Culture

The Unstoppable Rise of Welsh Language Music

Young people are at the forefront of a Welsh cultural renaissance, fuelled by a spike in speakers and growing frustration with post-Brexit Westminster politics.

by Rhys Thomas
27 April 2020, 2:23pm

Photo: DGDImages / Alamy Stock Photo

A cheer roared through Rough Trade East in early March, when we were still allowed to go outside properly, as Carmarthen indie-rock group Adwaith played to a sold-out room. “This one’s about how Westminster keeps fucking Wales over,” vocalist Hollie Singer announced, before launching into a song which, like most of Adwaith’s songs, is in Welsh.

With a sound that’s morphed from delicate folk-pop into dissonant indie rock of the Sub Pop roster variety, and lyrics that muse on red lipstick, wine and the pitfalls of a political system dominated by England, Adwaith are one of many young bands at the forefront of a shift in Welsh-language music. There hasn’t been an all-woman Welsh language band since Sidan (Silk), a folk group whose last album came out in 1976. And while, yes, the industry is quick to coin a new "Welsh music boom" every time Gwenno has an album out, the last decade has seen a steady appetite for Welsh-language pop culture in general. As more time has gone on, it feels less tokenistic and more representative of a growing sense of cultural identity.

The Welsh language is currently experiencing its greatest revival in a generation. Along with a reported spike in speakers – “874,700 people are able to speak the language, up from 726,600 in 2008”, according to the BBC – and a rise in national pride following Brexit, the momentum for an independent Wales has blossomed from a feeble Plaid Cymru and a few unsavoury nationalists into a genuine nationwide discourse.

Music often echoes its surroundings, and it’s during the last decade of turbulence that many young Welsh language bands, including Adwaith, have started out. In the last 12 months Cate le Bon was nominated for the Mercury Prize, Alffa’s “Gwenwyn” became the first Welsh-language song to reach a million streams, Welsh Language Music Day 2020 was the biggest festival in its history, and Dafydd Iwan’s “Yma O Hyd” – a Welsh folk song from 1983 – sailed past Stormzy, Lewis Capaldi and The Weekend in January to hit number one on the UK iTunes charts, bolstered partly by campaign by independence movement YesCymru.

Elsewhere, our notoriously second-rate men’s football team has had its best half decade in history, reviving the nation’s sporting love along with it. Sensationalised TV shows like The Valleys have come and gone, making way for the rise of "Celtic noir" and bilingual personalities like Love Island’s Connagh (who, by the way, was ROBBED). The language has even received its own (ed: very sick) typeface: Cymru Wales Sans. But is there a reason why we’re seeing more appetite for this now? Huw Stephens of BBC Radio 1, 6, and Cymru, offers up a theory.

“I think that, as the world has gotten smaller over the last five years, creative people have zoned in on what's true and relevant to their lives,” he tells me. “For many Welsh people, this means using Welsh or speaking about Welsh things.”

While there’s not quite a shortage of music about the Welsh experience (see: almost every single Manic Street Preachers song), there has been a long-standing disconnect between Welsh subject matter and the Welsh language.

“I’d often be ripped for speaking Welsh in school, so I assumed it was uncool,” says Talulah Thomas, a 19-year-old student from North Wales. Growing up near the English border in a predominantly English-speaking community, there wasn’t much opportunity for Talulah to socialise or express herself in Welsh. Then she caught wind of the alternative music festival Maes B – described by organisers as “the official afterdark little brother of the Eisteddfod” – and started sneaking out to go. “The bands were mainly indie boys in t-shirts, but artists like Adwaith and Ani Glass soon came up,” she explains. “They seemed super badass, and they’re women. So that was me fully into it.”

Despite a steady recent rise in speakers, the Welsh fluency rate is still fairly low (the 2018-19 National Survey for Wales found that 18 percent of adults aged 16 and over reported that they could speak Welsh). The Welsh language has been suppressed for centuries, even within Wales, where it was only given equal status with English in 1992 after having its official status removed by Henry VIII's Act of Union in 1536. Welsh language wasn’t introduced as a compulsory subject in both Welsh and English-medium schools until 1999, and mainstream media perceptions of the Welsh language have barely changed since the days of the Welsh Not.

