Daeth yr albwm newydd Ruins/Adfeilion mas canol mis Hydref! I ddathlu rydym yn cynnal noswaith lawnsio yn eglwys St John’s yn Nhreganna, Caerdydd ar nos Wener Tachwedd yr 11eg. Mi fydd hi’n noswaith fythgofiadwy, yn arbennig gan mai dyma’r unig gyfle i weld yr albwm yn cael ei berfformio gyda band llawn, llinynnau a phres yn union fel sydd ar y record!
Our merry bus of songwriters pulled into Kansas City around 9 on a tuesday evening, where I met up with my wife Jen, who had flown in ealrier that day. Jen and I have been singing together for years, usually in Wales and more often than not, around the kitchen table. Every now and then we get to do something a bit special and Kansas City was one such occasion.
We were there for Folk Alliance International 2016, the world’s largest folk music industry conference. It was our first time at the conference and it was quite an experience!
Wednesday was the first day and it took a while to get our heads around the sheer scale of it. FAI basically takes over the entire Hotel. It looks like a Giant has scooped up every folkie in the United States and released them into the Westin. Bands are playing everywhere; in the lobby, the halls, on the stairs and even in the lifts. Floors 5, 6 and 7 have been transformed into rows of tiny nightclubs, each bedroom hosting a night of music that lasts into the small hours. Wandering through all the madness are bookers, agents, labels, venue owners and all sorts of other industry people looking for acts to work with. These people are hard to spot however, as they are outnumbered by musicians by a ratio of at least 5 to 1.
In the daytime there’s a trade fair, seminars, music masterclasses, meetings and general mingling. By 6pm the official showcases begin in various conference and ball rooms in the hotel. By 10:30pm the official showcases are over and it’s time for the unofficial showcases and general musical chaos on floors 5, 6 and 7. The idea seems to be to meet as many people as you can and invite them to one of your showcases.
It struck me that many of the UK contingent (myself included) found that this kind of unfiltered salesmanship didn’t come naturally and it took a bit of time to get into the swing of things. I think the festival is both brilliant and utterly absurd but it clearly works for the army of musicians that flock to the conferece every February.
There was a small Welsh contingent with myself, Plu, Lleuwen and Calan all invited to play official showcases this year. We were well looked after by Trac, which promotes the development of folk traditions in Wales. We were part of a larger crew from the rest of the UK working with British Underground and the English Folk Dance and Song Society(EFDSS) under the banner of ‘Horizons’. There was a Horizons suite where you could catch UK acts performing all evening and a stand at the trade fair where delegates could find out more about UK music.
By the time our official showcase arrived on the Saturday, myself and Jen had invited half the conference to come see us play. It was the first time all week we’d had a 30 minute slot to ourselves so we were really looking forward. It was great to bring some Welsh music to the conference and we both enjoyed the experience. We had a great audience and lots of very positive feedback after the show. We even made it into the Kansas City Star the next day. We made a lot of new friends at FAI and I now have a large list of all the people I need to get back in touch with. I’m very hopeful that we’ll be back gigging in North America very soon.
Things at FAI tend to be winding down by the Sunday but the House of Songs crew had one more gig to do. The marvelous Troy Campbell had been awarded a Spirit of Folk Award earlier in the week and we had an hour slot to celebrate. It was great to hear everyone performing the songs they had written in Austin the week before. I got to play the songs I’d written with Shawnee Kilgore and Ida Wenøe one last time. There was a very special moment where all the performers came on stage and sang beautiful harmonies to mine and Ida’s song to end the set. I had shivers running up and down my spine and I’m pretty sure that the others and the audience had them too.
With the final show done there was nothing for it but to experience some proper Kansas City Barbecue. We all headed out to Jack Stack for the evening. It was a great way to end the American experience with the House of Songs gang and new friends from FAI all together. It was the first time I’d ever tried ‘Burnt Ends’, the juicy off-cuts from a brisket which came on a huge plate along with a steak. As Matt the Electrician pointed out, it’s basically steak with meat on the side. And a jacket potato drowning in cheese.
