evening of the ceremony itself a member of a well known Welsh band told me that, when pitching for festival spots, they had been told "but we already have a Welsh band on the bill," I wonder how many festival organisers would say the same about Scots or Irish music, let alone English? Each having a plethora of styles making them unique whatever the language.There are still hurdles to overcome, attitudes to change and Welsh folk and Traditional music has some way to go in order to reach the same levels of exposure as music from other Celtic nations but the creation of these awards is a massive step on that journey, long may they continue.
Words: David Chamberlain
Pics: Elisa Morris/Alun Gaffey
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