Fernhill,
Whilia
(Beautiful Jo, 2000)

Whilia, Fernhill's third album, is a fascinating introduction to Welsh dance-song traditions. Almost all the songs on it are traditional and in Welsh (although translations have been provided in the liner), with an exception the English-language "Song to the Siren" used as an introduction to "cariad fel y môr (love like the sea)." Most of the seven tracks are quite long (four are almost ten minutes each), and include several traditional melodies tied together by theme.

I found it intriguing that some of the songs sounded more like some traditional Scandinavian music than like the Irish and Scottish Celtic, reminding me of the group Hedningarna. "Fi wela (I see)" is one of these; the cadences and the instruments have a Nordic feel, while the lyrics cite places in Wales the singer sees and loves. "Dawns o gwmpas (dance around) blends six traditional tunes with lyrics sung by a man to and about his beloved, all in a minor but lively key with definite Celtic elements. "Dawns tro (journey dance)" is more familiarly Celtic in sound, with some superb button accordion passages; it depicts estranged lovers, from both points of view.

"Whilia (talking)" is one of the sadder songs, as a man bids farewell to the land and the girl he loves in the midst of a market's activity. Even before reading the translation of the lyrics, the poignancy is clear. "Dole teifi (teifi meadows)" is another sad song, but more subtly; it tells of betrayal, and bad advice given and taken. A man asks how to win the love of a girl; he's told to ignore her for a year and she'll come to love him -- but when he does this, after a year she tells him she's about to marry someone else because she thought him indifferent, and now he's lost the one girl he loves. The musical setting doesn't make the theme obvious here, and it's worth it to listen while tracking the lyrics and themes in the liner.

"Chwant (desire)" ends the album with a tragedy; a man describes the practical basis for a marriage; the wedding itself goes poorly; and the girl who was jilted mourns on a riverbank and at the last drowns herself. As with "Whilia" the sadness permeates the entire song, especially the parts sung by the rejected girl.

"Cariad fel y môr (love like the sea)" evokes longing, from the "Song to the Siren" introduction through the Welsh, as a man sighs over his beloved and writes her a letter, only wishing he could send his heart with it. The quiet and bittersweet setting with its transitions from major to minor and back makes the translation unnecessary to feel its meaning.

Fernhill uses both traditional and modern instruments with Julie Murphy's voice to give these traditional songs a modern setting; not in the sense of electric guitars, but in the blends and transitions. Murphy's voice is wonderful -- warm, powerful and melodic, with a large range. It's not the high soprano one often hears in Irish music and so participates more fully in the music rather than sailing above it. Andy Cutting's skillful button accordion often does sail above the vocals, and shines in the interludes between the sung portions. Ceri Rhys Matthews contributes excellent guitar, clarinet, bombo and pibe cwd playing to the mix, as well as original music and words supplementing the traditional tunes. These are the Fernhill members; also on the album are Tim Harries playing the double bass and Cass Meurig's fiddle rounding out the sound.

I loved this album, and recommend it to those who love Celtic music; it's a different sound than the more usually encountered Irish and Scottish styles, and well worth hearing. I also think those who like some of the Nordic traditional/modern groups will like it; the various ethnicities living in northern Europe have had a lot of influence on each other in many ways, and Whilia shows a little of this. The Welsh lyrics make it a bit less accessible to people who are used to hearing only English words, but it's a stretch well worth making.

[ by Amanda Fisher ]