Tag Archives: Welsh music

Introduction to Celtic Music

Irish band The Chieftains, one of the most popular Celtic music acts

It’s difficult to know what the music of the ancient Celts sounded like. Historical and archaeological data indicates that the Celts used bronze horns, flutes and bells.

What we know as Celtic music today is in reality the traditional music developed relatively recently in several western European Atlantic regions that may have been inhabited by Celtic peoples about 2,000 years ago.

Current Celtic music is characterized by the use of various forms of bagpipes (likely introduced by the Romans), harps, fiddles, flutes and whistles, accordion and concertina, and frame drums. In the 1970s, Irish musicians pioneered the use of additional instruments such as the Greek bouzouki, the Spanish guitar, the American banjo and the Italian mandolin, and adapted them to Irish traditional music.

Recent Celtic music history

The great Celtic music upsurge took place in the 1970s thanks to various influential artists from Ireland, Scotland, Brittany (France), Galicia (Spain) and Wales.

Ireland

The Bothy Band

Irish groups such as The Chieftains, The Bothy Band, Plantxy, Clannad and The Dubliners attracted worldwide attention with their innovative, beautifully-crafted arrangements of Irish folk music that were later adopted by colleagues in other Celtic countries and regions, as well as other folk music traditions.

Although many of the best known acts from the 1960s and 1970s disbanded, The Chieftains and Clannad carried on to develop highly successful long careers.

Altan in 2010

A new wave of first class artists continued to popularize Irish traditional and contemporary folk music: Enya, Altan, Kila, Dervish, Lunasa, Andy Irvine, Davy Spillane, Frankie Gavin, John Doyle, Karan Casey, Kila, Liam O’Flynn, Matt Molloy, Micheal Ó Domhnaill, Moya Brennan (Máire Brennan), Mick Moloney, Moving Cloud, Niall Vallely, Niamh Parsons, Oisin Mac Diarmada, Paddy Keenan, Reeltime, Sharon Shannon, Susan McKeown, Téada, and The Gloaming.

Books about Irish traditional music: Focus: Irish Traditional Music (Focus on World Music Series) by Sean Williams, Routledge (2009); Companion to Irish Traditional Music by Fintan Vallely, Cork University Press (2011); O’Brien Pocket History of Irish Traditional Music (Pocket History series) by Gearoid O hAllmhurain, The O’Brien Press (2004); A Short History of Irish Traditional Music by Gearoid O hAllmhurain, The O’Brien Press (2017).

Scotland

Silly Wizard in 1983

Seminal Scottish acts Silly Wizard, Battlefield Band, Tannahill Weavers, Boys of the Lough and Ossian played outstanding contemporary Scottish folk music and created a school of followers.

The next generations of first rate Scottish artists included Alasdair Fraser, Aly Bain, Blazin’ Fiddles, Bodega, Boys of the Lough, Breabach, Burach, Capercaillie, Wolfstone, Catherine-Ann MacPhee, Catriona MacDonald, Lau, Peatbog Faeries, Shooglenifty and Treacherous Orchestra.

Brittany

Alan Stivell

Breton musician Alan Stivell introduced the Celtic harp to large audiences. Two innovative bands, Diaouled ar Menez and Gwendal, also from Brittany, toured Europe extensively for two decades with its blend of Celtic music, jazz and rock.

Additional essential Breton musicians include Dan Ar Bras, Barzaz, Bleizi Ruz, Alain Genty, Gwerz, Kornog, Soig Siberil, Skolvan, Jean-Michel Veillon, Andrea Ar Gouilh, Anne Auffret, Yann-Fañch Kemener, and Nolwenn Korbell.

Galicia

Early lineup of Milladoiro

In Galicia, singer and harp player Emilio Cao, the now legendary group Milladoiro, Doa, piper celebrity Carlos Núñez and the influential Traditional Music of the Municipal School of Arts and Trades of Vigo (currently known as the Municipal School of Traditional and Folk Music of Vigo) initiated the remarkable Galician Celtic music wave.

Carlos Núñez in 2017

In the 1980s, a significant new act was formed, Luar na Lubre. This group has become one of the leading ensembles in the the Galician folk music scene.

In the 1990s and afterwards, additional key bands and soloists appeared, including Matto Congrio, Fía na Roca, Berroguetto, Na Lua, Leilia, piper and flutist Xosé Manuel Budiño, Mercedes Peón, pipers Susana Seivane and Cristina Pato, Rosa Cedrón and the spectacular Son de Seu folk orchestra.