The next day myself and Jen had some time to kill so went to the Sea Life Aquarium to chill out a bit. Having been locked in our own folk music fishtank for a week I kind of felt a kinship with the fish. That’s what too much folk music conferencing can do to you!
I’d like to take this opportunity to say a huge thanks to Wales Arts International for supporting the whole project. Diolch o galon i chi!
Thanks also to trac, British Underground and the EFDSS for looking after us all so well and to FAI for inviting us out to showcase. I hope we’ll be back soon!
And finally, thanks to The House of Songs for being so damn brilliant. I feel like I’ve made friends for life and am very much looking forward to continuing the journey.
I have just returned from a remarkable few weeks in the USA, where I have been pursuing new musical adventures, eating too much barbeque and making a lot of new friends. I was honoured to be invited to The House of Songs in Austin, Texas to take part in a week of songwriting workshops. The house is the brainchild of musician, traveler and my new life guru Troy Campbell. It brings together musicians from all over the world to collaborate and to help them share their music with a wider audience.
On top of this lovely gang we were all being filmed for not one, but two documentaries. The first by Mikael Johansson focussing on Tom Levin’s project to bring the Swedish artists to Austin and on to Kansas City and the second by Mario Troncoso for his show on PBS, Arts in Context. As a result we were being filmed pretty much all the time. I’m glad that the whole thing has been documented professionally and I’m really looking forward to seeing the final films. There was some beautiful slow-mo of Daniel Thomas Phipps running in a car park.
Now I normally spend a long time (sometimes months) writing a song and very rarely write quickly. At the House of Songs we were paired up every morning and afternoon with a different songwriting partner, with the aim of having a finished piece after just a few hours. Although initially daunted, I got into the swing of things pretty quick and thoroughly enjoyed writing with so many new people. Every collaboration was different and each song I co-wrote is special to me. I wrote songs with Sarah Macdougall, Shawnee Kilgore, Daniel Thomas Phipps, Ida Wenøe, Lydia Hol and Paul
Pigat and had several late night jams with Cris Derksen. Many, many great songs were written and performed by the whole group that week and have been on loop in my brain ever since. I’m looking forward to hearing recorded versions soon and I’m very hopeful that I am going to keep working with my co-writers over the coming months and years.
As well as writing songs we had a bit of downtime to explore Austin and the surrounding area, which was a real treat as we had several locals in the gang to show us about. One of my absolute highlights was the morning we were taken to Duchmann Winery near Driftwood to write in the sunshine. Myself and Ida ended up writing what is probably the first folk song half in Danish and half in Welsh, accompanied by a nice glass of chilled white. You can listen to a rough recording of the song below:
We also got to sample some proper Texas barbeque at The Salt Lick near Driftwood. I’d recommend Thurman’s choice, a hearty combo of brisket, pork ribs and sausage that the restaurant founder apparently ate every day.
We also visited the Little Longhorn Saloon, home of that greatest of all sports; Chickenshit Bingo. For those of you unfamiliar with this game of titans, it involves a chiken in a coop at the back of the bar walking over a numbered sheet, eagerly watched by a crowd of happy gamblers that wager on where it is going to shit. As it happened, the Ameripolitan Awards were in town and there were bands playing brilliant Americana and Country music all afternoon. Top that up with $3 Lone star beer on sale in the car park and you have a golden recipe for good times in Texas. Thanks to Paul and his manager Kathy Campbell for tipping us off about the Little Longhorn! The Chicken shat on 29. Nobody had 29.
After a week of songwriting and blossoming friendships we performed our new songs at The Townsend, a bar in downtown Austin. It was great to hear everyone play their songs together on stage and it all seemed to go down well with the audience.
The next day we headed off to Kansas City to attend the Folk Alliance International Conference. A few traveled by plane but most of us opted for a 13 hour bus ride along Interstate 35, taking in parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas on the way.
I’ll put up another blog about my time at Folk Alliance shortly. In the meantime I would like to say a massive thank you to Wales Arts International for making my time at the House of Songs possible and to everyone at House of Songs for their hospitality, inspiration and friendship.
Chengdu is a huge city sitting on a large plain and is bordered by mountains to the North and West. The area has been inhabited for thousands of years and the city is host to many fascinating historical sites. It became the capital of the ancient kingdom of Shu in the fourth century BC and has remained an important city ever since.
