Track notes, islais a geniR
BY ANDY MORGAN
1 Y Gaseg Felen (02:18)
He sees the mare up on the hill, a vision of freedom, and dreams of knowing the same freedom in his own life, the freedom of the gull that flies over the sea, the freedom of a deer who roams the forest. But then reality dawns: the mare is a pit horse, who is forced to slave for hours in that dark and dusty hell. So why dream of imagined freedoms? Content yourself with the plough, he says to himself. For ‘plough’, think call centre, think care home, think soulless distribution centre or delivery driving on a zero-hours contract. Think struggle to survive. Do it and the word ‘plough’ will take on a whole new meaning. Then think of the dreamer saying, ‘ah well, at least I have the plough.’
2 Aberhonddu (04:29)
Two hundred years ago, a soldier called T. I. Williams was preparing to leave his barracks in Aberhonddu (Brecon) to go to Guernsey, a strategically crucial island in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. Those wars were weighing heavy on the mind of our young recruit; many people from his community had left to fight in them, never to return, and the ultimate sacrifice might well be required of him too. The green hills that lay gentle all around were especially beautiful on that last evening. This was home, the place where he was born, where his mother and father lived, where everything he loved existed. All those feelings, he put into this song. Jordan’s father was also a soldier, and his name is also T Williams. For a while he was stationed in the same barracks as his early 19th century namesake–The Watton in Brecon. “My father died nine years ago, so when I saw the writer’s initials, it was an eerie moment of coincidence,” he says. “My father was a very proud man who believed that his commitment to the army came before anything else. So this song is about sacrifice, yes, but what draws me to it most is the knowledge that this man would have made not just one sacrifice but hundreds of small ones in everyday life, just as my father did. I guess that’s the main human narrative running through all these songs. There’s a huge amount I wish I could have said to my father before he died, so I suppose on some level this song is a catharsis for me–a way of trying to understand the compromises he made through the words of someone who made similar ones as in a very different time.”
3 Y Gaseg Ddu (03:31)
A song about a black mare that is sold to a man at the fair in Hen Feddau near Lampeter. He loves his new horse so much that he plies it with food, food, and yet more food. Eventually the horse dies from overeating, but the carcass still has some value, so the crows and the magpies swoop down to negotiate a price for it. In the final verse, the man asks members of his audience to pay a penny for his tragic song so that he might eventually afford another horse. We’ll leave you to work out the moral of this sad story.
4 Yr Ehedydd (05:26)
The title means ‘The Lark’ and the piece combines three instrumentals: The first is a classic of the traditional Welsh repertoire that goes by the name of ‘Codiad Yr Ehedydd’, or ‘The Rising of The Lark’. Not just any old lark, but the great Welsh freedom fighter Owain Glyndŵr who, during his struggle for independence in the early 1400s, was referred to by the nom de guerre of Yr Ehedydd in the hope of confounding enemy saboteurs. The tune was later used as a regimental march by the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. “The irony of a tune celebrating Glyndŵr’s great victories against the English being used by the British army isn’t lost on us,” says Patrick. The second tune, which is called ‘l’r Hen Ogledd’ is an Aneirin Jones original in a lively yet reflective 3/2 meter, inspired by the endless journeys Aneirin used to make between South Wales and Glasgow, aka ‘the old North’, where he studied music. The third is also an original, this time by Jordan, called ‘Haf Bach Mihangel’, a 3/2 slip reel that evokes the blushing days of late summer in Jordan’s native Afan valley.
5 + 6 Glanhafren (00:52) / Cainc Sain Tathan (03:04)
An old tune from the hymnal called ‘Glanhafren’ gives way to ‘Cainc Sain Tathan’, another (there seem to be so many) ox-driving song from Glamorgan, which the band found on one of their regular sprees of melodic archaeology in the National Library of Wales. Ox-driving songs often list the landmarks visible to the ox-driver, as he puffs and sweats in front of the enormous beast. In this instance, the driver veers off into fairy tale territory and brags about strange and surreal sightings on his round: ‘I saw a cat and a corgi / Pulling a cart from Pontypridd down the vale / Full of coal to sell’ or ‘I saw two mice pulling a handcart full of earthenware pots and salt from Ewenny to Cardiff.’ By the end of the song, as the driver returns home, a more straightforward poetic sentiment reasserts itself: ‘I see the pleasant land where I was born, with its whitewashed houses / When I’m in lovely Glamorganshire, it’s then that my heart sings.’
