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Various Artists Various Artists
Album: The Ultimate Guide To Welsh Folk
Label: ARC
Tracks: 48

This proud, quite literally all-embracing compilation is a grand shop window for the Land of Song – an excellent compendium and primer for the uninitiated and the partly-converted alike, and also for the adventurous of mind and ear for whom language holds no barriers (for it need not). Herein be not exactly dragons, but if there were they would definitely be seen as zealously guarding this treasure trove of music that may be largely unknown outside of Wales yet deserves to be better known.

The scope and chronology of the two-disc set is remarkable, casting the net far and wide with the stated aim of compiler Cerys Matthews “to try and include some of the most beautiful and recognisable songs of the Welsh folk repertoire, and also to bring together the voices of some of the most well-loved and influential artists that have sung these over the years”. Thus, the recordings trawled for this set date from as early as 1945 (sterling traditional balladeer Bob Roberts), 1957 (an extraordinarily powerful performance by a male voice choir of North Wales miners) and 1959 (the flamboyant showmanship of Nansi Richards, Queen Of The Harp), to a pair of 70s cuts by prolific songwriter and balladeer Meic Stevens, a lyrical piece by Max Boyce, and three rather more recent, and highly contrasted, examples of singer-songwriterdom from Gareth Bonello (under the stage name of The Gentle Good), Ar Log member Dafydd Iwan, and the two very different maverick talents of Twm Morys (under the alias Bob Delyn a’r Ebillion) and former Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci frontman Euros Childs.

Two of the most well-known of Welsh folk songs appear here: Sosban Fach in a rendition taken from Cerys’ own most successful solo album Tir, and Milgi, Milgi done in pub-singalong style by country harmony group Bois y Felin. The “marching accordion” of Cayo Evans plays Men Of Harlech. Parti Fronheulog perform music from the choral plygain (carol) tradition, and there’s some arresting contemporary folk balladry from Chris Jones. Other singers represented include Phil Tanner (“The Gower Nightingale”) – here heard not on an actual song but delivering a truly virtuoso example of lilting (The Gower Reel) – also charismatic Cerdd Dant singer Arfon Gwilym, song collector Meredydd Evans, the pure-toned Mary Hopkin (recorded live in 1972), the late lamented Siwsann George (founder of Mabsant), and versatile crossover singer Heather Jones.

Solo musicians represented here include harp players of different styles and disciplines – Llio Rhydderch, Elinor Bennett and triple harpist Robin Huw Bowen, while there’s intuitive self-accompaniment by Gwenan Gibbard and tracks from spirited duos DnA and Cass Meurig & Nial Cain, and there’s joyful cross-cultural collaboration from harpist Catrin Finch and kora player Seckou Keita. Groups range from late-60s BBC Wales stalwarts The Hennessys, iconic 70s folk-pop outfit Tebot Piws, close harmony trio Plethyn, the energy-fuelled Carreg Lafar, the madly prolific and successful Ar Log, and latter-day cult outfit Cowbois Rhois Botwnnog (who disappointingly only get allocated a mere half-minute waltz interlude), We then come bang up to date with the vibrant sounds of Calan, Bendith (a band combining Colorama and Plu), the storming Jamie Smith’s Mabon and a 2015 track by award-winners 9Bach.

Some of the more obvious names are absent, presumably due to licensing restrictions. For instance we get Georgia Ruth but no Gwyneth Glyn (except as a member of the uniquely experimental ensemble Ghazalaw), Fernhill but no Ffynnon, Crasdant but no Allan Yn Y Fan. But with just over 2½ hours of music, and at a super-bargain price too, who are we to argue? This tremendous set is so worth the investment, and you’re unlikely to already own more than a handful of the tracks at best.

Curator Cerys Matthews proves the ideal and perfect guide through the Welsh music maze, delivering an intelligent programme and sequence; her sensible booklet notes are a model of succinctness and score high in knowledgeability. Cerys, while acknowledging this is a mere drop in the ocean, suggests we “treat (the collection) as a place to start, a friendly set of signposts you might use to wander deeper into the archive”. Which I certainly intend to do, sooner rather than later.

So, Ultimate? Well not quite – for of course you can’t include everything! – but this is still pretty darned close.

David Kindman