Wales

A revival of traditional folk music and a renewed interest in the use of its native Gaelic language took place in Wales in the 1970’s. With the help of local media and record companies like Sain, artists who represented the Welsh tradition and language finally got exposure.

Robin Huw Bowen

One of the essential musicians in Wales is Robin Huw Bowen, a master of the triple harp. He researched the music and methods of the old Welsh harpers by studying their old manuscripts. He has performed widely throughout the world, as a soloist and also as a member of the Welsh folk groups Mabsant and Cusan Tân.

Siân James

The best known Gaelic-language singer is Siân James. Aside from her solo career, James also performed with dub reggae and rock bands.

On the traditional folk scene, Calennig’s lively dance music attracts attention. The band, formed in 1978, was led by Pat Smith and Mick Tems. Their material includes Welsh, Galician and Breton tunes. The 2019 lineup featured founder Pat Smith on concertina, Ned Clamp on guitar, Jem Randles on bass guitar, and virtuoso fiddler Iolo Jones.

Other Welsh folk highlights include singer Julie Murphy, Heather Jones and Hin Deg. An exciting group in the contemporary folk style is Carreg Lafar, formed in 1993.

Jamie Smith’s Mabon in 2017

One of the finest Celtic roots acts was Jamie Smith’s Mabon, led by accordion maestro Jamie Smith. The group disbanded in 2019.

Inter-Celtic Festivals

Thanks to the proliferation of Inter-Celtic festivals since the 1970s, musicians from Brittany, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Galicia, Asturias, the USA, Canada and other locations, have exchanged tunes, musical instruments and participated in mutual recordings.

Celtic Connections, Old-Fruitmarket – Photo by Gaelle Beri

Some of the top Celtic music festivals include Celtic Colours (Cape Breton, Canada), Celtic Connections (Scotland, UK), Festival Interceltique de Lorient (Brittany, France), Ortigueira Festival of Celtic World (Galicia, Spain), Ballyshannon Folk and Traditional Music Festival (Ireland) and William Kennedy Piping Festival (Northern Ireland, UK).

Cwlwm Celtaidd in Wales celebrates the music from Ireland, Scotland, Isle of Man, Cornwall, Brittany and Wales.

Celtic Music Today

The major European centers of Celtic music today are Ireland, Scotland, Brittany (France), Galicia (Spain), Asturias (Spain) and Wales (UK). Other smaller regions with a strong Celtic music heritage are: Cornwall (UK), Northumbria (UK), Tras-os-Montes (Portugal) and the Isle of Man (UK).

Outside Europe, the music from the Irish, Scottish and Galician diaspora has found a comfortable home in eastern Canada, the United States of America, and to a lesser extent Argentina and Australia.

Canadian Celtic and world music star, Loreena McKennitt

The Celtic music artists recovered the hurdy gurdy in Brittany and Galicia, the Celtic harp in Brittany and Scotland, and a newfound respect for the bagpipe, including the uilleann pipe, Highland pipe, border pipe, Scottish smallpipe, gaita gallega, gaita asturiana, gaita de fole and binioù.

Celtic music today has crossed over into the pop mainstream, world music, rock and new age thanks to artists like AfroCelt Sound System (UK), Enya (Ireland), Altan (Ireland), Loreena McKennit (Canada), The Chieftains (Ireland), Capercaillie (Scotland), Ashley McIsaac (Canada), Solas (USA), Connie Dover (USA), Cherish the Ladies (USA), Shooglenifty (Scotland), the electronic bagpipe innovator Hevia (Asturias, Spain) and The Gloaming (Ireland). There is also the success of the Riverdance dance shows. Celtic Woman and the lighter, easy listening side of Celtic music has sold well in the new age market by way of numerous compilations, harp recordings and concept albums.

The 1995 hit Sleepy Maggie by fiddler Ashley MacIsaac :

Piracy, consolidation, streaming and other factors have led to the demise and consolidation of many of the great Celtic music record labels of the past.

Brief History of the Celts

Ancient Greek historians, like Herodotus (400 BC) and Hecataeus of Miletus (500 BC), wrote about the Keltoi, a group of Iron Age “barbarian” tribes with a common language and culture that inhabited vast territories of Europe. The Keltoi’s dominion stretched from Ireland and the western Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) in the west to Bohemia (Czech Republic), Bavaria (Germany) and Austria in the east.

