various artists,
The Rough Guide to the Music of Wales:
Harps, Bards & Gwerin Sounds

(World Music Network, 2000)

In terms of worldwide appeal, the music of Wales has always taken a backseat to that of other Celtic sources such as Ireland, Scotland and Cape Breton. When people do think of Welsh music, miners' choirs or comic folksinger Max Boyce might come to mind. The most recent Welsh emigrants brought records like these with them to North America. But what are people in Wales listening to now?

The Rough Guide series offers us one version. Their version is folk-based but contemporary, and distinct from that of Ireland and other Celtic visions. Yet it remains a collection aimed at the most Celtophile of listeners.

Opening with a beautiful Llio Rydderch triple harp solo, the 71-minute CD then moves to a contemporary folk tune by Dylan Fowler and Julie Murphy that intertwines folk, pop and rock elements in a potent blend. Rag Foundation's "Mynd I Rymney" is next, with Stephen Fearing-like vocals backed by a driving pipe sound.

Other highlights, and there are many, include the archive recordings of singer John Thomas and another of chapel-goers in a chant called "Canu Pwnc," John Morgan on concertina and a recording of the ballad "Breuddwyd" by the legendary folk-rocker Meic Stevens. They also include "Fi Wela" by new group Fernhill, Kilbride's reel "Tom Edwards" and a harp-based song from Pigyn Clust (Loreena McKennitt sound-alikes). There is great quality and surprising variety here. It's exciting to know Wales has so many vibrant folk artists.

What's included is fine, but it leaves me wondering about what was left out and why. For many CD buyers, this might be their first exposure to Welsh music. How do you justify a "guide" to the folk music of Wales excluding Dafydd Iwan, Sian James, Plethyn, Ar Log, Gwerinos, Carreg Lafar ... (the list goes on)?

I also detect a South Wales bias in the selections, although to be fair, that's where the bulk of the population lives in Wales. Of artists where the place of origin is identified in the CD's notes, 11 are from the south and just one from the north. My own personal selection would be decidedly more Gwynedd-centric (i.e., northwestern Wales).

Most of the selections on this CD are in Welsh (only one is in English), but you can't have a serious discussion of Welsh folk music without mentioning Iwan, who also happens to be the current leader of the Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru. Iwan may not write the prettiest melodies, but he has written a number of stirring anthems. He also recorded an excellent selection of traditional folk tunes. One could also have included baritone Bryn Terfel on such a collection without stretching too far.

Sticking with the positives on The Rough Guide to the Music of Wales, the CD has 71 minutes of great variety and quality, full bios on the artists and a good smattering of historical context.

- Rambles
written by David Cox
published 3 January 2004

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