Friday, 25 September 2009

Dysgwraig dw i! I'm a (Welsh) learner!

Autumn is with us, and like all good children, I’m back in class.  Have just begun my second of year of intensive Welsh language, taught by the inspiring Sue Evans, of Penegoes.   I must admit I was originally skeptical about learning from a non-native speaker, but within an hour of class, it was clear she could explain the ins and outs of Cymraeg as well as any native speaker -- perhaps even better, with the experience of having learned it herself.  Sue is a natural comedienne, and laughter is a big part of the class; I find this eases the frustration when those stubborn, aging synapses refuse to fire.

Faint o bobl sy‘na yn y dosbarth?    How many people are in the class?

Mae ‘na bymtheg person yn y dosbarth.    There are 15 people in the class.

 Yes, it’s rather large, for a language class.  But how can you exclude someone who comes along with a sincere wish to learn?  I can see it’s not easy.  Oh well, wish as luck as we delve into this beautiful and mysterious ancient Celtic language.  And as we summon up courage to use it in the shops and cafes of Machynlleth!  

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Otley Folk Festival 2009

Otley!  A playground for folkies one weekend each September, and Em and I were pleased to be part of the program, after a couple of years away.  Aside from the obvious thrill of playing on stage at festivals, we really value the chance to sit down and hear some of the other bands.  We definitely lucked out this time, as the organizers had booked a range of great talents --  many of them women, I'm pleased to say.
Some observations on what I saw and heard:

Mawkin Causley.  Of course I'd heard the name many times in recent years, and had been mildly titillated by the soft-core porn they handed out as promo material at Cambridge Folk Fest last year.   I had also heard Jim Causley sing with Devil's Interval, but was curious to see what "folk's boy band" would get up to.  And on this sunny Saturday afternoon, the boys didn't disappoint.  

Variety was the name of the game, with different combinations of the five musicians on and off stage, playing a mixture of driving tunes and sweet ballads.  Causley's voice surprised me again with its depth and maturity --and it was so English to my ear -- very refreshing, as I've just come back from the States.  They played a quite funky version of "The Cutty Wren," a melody I'd previously known as belonging to the incredibly driving revolution song "Ned Ludd" by activist group Seize the Day.   

Causley also insisted on singing a song about "summer girls," an elaborate description of a particularly lovely lady amongst many.  One can't help feeling it's a bit out of context, as he seems more inspired by men in chains, but he shrugged off any confusion at the end of the song by explaining it was about Dylan Thomas' life.  Perhaps it was the sailor aspect that had originally appealed to him.

The highlight came near the end of the set: an original tune that started out with just fiddle and button accordion.  It began with a pronounced French flavor, and as it progressed the grace and courtliness of the tune put me in mind of Baroque chamber music.  After a heavenly minute or so of this unusual, elegant stuff, the bass player and guitarist stepped back on stage and join in.  At first just a few gentle chords. . . and they were off . . . with another great jig.   Enjoyed it very much; will try to catch them in the evening next time, as I'd bet they'd be more warmed up.  And as they claim to be a boy band, could we hope for a few more dance moves?

Anna Shannon.  She's a statuesque woman with big, shiny 80's-era hair.  But close  your eyes, and she's a voice from war-time Britain: a somewhat  desperate hawker of black-market goods:  brandy, and a little salt for your meal.  "Sweet Home," the next song in the set, offered more room for the softness of her voice to emerge.  Throughout the set I was struck by the overall fluidity, and her ability to move from the tough nasal tones of Marianne Faithful,  to a more tempered, honey-like quality.  Always perfectly intoned, and with a steady, subdued guitar as her base, Shannon is an inspiring performer.  Exploring the consequences of infidelity in "Velvet Green" with a sinister intensity similar to Lal Waterson's "Midnight Feast,"  Shannon drew the set to a very satisfying close.  I must say it's encouraging to see a woman old enough to have grown children playing a main stage festival slot; I'm just surprised I never got to hear this award-winning songwriter before now.