Castro de Baroña Celtic settlement in Galicia, Spain – Photo courtesy of Turismo de Galicia

The Celts were a mixture of western Indo-European peoples who created vivid ornamental art and spoke a language described by the Romans as Celtic. Their social power structure included warlords and priests known as druids. They lived in hill towns made to defend populated areas from other warring Celtic tribes. With the arrival of the Roman Empire, Celtic civilization nearly disappeared. Most of western Europe, except Ireland, was Romanized.

Celtic History books:

The Ancient Celts by Barry Cunliffe, Oxford University Press (1997); The Sea Kingdoms: The History of Celtic Britain & Ireland by Alistair Moffat, Birlinn Ltd (2001); Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland by Bryan Sykes, W. W. Norton & Company (2006); Celts: The History and Legacy of One of the Oldest Cultures in Europe by Martin J. Dougherty, Amber Books (2015); The Celts: A History From Earliest Times to the Present by Bernhard Maier, Edinburgh University Press (2018); Los Celtas. Imaginario, mitos y literatura en España by Martín Almagro-Gorbea, Almazara (2018): Celts: A Captivating Guide to Ancient Celtic History and Mythology, Including Their Battles Against the Roman Republic in the Gallic Wars, CH Publications (2019).

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The Return of Pioneering Welsh Folk Band Ar Log

Saith – VII (Sain Records, 2018)

Ar Log is Wales’ most veteran professional folk group. Saith VII is Ar log’s first album in 22 years. To celebrate its 40th anniversary, in 2017, the ensemble went on an international tour. One year later Ar log recorded Saith VII.

Saith – VII features beautifully-crafted new arrangements of traditional Welsh folk tunes and songs.

The current lineup includes Dave Burns pn lead vocals, guitar, and mandolin; Geraint Cynan on piano, organ, harmonium, keyboards and backing vocals; Geraint Glynne Davies on lead vocals and guitar; Iolo Jones on fiddle; Graham Pritchard on fiddle, mandolin and vocals; Dafydd Roberts on triple harp, flute, whistles and backing vocals; and Gwyndaf Roberts on knee harp, clarsach and backing vocals.

Ar Log’s discography includes Ar Log (1978), Ar Log II (1980), Ar Log III (1981), Yma O Hyd (1983), Meillionen (1983), Pedwar (1984),
Ar Log V (1988), Ar log VI (1996).

Saith – VII is an album of exceptionally expressive, timeless Welsh folk Songs.

Buy Saith – VII in Europe

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Artist Profiles: Ar Log

Ar Log

Ar Log was formed initially to represent Wales at a Celtic Festival in Lorient, Brittany, in August 1976, and they were encouraged by The Dubliners to continue performing as a group after the festival. The founders were Dave Burns on guitar; Dafydd Roberts on triple harp and flute; Gwyndaf Roberts on knee harp and bass; and Iolo Jones (fiddle).

The ensemble eventually grew in size and had different lineups throughout the years.

Ar Log has toured throughout the British Isles, continental Europe, and North and South America promoting Welsh music and songs.

Discography:

Ar Log (Dingle’s Records, 1978)
Ar Log II (Dingle’s Records, 1980)
Ar Log III (Dingle’s Records, 1981)
Yma O Hyd, with Dafydd Iwan (Sain, 1983)
Meillionen (Dingle’s Records, 1983)
Pedwar (Recordiau Ar Log, 1984)
Ar Log V (Sain, 1988)
Ar log VI (Sain, 1996)
Saith – VII (Sain, 2018)

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Dylanesque Welsh Folk

Bob Delyn a’r Ebillion – Dal i ‘Redig Dipyn Bach (Sain SCD2773, 2017)

Dal i ‘Redig Dipyn Bach is the fifth album by Bob Delyn a’r Ebillion, one of the leading folk music acts from Wales. Unlike other Welsh artists that draw influences from the Celtic music tradition, Bob Delyn a’r Ebillion has a folk-rock edge with deep Bob Dylan influences, highlighting the charismatic vocals of frontman Twm Morys.

The band features a mix of traditional instruments such as fiddle; folk-rock band drums, bass and electric guitar; American folk-style harmonica; plus musical instruments from other parts of the world such as the Breton bombard and the South American charango.