7 March Glas (02:46)
With a title that means ‘The Blue Stallion’, or perhaps ‘The Adolescent Stallion’, this is essentially a bragging song, an 18th century ‘bling’ boast fest. ‘I have a stallion that can jump higher than any horse in Cardiganshire / I have a fine coat from a tailor in London’ and so on. Was the singer chatting up a woman? We don’t know, but if that was the case, the final verse of the song suggests an awkward ride home alone: ‘Snowdrops hiding in the hedges / tricking me in the night to get my shoes muddy.’
8 Glan Meddwdod Mwyn (03:35)
An old and famous air, slow and stately in its beauty, evoking both pride and longing. It very nearly became the Welsh national anthem before the composition of ‘Hen Wlad fy Nhadau’. Whilst in the sung version, the words keep plying a heady liquor of yearning and love of home, the tune itself remains sober yet deeply emotional. Strange then that the title translates as ‘Good Humoured and Slightly Drunk’. A lovely mission statement.
9 Y Cap o Las Fawr (gyda/ft. Beth Celyn) (04:03)
This is an old song from Môn (Anglesey) that has been adapted by Beth Celyn. She sings the original and then adds her own spoken poetry, interweaving Welsh and English, the old and the new. The narrator is a woman. Her sister Mari owns a fine lace cap, and she wonders if she can buy one of her own without Siôn finding out. One can only presume that Siôn is her husband. “The lace cap is a symbol of freedom,” Beth explains, “and of a woman’s right to feel desire and make and act on her own decisions.” Beth expands the original scope of the song with poetry full of lace imagery, “something that is decorative, delicate, and yet strong.” With her line let’s weave a constellation of lace, she intends to “breathe a galactic breath of possibility into our music and bring a universality to the voice of a woman from centuries before so that it applies to all women today.” She hopes that her words will inspire the listeners to question and dissect what we take for granted–gender, identity, female desire and empowerment–and that the small “pockets of understanding” offered by the English words will enable the listener to venture further into the meaning of the song, whilst appreciating the musicality of the Welsh language.
10 Y Foel Fynydda (06:14)
What was it like to be gay in Wales two hundred years ago? There are many stories of young men who took their own lives because they couldn’t face the prospect of living in a world that was so painfully intolerant. Jordan was commissioned by the Arts Council of Wales to discover new voices in the Afan Valley and write a piece that incorporated them. Here he sets his own voice to music, but places it in a historic context that reimagines the suffering of gay men in previous centuries. The piece is bookended by two traditional verses from the Afan Valley that mention local landmarks, notably a mountain called Foel Fynydda, and the final verse encapsulates a local saying: “If the Foel Fynydda is wearing her cap (i.e. a cloud) in the morning, then look upon her at midday and she’ll have tears (i.e. rain) on her cheeks.” In Jordan’s verses, the two male lovers express their feelings for each other for the first time at midday, just as Foel Fynydda begins to cry. Later, after Daniel has been forced to marry a woman, he steps into the black-red waters of the River Afan and drowns. Thankfully, times have changed, though negative attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community persist. But this song remembers the heart-rending struggles of previous generations, and honours them in a Welsh traditional music context.
11 Gwenno (03:53)
This marathon instrumental in four movements, split over two pieces, is dedicated to the band’s dear friend Gwenno Roberts and her new baby Eiri Elias. The first of the four movements is a tune called ‘A Ei Di’r Deryn Du’, originally an old Welsh song that can be heard in many different settings. But this particular version, which VRï learned from Gwenno's fiddle playing, is certainly the most beautiful, enhanced as it is by her rich, chocolatey tone. The theme of the song, of birds being sent as messengers of love, is a common trope in the Welsh tradition. The second movement is a staple of the triple harp repertoire called ‘Y Purail Fesur’. It’s a slow air that VRï have reimagined as a lilting jig. According to Patrick, Gwenno’s house in Abergwyngregyn hosts all the best parties, and this tune reminds him of Gwenno’s mum, Rita, who always implores party goers to hush when harper Robin Huw Bowen is about to play. Robin’s interpretation of these airs is unparalleled, and he can hold his audiences transfixed for hours.