Chengdu is laid back depite it’s huge size and it was great to show Jen around the city. I have a special soft spot for Chengdu food, particularly spicy dishes like Hot Pot, Dandan Mien and Twice-Cooked Pork.
On arrival I went immediately to the rehearsal rooms of the Chengdu Associated Theatre of Performing Arts on the outskirts of the city. There I was reunited with Huang Weizhi, Sun Xianxhu and Zhou Yuanlin, three of the musicians that recorded with me in 2011. It was very special to see them all and it was wonderful to play the songs from the album with them once again. I also met Suzy Chan, who plays Guzheng and would be performing with us on the night.
I had two events in Chengdu, the first was a talk and Q&A session similar to the one we’d had in Kunming. The venue was an enormous bookstore called Fanguso Commune and I was amazed by the size of the audience that turned up. I described the process of making the album and performed some songs before opening up the talk to questions from the audience. The questions were extremely intelligent and it was very revealing for me to get insights from such a thoughtful audience.
The next day was the day of the concert, which was in the same venue as the talk had been. I had a long rehearsal/soundcheck with the musicians late in the afternoon and before I knew it I was once again being ushered on stage for the last show of the tour. Once again, the place was rammed.
It was a really special moment to be joined on stage with such beautiful musicians, especially since 3 out of four had played on the album. We hit a few hitches along the way which were mainly down to lack of familiarity with the pieces, but overall the performance went really well. After a brief interval myself and Jen went back on stage and performed a selection of both old and new songs together. The response from the audience was fabulous. It was extra special for me as I knew that somewhere in the audience were my friends Jenny Zeng; who supervised my residency for the British Council, Vivi Xu; who interpreted for the theatre in 2011 and showed me around Chengdu, and Lin Yaping; with whom I recorded and wrote parts for the ensemble.
It was a fabulous way to end the tour and I hope that I’ll be able to return soon. I’m delighted to have been given the opportunity to present my album to Chinese audiences and have been very humbled buy the warmth of the response.
I’d like to thank the Welsh Office of European and External Affairs, The British Council and Wales Arts International for funding this tour. I’d also like to thank Sinba Duan and Joanne Yang for organising such special events, pulling in great audiences and for looking after me and Jen so well!
After 3 days in Chongqing we took the bumpy flight to Kunming – the elevated capital of Yunnan province 1,900 metres above sea level. Kunming is called ‘The City of Eternal Spring’ due to its mild climate, which keeps the temperature comfortable and the flowers blooming all year round.
The clear air and warm sunshine were very welcome after the clouds and fog of Chongqing. It didn’t take long for the city’s laid-back vibe to weave it’s magic on us and we adapted to our new surroundings remarkably quickly.
I had two events in Kunming. The first was a talk about ‘Y Bardd Anfarwol’ and my time in Chengdu at a new arts centre near the University. It was the launch night for the Elephant Arts Centre and there were plenty of people in attendance. I spoke with a lot of people after the talk and it was really fascinating for me to get feedback on the album from a diverse Chinese audience.
The venue was gorgeous and we were treated to musical performances from local artists as well. The arts centre is an extension of a popular local bookshop, Elephant Books, which is a truly wonderful place to stop for a coffee and a browse.
The following day we met a new group of musicians to rehearse ready for a performance in a live music venue called Camel Bar. I feel very privileged to have been able to meet and play with so many musicians during the tour, and the musicians in Kunming were extremely helpful and friendly. I had sheet music for all the musicians to learn and only a few hours to rehearse so we got to work in the afternoon before sound checking.
The concert was completely different to those in Chongqing and the arts centre the previous night. Camel Bar was full of people eating, drinking, socialising and gambling which contributed to a very vibrant atmosphere. It wasn’t necessarily the best venue to perform quiet acoustic music with a traditional Chinese ensemble however and I think the noise and the freshness of the parts meant that we lost our way at times. After performing the first set with the musicians I returned for a second set by myself, which I enjoyed immensely. I like the challenge of trying to tame a lively crowd with just an acoustic guitar; it’s something that I learned to do early on when I started performing in Wales!