Vocals are in Welsh. The CD booklet includes the Welsh language lyrics with English-language descriptions.

Personnel: Twm Morys on vocals, acoustic guitar, harp and harmonica; Gorwell Roberts on metal strung harp, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, mandolin and charango; Edwin Humphreys on saxophone, bombard, cornet, trumpet and organ; Einir Humphreys on vocals; Einion Gruffud on saxophone and pigborn; Claire Jones on fiddle; Nikolas Davalan on bass and double bass; Rhydwen Mitchell on drums; and Gwyn Jones on drums and percussion.

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Artist profiles: Siân James

Siân James

Siân James is the most important folk singer in Wales. Coming from a small village in heart of Wales Siân James was brought up in a Welsh speaking family steeped in the traditions of music and poetry. She sings and accompanies herself on her harp and is passionate about the unique and gentle nature of Welsh songs. Siân feels that it is time for Welsh musicians to get the same audience and recognition as the musicians from the other Celtic nations and regions.

Siân performed and competed in eisteddfodau from the age of three started to play the piano at six and the harp at eleven. She gave solo concerts starting at age eighteen and during her university years performed with a folk rock band Bwchadanas which continued to be popular in Wales for over ten years.

The first of Siân’s albums Cysgodion Karma (1990) is a mixture of traditional and original songs. It was followed by Distaw in 1993 showcasing more of her songwriting ability. Gweini Tymorwas released in 1996 and the culmination of twenty years of Siân’s interest in traditional music. The fourth CD Di-gwsg is made up of original music in Celtic style with a slightly more contemporary sound. Birdman her fifth album was commissioned as a soundtrack for a BBC miniseries of the same name. Album number six was released in 2000.

Siân has toured in other Celtic countries playing festivals in Brittany Ireland and Scotland and further afield for festivals and concerts in Spain, Italy, Japan and the United States. When Wales opened their new National Assembly, Siân was one of the musicians invited to celebrate the occasion at Voices of a Nation concert.

In 1996 she sang on the film score for The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain and the CD of the soundtrack was released by Miramax. Siân has considerable experience as an actress on Welsh language television and in 1998 she was given a six part series where she performed with her own band and presented guests such as Capercaille, The Saw Doctors, Frances Black and Alan Stivell.

Discography:

Cysgodion Karma [Karma Shadows] (Sain, 1990)
Distaw [Silent] (Sain, 1993)
Gweini Tymor [Serving a Term] (Sain, 1996)
Di-Gwsg [Sleepless] (Sain, 2153)
Birdman (BBC Records, 2000)
Pur [Pure] (Bos Records, 2000)
Y Ferch o Bedlam [The Girl from Bedlam] (Bos, 2005)
Cymun [Communion] (Recordiau Bos, 2012)

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Artist Profiles: Robin Huw Bowen

Robin Huw Bowen

Robin Huw Bowen was born in a Welsh family settled in Liverpool, England. He is passionate about the Welsh triple harp and its music. Of the few harpists worldwide who can play the triple harp, he is the only professional now specializing solely in this particular field. He is recognized internationally as the leading exponent of the Welsh national instrument.

As a teenager, Robin was fascinated by the music of the renowned Celtic harpist Alan Stivell. In 1979 he received a degree in Welsh Language and Literature from the University College of Aberystwyth Mid-Wales.

He began his pursuit of the Welsh triple harp in 1980 while employed at the National Library of Wales Aberystwyth. He seized every opportunity to research into the music and techniques of the old Welsh harpers by studying many of their old manuscripts and publications. He was also able to extend his research beyond dusty archives gleaning tunes and techniques from several elderly harpists. By 1986 he had mastered the instrument well enough to pursue his musical career full-time.

He has performed extensively around the globe as a member of the Welsh folk group Mabsant and since 1989 as a solo performer. Between 199 and 1996 he also performed and recorded with Cusan Tan.
While not touring Robin is able to continue his research into the Welsh harp tradition. In 199 he set up his own press Gwasg Teires to typeset and publish books of traditional Welsh music. His publications include collections of Welsh dance tunes and harp music.

