The multitude of sacrifices people make in everyday life, the oppression of hard and low-paying work, and the way their humanity shines forth through music and song – that’s the spirit and message of Islais a Genir the second release from the Welsh trio VRï.
These three young men – Jordan Price Williams (cello, voice), Aneirin Jones (violin, voice) and Patrick Rimes (viola, violin) – are engaged in the creative work of giving life to ancient Welsh folk music that was suppressed by centuries of Methodist church domination. That Christian tradition gave us the stirring male choral music that most people think of when they think of Welsh music (if they think of it at all). But folk tunes and songs featuring harps and now fiddles predated chapel hymns.
“There was a lot of pressure on people to reject that tradition and its ‘devilish’ ways – the old Celtic joys of fiddling, dancing and carousing it associated with them,” Aneirin Jones says. “People were burying their harps under floorboards.” Patrick Rimes adds, “We still have a popular expression in Welsh, ‘rhoi’r ffidil yn y to’ which is when you give up on something, literally you put the fiddle in the roof. Which would have been to make sure that it wasn’t burned in the Methodist purge.”
They haven’t had much in the way of recordings or even living mentors to draw from as they go about resurrecting the old songs and tunes. What did survive was thanks to Wales’s Romani population, who played the traditional songs on harps.
“Our fiddle tradition is a broken tradition, unlike the harp,” Patrick notes. “And it’s quite nice in a way to not have the pressure of a really strong tradition that’s been handed down, you know, somewhere like Scotland or in Ireland or in Scandinavia, where you’ve got generation on generation of fiddle players who have played in a strict, authentic way. We don’t have any of that. We’ve had to make it up for ourselves. And it’s quite nice, really – we’re free to beg, borrow and steal from other traditions.”
Thus you’ll hear hints of Nordic and stronger elements of English and Celtic traditions in some of these tunes. But the music also is strongly influenced by chamber music, and the blending of folk and “classical” is apparently quite unusual in Welsh music.
Islais a Genir (which means “a sung whisper”) is a generous program of 15 tracks, several of which are songs of powerful close harmonies. They’re joined on three by singer, writer and poet Beth Celyn. In fact they start the program with one such song, “Y Gaseg Felen,” a stately song featuring call-and-response vocals from the three men answering Celyn’s lead over a droning harmonium; the lyrics are a sad allegory of the hard lot of working people. This one leads without interruption into “Aberhonddu” with Celyn leading the harmony singing over the string trio. This set of lyrics, a stirring goodbye to homeland by a soldier off to fight in the Napoleonic Wars, is interspersed with very uplifting instrumental passages that really provide a superb intro to VRï’s way of making music. You’ll be reminded a bit of the music of Natalie Haas and Alasdair Fraser – or perhaps, as I was, of the ensemble Republic of Strings featuring Brittany Haas, Darol Anger and others.
A bit of Québecois influence peeks through on the stirring “Y Gaseg Ddu” featuring foot percussion and tenor vocals in the lead. In the lyrics, the singer begs for a penny for his song, which is about a beloved horse he overfed until it died. There are other such clever songs, including an ox driving song with surreal fairy tale lyrics (“Cainc Sain Tathan,” which is preceded by the beautiful short instrumental hymn “Glanhafren”).
There’s a boasting song about horses (“March Glas”) that they’ve given an arrangement that combines Irish mouth music with a bit of a Québecois feel; a lively milkmaid song (“Brithi i’r Buarth”) that takes a swipe at the cruelty of patriarchy – and more. The most stirring is “Y Cap o Las Fawr” or The Lace Cap, which becomes a symbol of freedom in which Celyn interweaves her own spoken poetry in English and Welsh.
A real unique piece is “Y Foel Fynydda,” a sad song by Jordan the suffering of gay men in previous centuries, which he created for a commission by the Arts Council of Wales. It incorporates some traditional lyrics about a famous Welsh landmark, with some new lyrics about the sadness of young men denied the opportunity to live with those they love.
There’s plenty more and I can’t mention them all, but the album ends on a very uplifting note, a stately hymn to spring called “Briallu Mair” paired with a similarly uplifting tune from the collection of Iolo Morganwg, forefather of the Welsh traditional music revival. It’s called “Hwn a Glywais Mewn Eglwys yn Sir Frycheiniog,” which translates to English as “That which I heard in a church in Brecknock.” Islais a Genir is another side of Welsh music, and is highly recommended to all fans of fiddle tunes, Celtic music, and harmony singing.