By the end of the night I was shattered and was very grateful when I got to my bed. In the morning we would be flying out again, after being barely 48 hours in Kunming. We were heading for the city where all this began; Chengdu.
I’m back in Europe after a 10 day tour of Southern China that took in three fascinating cities; Chongqing, Kunming and Chengdu. I was very lucky to be joined this time by my wife Jen, who sang with me on the tour. I didn’t get a chance to write about it whilst it was going on, so over the next few days I’m going to put a few posts up on here.
The tour was jointly organised by the Welsh Office in Chongqing and the British Council to launch the start of Wales Week and to mark the 2015 UK-China Year of Cultural Exchange. I’d like to extend my warmest gratitude to both organisations for this wonderful opportunity, and to Sinba Duan and Joanne Yang in particular for all their hard work.
First stop was Chongqing, a sprawling mega-city that looms over the spot where the Jialing River runs into the mighty Yangtze. We arrived at night and I have to say it was quite a breathtaking sight to see those gigantic skyscrapers lit up in the dark. It wasn’t raining, but if it had been it would have felt like Blade Runner come to life.
Although we may have found the city’s appearance a bit intimidating, the people we met and worked with were the complete opposite; friendly, generous and kind. Through the beautiful combination of food and music we were given an insight into the local culture that was very special.
We were invited to Chongqing by the Welsh Office to launch the Wales Week event and perform two concerts in the city. The concerts were in two live music venues; Nuts Live house and Mr Tipsy and I was overwhelmed by the response. Both gigs were packed and the audiences attentive and warm. It was a really great start to the tour and I got to perform with a traditional Chinese ensemble for the very first time.
It was very special to be invited to the launch of the Wales Week event, which is building bridges between Wales and Chongqing. I was both flattered and humbled by the warm reception that my album received from the speakers and guests.
In addition we got to meet many of the city’s inhabitants and managed to squeeze in a trip to UkuEnglish – a novel idea that aims to teach English to young Chinese kids through learning songs on the Ukelele! Incidentally they’re hiring if anyone fancies a stint in Chongqing!
Dwi’n hynod o falch bod Y Bardd Anfarwol wedi derbyn enwebiad ar gyfer y Gwobr Gerddoriaeth Gymreig! Mae’n fraint i fod ar y rhestr fer gyd cymaint o fy hoff artistiaid Cymreig. Os nad ydych wedi cael cyfle cewch cipolg ar y rhestr yma;
Hoffwn ddweud diolch o galon i’r Eisteddfod am wobrwyo ‘Y Bardd Anfarwol’ yn Albwm Cymraeg y Flwyddyn 2014. Doeddwn i wir ddim yn disgwyl ennil pan gyhoeddwyd yr enillydd ar faes yr Eisteddfod nos Iau diwethaf! Roedd cymaint o gerddoriaeth da ar y rhestr fer, ac dwi’n credu bod hwn yn adlewyrchu sin gerddorol bywiog a frwdfrydig yma yng Nghymru.
Mae’r tlws gan Ann Catrin Evans yn edrych yn wych hefyd!
Dw’i moyn dweud diolch i’r bobl wnaeth gweithio ar yr albwm – hebddynt ni fyddai’r albwm yn bodoli.
Diolch o galon i Llion Robertson, a wnaeth job mor anhygoel o gynhyrchu’r albwm ac i Seb Goldfinch am sgwennu trefniannau wefreiddiol ar gyfer y llinynnau, ffliwt a offerynnau Tsieiniaidd. Diolch hefyd i’r holl gerddorion wnaeth chware ar yr albwm, o’r Chengdu Associated Theatre of Performing Arts, i’r UK Chinese Ensemble yn Llundain, Y Mavron Quartet, Richard James, Callum Duggan yng Nghymru, A Laura J Martin o Lerpwl.
Hoffwn ddiolch hefyd i Richard Chitty a Bubblewrap Collective, hebddyn nhw mae’n bosib na fyddai’r albwm wedi cael ei ryddhau, ac roedd yn bleser gweithio gyda nhw arni. Rhaid diolch hefyd i’r British Council ac i PRSF am fy newis ar gyfer y cyfnod preswyl yn Tsieina yn y lle cyntaf, ac i Celfyddydau Rhyngwladol Cymru am fy ngefnogi i fynd allan yna.