In the last two months alone we’ve had Snickers tweeting that Welsh words look like someone sat on their keyboard; a Sky News broadcaster suggesting it’s a useless language; and the Guardian’s Zoe Williams (who is Welsh) calling the language “hard and existentially pointless” as a throw-away gag for her fitness article. It's this bias that partly explains why some of Wales' biggest music exports have felt compelled to sing in English.

“We definitely succumbed to singing in English, and we felt guilty doing it,” says Cian Ciaran, the keyboardist from Super Furry Animals, when we spoke about the confidence of contemporary Welsh bands today. “We felt we had to in order to make a living. We hit a glass ceiling.”

But what we're seeing now seems to be a steady rise of Welsh-language pop culture in tandem with a rise in the number of people who would have taken compulsory Welsh classes in school. This, against a backdrop of national pride, has also made room for Welsh-language bands to feel less restricted – and the “national pride” I’m referring to here isn’t the aggressive nationalist politics you might be thinking of, but the unfamiliar concept of showing positive patriotism and quiet confidence. Rhys Mwyn was in the first Welsh band to sign an international record deal back in the 80s, and describes the sentiment as “political, but supporting culture”.

“Do you want to travel the world and experience different foods? Or do you want McDonald's everywhere?” he explains. “It's about being part of society's patchwork quilt and celebrating those differences.”

Electronic artist Ani Glass sings in Welsh because it's her mother tongue (along with Cornish), but it’s also a political decision for her. “We’re a small country, so I can't help but feel a pressure to carry that torch,” she says. “I suppose it’s a political act because the language’s future is in our hands."

For photographer and director Carys Huws, who regularly works with Welsh creatives and recently appeared on an episode of Lŵp – a S4C series about Welsh music and contemporary culture – Welsh language pop culture is inherently political. “Doing anything through the medium of Welsh is a political act in itself, because you’re resisting the norm and choosing the hard path to success,” she tells me.

In 2016, S4C also launched Hansh – a youth-focussed media channel that aims to revolutionise how Welsh culture is reflected online, proving it isn’t all mini-docs on daffodils and Welsh rarebit recipes. “When you see good content using your mother tongue or projecting your perspective on the world, you can relate to it in an entirely unique way,” says Hansh digital content creator Sam Rhys. “It's almost holy.”

It's this attitude of celebrating Welsh culture, instead of trying to write around it, that seems to be resonating with people – even if they aren't Welsh. Jasneet Samari, an 18-year-old student from Kent, tells me she likes “how there's a lot of romanticism about Wales in the songs, and by using the Welsh language”. Jasneet discovered Welsh music through a friend, then went on to learn about the language and culture online, as well as discovering new artists through Spotify. “It feels celebratory, and that's not something you get with English,” she says. “It feels more marginalised and repressed – very lightly, but still repressed, and therefore more important.”

For Liverpool-based writer Cath Holland, it’s the sense of community in the live music scene that’s drawn her in. “There's no arseholes,” she says. “There's just a sense of identity and confidence in expressing that.”

“Wales has a lot to offer and never gets the attention it deserves,” adds Adwaith bassist Gwenllian Anthony. “The language gets attacked and put down all the time. The more that happens, the more we want to promote it.”

Gruff Owen is the owner of one of Wales’ biggest record labels, Libertino Records, as well as a mentor and manager for many of the bands interviewed. Summarising where the scene is at right now, he says: “I don't think we're waiting for anyone to consider us cool anymore. We’re just doing it ourselves.”

Steffan Dafydd, the frontman of Breichiau Hir, agrees. “It shows there's a more global reach possible now than before,” he says. “I think this has meant there's more confidence in doing your thing and not conforming to anything, like anglo-music.”

“Welsh people have a confidence complex,” Sam adds. “Ask someone if they know any Welsh and they'll say no, even if they understand some. I think music is where the confidence barrier is being broken down best.”

Simply put, it seems that Welshness is being embraced on a wide scale for the first time in a long time, egged on by a building intolerance of Westminster post-Brexit, with the biggest change of heart coming from within Wales itself. But this newfound confidence isn’t brash or egotistical. Artists are ambitious but humble – they accept success as earning a living doing what they do, not trying to be the next superstars. As Tom Rees of acclaimed denim rock band Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard puts it: “The Oasis dream of being the biggest band in the world is dead now, and thank fucking god. If people in London discover us, great. But we just want to exist freely as artists...”

Or, as Gwylim frontman Ifan Pritchard more succinctly puts it: “It's our first language. You wouldn't ask Coldplay why they sing in English.”

@_rhysthomas_

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