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.  

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