12 Eiri (06:27)
The Gwenno ‘suite’ continues under a new banner: the name of Gwenno’s new-born daughter. “I really like that we’re looking at old stories and reflecting on them,” says Jordan, “but there’s huge intent behind all stories, and that goes for new stories and new people too.” No story is as new as a life that is just beginning, so croeso Eiri, welcome to this musical world. Movement number three of the suite is an original composition by Patrick called ‘Cwrtia’, the name of Gwenno’s family home: “A magical location with the mountains of Eryri rising up from the back of the garden, and the Menai straits lapping at the front door,” says Patrick. The final movement is called ‘Croeso Eiri’, composed collaboratively by the band just before Eiri’s arrival on earth. The meter is cabm pemp, which means ‘five step’ in Cornish, which the band borrowed from their Celtic cousins in the hope of making it a staple in the Welsh tradition for future generations.
13 Canu’r Canrifoedd (gyda/ft. Beth Celyn) (01:59)
Beth Celyn researched the life of the 19th century milkmaid and discovered the extraordinary mix of strength and tenderness that the job required. She responded to what she found with her own poetry, sending thoughts and questions back through the centuries. “Whilst writing the poetry for both Y Cap o Las and Brithi i’r Buarth, I was thinking of how to connect past, present and future,”. It’s an intention beautifully captured in her Welsh lines ‘Canaf nodau’r canrifoedd - plygu rhythmau’r / Hen alwad â’i hymestyn dros y caeau’. In English they mean ‘I sing the notes of the centuries - fold the rhythms / Of the old call and sweep it across the fields.’ She wonders who this milkmaid, this living breathing woman, was. What were her hopes and dreams, her fears? She was devoted to her herd, but who was devoted to her? I pave their path, but who paves mine? Researching the song, Beth was painfully reminded of how oppressive the patriarchy was in old Wales, and how far we have come in terms of equality.
14 Brithi i’r Buarth (gyda/ft. Beth Celyn) (04:16)
A milkmaid is singing her song to guide the cows to the milking shed. Being a milkmaid in 19th century Wales is no easy task. She needs strength to milk all the cows, and get them to be where she wants them to be. She also needs gentleness to foster a relationship with each and every one of them and keep them calm during the milking. She must know every cow in the herd by name, and three of them are mentioned in the song: two–Brithi and Seren–are in the original lyric, and a third–Moli–has been named by the band after Jordan and his partner Glenn’s springer spaniel. The song was collected by the inimitable Edward Williams, who went by the bardic name of Iolo Morganwg. It’s difficult to know if the song was collected or ‘collected’, given Iolo’s considerable talents as a forger. Aside from his occasional transgressions, Morganwg did work tirelessly to curate a Glamorganshire musical identity and VRï, together with other trad Welsh devotees, are the beneficiaries of his efforts. In her book Welsh Traditional Music, Phyllis Kinney points out that the song has an unusual rhythmic freedom which reflects the style of the milkmaid’s song, with its extended vowels and phrases that projected her voice far and wide to bring the cows home.
15 Briallu Mair (04:04)
This is a carol, sung in praise of summer rather than mid-winter, and gleaned from the amazing collection of Sioned Webb and Arfon Gwilym. It celebrates the return of life and colour to the landscape, the awakening of nature, the rebirth of the hedgerows and fields. ‘Look, the cowslips and daisies have returned to the meadows,” go the Welsh lyrics, “The winter’s aged grey hairs have receded and youth has returned. / Where there were silent roads and hedgerows, a thousand voices have awoken / And the green wizard is recapturing his land with his net of pastures.’ Spring still makes us feel happy, relieved, uplifted, but imagine the relief of our ancestors when they saw the green returning, the sap rising and the end of the long ‘death’ of late autumn and winter. The instrumental is another tune from the collection of Iolo Morganwg, founder of the Eisteddfod, maverick forefather of the Welsh traditional music revival. This one is called ‘Hwn a Glywais Mewn Eglwys yn Sir Frycheiniog’, which translates to English as ‘That which I heard in a church in Brecknock.’ What exactly was heard we’ll leave to your imaginations.