Friday, 28 February 2014

The Dammed Nations Tour

On Thursday I had the privilege of watching a rehearsal for the ‘Dammed Nations’ Tour at Theatr Mwldan. This is a collaboration between Nubian and Welsh musicians commemorating similar events that have happened in both countries. It is 50 years since the village of Capel Celyn was flooded to make way for the Tryweryn Reservoir. Nubia experienced a similar fate when the area was flooded to make way for the construction of the Aswan High Dam which displaced 1,200 Nubians. Welsh harpist and singer Siân James and guitarist and singer Gai Toms work beside the Nubian band Nuba Nour in a unique collaboration to remember these two places that were both destroyed in similar ways.

This project began last summer when it was suggested by project director Graham Breakwell that Capel Celyn should be commemorated. The decision was then made to combine this with music from the lost Nubian Homelands. However, this collaboration is not just about the history of these places but also the sound. It is certainly an unusual project and the music that is created is beautiful. Nuba Nour, as well as providing vocals, contributes rhythm through the use of percussive instruments but also wonderful melodies played on the oud. An oud is a stringed instrument with a pear shaped body that is played in the same way a guitar. This is not dissimilar to the Welsh musician’s use of sometimes rhythmic and sometimes melodic guitar and harp playing. The result is united with lovely vocals and more percussion instruments. Therefore, it seems as though the sounds produced are not as different as it appears at first glance.

During my conversation with Tour Manager, Michael Whitewood, it was revealed that this was the second set of rehearsals for the tour. He told me that he was very grateful that the funding had been enough to ensure the musicians had sufficient time to fully prepare for the tour.

I was given the fantastic opportunity of speaking to Siân James, who was able to tell me a little more about this collaboration which she described as ‘two cultures remembering history together’. I asked her about how it was like working with a group of people from such a different culture and she said that is was an ‘eye opener’ but ‘interesting’ and ‘great fun’. She spoke about the differences in music between the two cultures. Siân explained that whilst Welsh musicians communicated music through naming chords and learning from sheet music, the Nubian musicians mostly learnt by ear. I mentioned how the Nubian music was very rhythm based and Siân spoke about the song called ‘Forgive Me’, which they had been rehearsing that afternoon. She mentioned that although the subject matter was ‘melancholy’, the sound produced was still ‘joyous’ due to the Nubians’ rhythmic frame drum playing. This song incorporates Siân’s singing in Welsh alongside Nuba Nour’s singing in Nubian. Although the use of two different languages is rather unusual, it was effective. I do not speak either of these languages, but it was still possible to understand some of the emotion of the lyrics being sung.

One of the most enjoyable things about watching these musicians perform was that, although there was a language barrier, they still had their own special ways of communicating with each other. When I asked Siân about this, she mentioned how four different languages were spoken in the group: Welsh, English, Nubian and Arabic. However, despite this barrier, they were able to ‘communicate humanity through music’ and, despite not being fluent in each others’ languages, they are all good friends. She mentioned how they had found other ways to communicate, through actions rather than words. It is certainly a subject that recurred during my conversations with other members of the tour.

I also had the opportunity to speak to Hamoudi, Nuba Nour’s excellent oud player, and Mamdouh Elkady, who works at the El Mastaba Centre for Egyptian folk music in Cairo and who was helping to translate between English and Arabic for the musicians. I inquired about what it was like working with the Welsh musicians and was told that they had the same objectives in the project: they were nostalgic about the lost places, they wanted to preserve tradition and keep their own languages, and therefore it all fits together naturally. I asked Hamoudi what it was like being in Wales and Mamdouh translated his response which was that he felt very comfortable in Wales and that he felt at home: the other musicians were like a family to him. He mentioned the friendship amongst the group and because it is his second visit to Wales, he also had other friends here. He also spoke about how Wales is very different from England and that he probably preferred Wales (obviously!).

We also discussed how the process was very complex due to the difficulties in language. Hamoudi responded to this by saying they shared a ‘common spirit’ and therefore they were on ‘common land’ despite the different techniques and background of all these instrumentalists. I think that is one of the most beautiful aspects about this collaboration is how people can be united through music.

This tour kicks off tomorrow in Neuadd Buddug, Bala, before touring throughout Wales and South England. By what I have seen of this collaboration it is destined to be a brilliant tour and definitely worth seeing.  

Monday, 24 February 2014

The Furrow Collective – 'At Our Next Meeting'

The Furrow Collective comprises Emily Portman, Alasdair Roberts, Lucy Farrell and Rachel Newton. Together, these four fantastic musicians and singers have uncovered some beautiful ballads and have compiled them on this wonderful CD. Perhaps this is a slightly strange direction for Alasdair Roberts and Emily Portman, who are known throughout the folk scene for their traditional influenced song-writing: however, this album showcases their thoughtful interpretations of traditional songs. Additionally, the album is centred around dark folklore and storytelling through song, which is certainly something these four musicians do incredibly well. This is further highlighted through the instrumentation which is fittingly sparse at times.

The album opens with the song ‘Wild and Wicked Youth’, also known as ‘Newry Town’. It has a beautiful melody and the blend of Farrell’s and Roberts’ voices with a sparse guitar accompaniment draws attention to the narrative. The ballad is about a highwayman who steals to provide gifts for his wife. He is finally caught and the consequences are significant. Most songs on the album contain these simple arrangements which invite the listener to take note of the story rather than musical complexities.

Perhaps the most interesting song arrangement on this album is the overlapping of the ballads ‘Handsome Molly’ and ‘Our Captain Calls’. As is pointed out in the sleeve notes, these songs basically tell the same story but from different ‘sides’. It is therefore an incredibly clever arrangement. ‘Handsome Molly’ is told from a man’s point of view about Molly who promised to marry him but reneges. This is similar to ‘Our Captain Calls’ as the persona in ‘Handsome Molly’ wishes to ‘sailing on the ocean’, whilst ‘Our Captain Calls’ contains the story of  the woman who is left behind whilst her partner goes to sea. She claims that he deceived her to gain her money. Lucy Farrell sings ‘Handsome Molly’, and Emily Portman lends her voice to ‘Our Captain Calls’ but the addition of other voices creates poignant harmonies which enhance the sad nature of both songs.

The wonderfully catchy ‘Hind Horn’ is a particular favourite of mine because it contains a lovely refrain. Alistair’s skilful guitar playing adds a rhythmic element to the song which heightens the mood. ‘I’d Rather be Tending my Sheep’ is, as the title suggests, a reflection on the joys of being a shepherd. It is a song in which other options for life our dismissed for a simple pastoral life. It contains a lovely chorus with beautiful harmonies. No instruments play on the track, and it therefore highlights the power of A’cappella singing.

The album showcases ballads and indicates their importance in the folk scene. ‘The Furrow Collective’ certainly has a unique approach to these songs which emphasises the interesting stories they contain.

‘I’d rather be Tending my Sheep’ -