In Search of Folk Music: Wales

Folk music is about history and storytelling, archaic language and ancient notions that are sometimes surprisingly (and disturbingly) contemporary, and modern ideas that may have their roots in antiquity. It’s also about shared culture and joining with your community to express joy, sorrow, outrage, or remembrance. It can be hilarious or mysterious, bawdy or accusatory.

I am proud to call myself a folk musician, and when I travel, I seek out like-minded folks.

In planning my trip to Wales, I thought with excitement of the country’s reputation for beautiful voices and fierce pride in Welsh traditions, and I determined to visit a folk club and share in the singing. With the help of Mudcat Cafe, an online community of folkies across the world, I found a songcircle in Wales that fit into my schedule. Then I resolved to learn one simple song in Welsh so that I could wow the locals.

This was a recklessly brave and foolish ambition. For those of you who don’t speak Welsh, I will point out that it is a fiendishly difficult language for outsiders to learn. I suspect that the native Welsh are genetically equipped with a tongue that attaches in some unique fashion and which allows them to shape the sounds.

Take, for example, the “ll.” Wikipedia describes this as a “voiceless lateral fricative.” There are literally pages and pages of helpful explanation on the Web trying to explain how to create this sound. “…put your tongue in the L position and say SH (not S). Don’t forget to keep the tip of the tongue up against ridge behind the teeth and not let it point forwards or downwards as it would do for a normal SH…you’ll sound a bit like a really annoyed cat.”  Try to imagine doing this while singing. Considering the level of skill and determination this demands, one ceases to be amazed that the tiny Welsh nation has doggedly resisted Anglo domination for hundreds of years.

However, I reasoned that even a somewhat mangled version of a Welsh song would count as a culturally sensitive attempt and gain me some brownie points. So I tracked down a short, repetitive, but lovely folk tune called Ar Lan y Mor and I prevailed on my Welsh-born friend for some lessons. I think he almost choked the first time I tried to sing it—no, wait, that was just him correcting my pronunciation.

After several months of practice, I found myself in a Pembrokeshire pub, surrounded by friendly locals. Folkies are, as a rule, very welcoming types, and, though no doubt nonplussed by my presence in the midst of their group, they were kind. When I announced that I would sing Ar Lan y Mor in Welsh, I gleefully noted their surprised and respectful expressions. Nobody laughed at my garbled pronunciation and all applauded warmly at the end.

Just as I relaxed back into my chair, feeling quite smug, the woman next to me leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, “Very nice, dear. Of course, we’re all English here.” Indeed, as I soon confirmed, they were all escapees from the Anglo-urban rat race seeking Welsh utopia and not one could tell the difference between an “ll” and an angry cat. Bloody ll, thought I.

At the end of the evening, I was slinking, crestfallen, toward the door, when a craggy old fellow at the bar with his face sunk in his pint, glanced up just long enough to growl, “I’m Welsh and ye did pretty well. Good to hear someone singing in Welsh.”

So my efforts were not completely wasted. I gained a healthy appreciation for those few who tackle Welsh as a second language—and they are as rare as red dragons. I witnessed first-hand the long-standing tradition of English empire-builders taking up residence on Welsh soil, a custom that dates back further than King John. And I scored a point for Canadian chutzpah.

O bydded i’r hen iaith barhau!*

Have your efforts to speak the local language during your travels been delightful or disastrous? Write a comment and share your story.

*“May the old language endure!”—from the Welsh national anthem

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  1. Yes! Visiting friends in Paris, the young teenage son spent forever trying to correct my pronunciation of ‘tu’ (you). My high school French lessons had not been rigorous enough, it seemed. However, when I asked for croissants from the Parisian owner of a Vancouver cafe this week, I used the phrase “je voudrais,” which I remember as the a) the polite and formal way to say, “I would like…” And b) some obscure verb tense, he was impressed.
    My French ability is just enough to lead me out of my depth mid-conversation, where, inevitably, my grammar or vocabulary comes up short.

  2. What a great story, Marian. Had me laughing out loud. Well done for making the effort. How did you do with the accent? Not to mention playing rugby and singing in the valleys! 🙂

    • Well, I did attend the rehearsal of a Welsh men’s choir in a valley, which was really fun. They were extremely welcoming, even giving me one of their CDs as a gift.
      The closest I got to playing rugby was when I tripped and fell on a big rock, whereupon everyone in the vicinity threw themselves on top of me.

  3. I love your description of chutzpah, Canadian or otherwise, in the Welsh-Gaelic tongue. Here is a language story of my own, biting off more than I could chew, so to speak.

    Picture me, a 13-year-old traveller in a taxi crammed with adults and my younger sister, in Affars and Issas on the east coast of Africa, near Djibouti. One of the adults, my father, tried to query the taxidriver in fluent English, German and passable French. He might also have tried his fluent Danish or broken Russian, but the light-brown-skinned, black-haired cabby seemed to speak Italian and some African languages, perhaps Swahili. After a few minutes of chaos, there was an exasperated pause and then the 13 year old boy put forward, in carefully coached, near-perfect Arabic, “Kellem Arabi?” (Do you speak Arabic?). The cabby was so relieved, he let out an unbroken stream of Arabic until he noticed that the red-faced boy in the back could neither understand, nor speak, much of anything else in that language.

    • Good try, Ronnybee. I hope your chutzpah remains intact despite this. At least you didn’t accidentally say “Your water buffalo is in my sink.”

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