Yn olaf hoffwn ddiolch i bawb sydd wedi fy longyfarch yn bersonol neu ar y we dros y dyddiau diwethaf, mae’r ymateb wedi bod yn gynnes iawn ac dwi’n teimlo’n hynod o ffodus.
Recently, I was lucky enough to take part in a musical residency called Folk Nations in Nagaland, North East India. The project was organised by the British Council and involved introducing 6 musicians from the UK to musicians from all over the North East.
I have to say that Nagaland wasn’t a region I was familiar with before going. The North East is almost completely separate from the rest of India, joined only by a narrow strip of land in between Nepal and Bangladesh.
Nagaland is a mountainous state in the foothills of the Himalayas and is home to 16 officially recognised tribes (although I’m reliably informed that there are more) known, oddly enough as the Nagas. Each tribe has its own language and there are also many dialects, which means that Nagas often have to speak to each other in a creole language called Naagamese, or in English. Nagaland borders Myanmar (Burma) to the East and the majority of the people of Nagaland are of Sino-Tibetan origin. A long history of exposure to Baptist missionaries also means that over 90% of Nagas are Christian. All these factors made Nagaland very different and unfamiliar; it felt more like a forgotten Himalayan kingdom than a part of India to me.
Richard James recording traffic the market sounds in Dimapur
I travelled with Richard James (ex-Gorky’s, ex-Pen Pastwn, still Richard James), via Kolkata where we met the other four UK musicians, had a rehearsal and did a gig. Let me introduce you to these four, because they were all fantastic musicians, lovely people and a pleasure to work with. They were; Rob Harbron on concertina and fiddle, Miranda Rutter on viola and fiddle, James Findlay on guitar and fiddle and Jarlath Henderson on Uilleann pipes, flute and guitar.
I can’t overstate my admiration for these four enough. They taught me so much about their musical traditions and were delightful traveling companions, collaborators and friends. Please have a listen to, and buy their music!
Our ride to the North East
Having got the UK delegation together we traveled to Nagaland to meet the musicians from the North East. The musicians came from an organisation called the Music Task Force, a state funded body under the chairmanship of Guhkato ‘Gugs’ Sema that promotes the musicians and music of Nagaland.
We were based primarily in Dimapur, a dusty town on the border with Assam that functions as a hub for the rest of the state.
The gang negotiating traffic in Dimapur
For three days we met and jammed with a large group of musicians from all over the North East in a pretty little heritage park on the edge of town. It was a real privilege to hear the music and the tales of the region told and sung in a variety of tongues from the land’s own people.
Four of the musicians, Phulen, Kalyan, Manoj and Phu Ning Ding were from Assam. They brought with them instruments such as the siphung (a type of flute), been (a sort of two string violin), pepa (a buffalo horn) and gogona (a type of jaw harp ). They also brought the melodies of Assam and traditions such as Bihu music which I found fascinating.
Rob playing the been with Manoj (centre) and Jeremy (right)
Phulen (left) playing siphung with Kalyan (Centre), Rob and Jarlath
Phu Ning Ding was like no-one I’ve ever met before, a very spiritual individual from the Karbi tribe who could speak many of the region’s languages. He is also in a metal band called Warklung and has a deep connection with the region’s traditions and a fantastic ability to improvise when singing. His playing of the ‘Karamdabung’, a sort of tuned percussion instrument became a common feature of our jam sessions.
Jeremy was a gifted young flautist from Mizoram, although I suspect his true passion lies in metal guitar as he never missed an opportunity to shred!
Phu Ning Ding singing with the Karamdabung
From Nagaland itself we were introduced to Mercy, who hails from the Chakhesang tribe. She sings in a vocal group called the Teteso Sisters with her two siblings and also plays the Tati. Her knowledge of Naga traditions is fascinating and she has a real gift for explaining the region’s idiosyncrasies, politics and problems. We also met Moa from the Ao tribe, who sings and writes in his native language, although he wasn’t able to stay for the whole project.