Robin Huw Bowen

His first solo album was Cyfarch YDefyn (Honor the Harp) released on Sain Records. In 1991 he released on his own label Teires his highly acclaimed second solo album Telyn BerseinioIfyNgwIdd (The Sweet Harp of My Land). This album was released in the United States on Flying Fish Records and is the first recording from Wales that was readily available to Americans. His album Hunting the Hedgehog features music of the Welsh gypsies and Harp Music of Wales his third solo CD was released on Saydisc in 1995.

Although Robin’s repertoire closely reflects that of the Welsh harp in its heyday (mid-17th to the end of the 19th Century) his playing and interpretation of the music emphasize his awareness that he belongs to an unbroken tradition. His music is far from being a mere museum relic from a past culture. His pioneering research and passionate promotion of his country’s national instrument have earned him great respect and generated a renewed interest in both the Welsh triple harp and its music wherever he performs.

Discography:

Trwy’r Weiar – Through the Wire, with Mabsant (1987)
Telyn Berseiniol Fy Ngwlad – Sweet Harp of My Land (1991)
Cusan Tân – Kiss of Fire, with Cusan Tân (1992)
Hela’r Draenog – Hunting the Hedgehog (1994)
Cerddoriaeth Telyn Cymru – Harp Music Of Wales (1995)
Esgair – The Ridge, with Cusan Tân (1996)
Hen Aelwyd – Old Hearth (1999)
Crasdant, with Crasdant (1999)
Nos Sadwrn Bach – Not Yet Saturday, with Crasdant (2001)
Yn y Gwaed – In the Blood, with Rhes Ganol (2004)
Dwndwr – The Great Noise, with Crasdant (2005)
Y Ffordd i Aberystwyth – The Road to Aberystwyth (2007)
Harp Music of Wales – Cerddoriaeth Telyn Cymru (2011)
Iaith Enaid (2015)

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Timelessly Crafted Welsh Songs

Gwyneth Glyn – Tro (bendigedig BENDI1, 2017)

Tro is the first release on a new label called bendigedig which is dedicated to Welsh music talent. The first album is by rising talent Gwyneth Glyn. On Tro, songwriter, poet and musician Gwyneth Glyn delivers a set of original, intimate acoustic songs sung in Welsh and English. It’s a fascinating mix of Welsh traditions with world music elements from India and Africa. Acclaimed kora player Seckou Keita makes a guest appearance on the album.

The lineup on Tro includes Gwyneth Glyn on vocals and guitar; Rowan Rheingans on banjo, bansitar, violin, vocals; Seckou Keita on kora; Patrick Rimes on violins; Gillian Stevens on viol, crwth; Jordan Price Williams on double bass; Mark O’Connor on drums, percussion; Dylan Fowler on guitar, mandocello, dobro, kantele, tabwrdd, mbira, electric bass; and Dan Lawrence on shruti.

Tro is an impeccable example of open minded folk music craftsmanship.

Buy Tro in Europe

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bendigedig, New Welsh Music Label

Gwyneth Glyn – Photo by Andy Morgan

ARC Music Productions International and Theatr Mwldan in Wales have formed a new independent record label called bendigedig. bendigedig will be producing a limited number of fully supported albums, working on an integrated and sustainable model, in partnership with the artists involved.

The first release is ‘Tro’ by Welsh singer-songwriter Gwyneth Glyn.

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Remarkable Welsh Talent

Calan – Solomon (Sain Records, 2017)

Calan is one of the finest contemporary folk music bands from Wales. The group sings in Welsh and English and mixes traditional music with modern elements.

The opening features great vocal harmonies, superb instrumentation and attention-grabbing mesmerizing spoken word. The rest of the album is a mix of virtuosic instrumentals and lively songs with real singing and really cool beats that resemble an acoustic form of electronic dance music.

Calan’s sound is driven by the remarkable fiddle, accordion, harp and bagpipe interplay, outstanding vocals and unconventional rhythms.

The lineup includes Angharad Jenkins on fiddle and vocals; Alice French on harp and vocals; Bethan Sian Rhiannon on vocals and accordion; Sam Humphreys on guitar, percussion, vocals and effects; Patrick Rimes on fiddle and Welsh bagpipes, pigborn, whistle, hulusi and vocals.

Guests: Greg Sterland on saxophone; Josh Barber on trumpet; Lloyd Pierce on trombone; and Nigel Jenkins on spoken word.

Solomon is a remarkable, beautifully-crafted Celtic music album by the exceptional Welsh band Calan.

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