Mercy with James and Phu Ning Ding at the Jumping Bean, Dimapur
After three days of jamming with the North Eastern Musicians it was time to head up to Kohima for a night time concert and a trip to the Hornbill Festival.
View from the Hornbill Festival outside Kohima
Kohima is a sprawling town spread out on the slopes of the Naga hills and is the state capital of Nagaland. The mountain setting and cool, clean air were certainly most welcome after the dust and humidity of Dimapur. Although only around 75 Km from Dimapur it took us three hours to get there by car, winding slowly through the rough mountain roads past pineapple plantations and tropical forests. I can’t say I minded one bit.
The journey up to Kohima
Pineapple sellers on route
Kohima at dusk
The Hornbill festival is organised by the government of Nagaland and brings together tribes from all over the state. The tribes perform songs and dances in traditional dress, hold sporting competitions and demonstrate traditions through cookery, crafts, rituals and much else.
The night before the festival we UK musicians had a gig at a rock festival in Kohima. It was quite an unusual place for us folky types, as it was a large rock stage high in the mountains that had been hosting an array of mostly Metal bands all evening. A four year old Naga drumming prodigy opened for us and then we were on; six musicians from disparate parts of the UK playing live together for only the second time. We opened with James’ version of the sea shanty ‘Belly Boys’ which went down really well and although the audience did thin out a bit towards the end of the set, everybody seemed to enjoy it and I came off stage a bit bemused, but elated.
4 year old drummer Along Longkumer upstaging everyone at Hornbill Rock Festival, Kohima
The next day we traveled to nearby Kisama for the Hornbill Festival. It was a truly wonderful experience to witness the last day of the festival and I found the traditional songs and dances particularly fascinating. Often they were telling a story, such as the journey of the tribe in search of new land to settle, or the tale of how the tribe began. Most groups sang and danced at the same time, often with one individual directing the troupe and the rest replying in a form of question and answer. The music was overwhelmingly vocal with only the occasional percussive instrument providing a rhythm for the dance. The groups often sang in harmony, creating a magical atmosphere with many-layered chords.
A traditional group performing at the Hornbill Festival
After sampling some Naga delicacies washed down with some pretty potent rice wine we sat down to watch the closing ceremony, in which all the different tribes come together for a ‘unity dance’ around a bonfire. Now, I don’t normally dance but this was an opportunity I couldn’t miss. Once it was announced that anyone could join in, I latched onto a group of Lotha tribesmen dancing and chanting in the distinctive Naga style. It wasn’t long before Jarlath also felt the pull of the beat and we danced for a good while around the heat of the fire.
Dancing around the fire
Unity dance at the end of the festival
Back to Dimapur
Jungle outside Kohima
Refreshed and inspired by our time in Kohima, the next day we returned to Dimapur and picked up where we left off with the musicians from the North East. It was easier now that we were all getting to know each other, and the traditional music we’d heard at the festival had given us ideas.
A few days later we were ready to perform a gig at the Jumping Bean Cafe, Dimapur. There were 14 of us crammed onto a small stage and we managed to put together a set of about 10 songs.
There was plenty of crossing over between cultures, with siphung and been playing english folk tunes along with Hornbill inspired vocal harmonies. Myself and Rich joined in on a Bihu song with Kalyan and Manoj which I particularly enjoyed playing.
I felt that the night was a success and both the audience and the musicians appeared to be excited after the performance. We had a farewell party in Gugs’ place outside of town, which was a real treat. I ate hornet, which was a first for me! The large black insects are chewed to release the juices, including the venom which gives them a strong flavour and a definite kick!
Grubs on sale at the market in Dimapur
The next day we were off, most of us returning to the UK but myself and Rich away to Mumbai for a few days. It was a real treat to be a part of the project and I feel very privilaged to have been able to jam with so many talented musicians from the UK and Nagaland. I hope that this project will lead to further collaboration between the North East of India and the UK and indeed with the rest of India too.
I’d like to thank Dipti, Tas and Stuart from the British Council, Gugs and his family for being such fantastic hosts, all the musicians involved in the project and the staff at De Oriental Dream, Dimapur, who kept us fed and sheltered for the majority of the trip!