Jun 1, 2009

Ceri Rhys Matthews, 'Song of The Flowers' and the Folklife Festival 2009

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Ceri Rhys Matthews is producer of the Smithsonian Folkways CD, "Blodeugerdd: Song of the Flowers", being released at this year's Smithsonian Folklife Festival and which has been described as "a really beautiful concept piece featuring some people who have either never been recorded before, or who were trying out new combinations for the recording."

Americymru: How did this project come about? Who participated in it, in what capacity?
Ceri: Betty and Ceri Jones - who was 'Project Manager for Wales at the Smithsonian 2009' at the time - came to see me at a project I was working on in Dolgellau called Prosiect Ioan Rhagfyr; a twenty five year project which revolves around flute playing and flute making in the Dolgellau area. They asked if I would advise on possible participants for the music programme at the Smithsonian Folk-life festival. I guess they knew they would get 'alternative' suggestions from me. So, I became part of their curatorial team.

During this process I became aware that a CD was going to be released on the Smithsonian Folkways label to be released at the Festival, and so I alongside many others put forward a proposal. And I won the tender. My idea was to record a few of the many thousands of musical tales that could be told of and in; around and about Wales. But I wanted these to be the 'unheard' stories - stories by people who do not 'represent' Wales or any faction in Wales, but people who have nurtured and kept alive a musical narrative, quietly - maybe in their kitchens, or with friends in intimate music making moments. They carry the stories that are never heard above the usual hubbub and hullabaloo of celebrity, fame, radio, tv and the mass media.

So, I hired a Tudor gate-house in the Preseli hills, worked out a timetable and asked about twenty musicians or so to come singly, in pairs or trios to come and record a track of their choosing. Anything they were concerned with at the time. The results were astonishing and inspiring, not least because of the interaction between the individuals and the nature of the building and its surroundings. The building itself is after all, a kind of portal. And the music recorded was a key to something that is heard less and less these days; something magic, inspired, at times unearthly, and also very intimate. It's not party music as someone pointed out to me on listening to the recordings. It's not party music in either sense of the word. But it is the music of the people. Or at least, some of them. I could have made three or four CD's and it was an onerous task to leave people out.

I think it's fitting that it is to be released on the Folkways label. A label that always recorded the ordinary people; those without an official voice. But whose collective voices became a vehicle of cultural expression for millions, beyond commercial consideration.

The musicians on the CD are:
1. Mary Hopkin
2. Anne Marie Summers and Helen Wilding
3. Ceri Jones
4. John Morgan, Diarmuid Johnson, and Chris Grooms
5. Linda Griffiths
6. Ceri and Catrin Ashton
7. Daniel Huws
8. Christine Cooper
9. Llio Rhydderch and Tomos Williams
10. Cass Meurig and Nial Cain
11. Jo Cooper and Elin Lloyd
12. Jem Hammond and Tom Scott
13. Max Boyce, Christine Cooper, and Llio Rhydderch
14. Julie Murphy, Sille Ilves, and Martin Leamon

Americymru: How would you describe the final result?

Ceri: On compiling the tracks we realised that the CD had a shape. That the individual narratives contained in the tracks made a larger more encompassing story. We likened it to honeybees returning to a hive and telling their individual tales, but those tales painting a picture of the source of their nutrition - of fields of wild flowers. From these wild flowers we pick a posy. The Song of the flowers, literally; Blodeugerdd in Welsh, Anthology in Greek.

Without pinning anything down, a shape may be discerned from the individual narratives and the songs seem to cluster into 'themes', or 'tendencies' which may be characterised thus

1. Remembering

Mary Hopkin sings a song that is imprinted on the cultural DNA of the people, and yet it is a surprise to hear her sing it. Well known internationally for her popular song, this is where she started, in her and our youth.

Anne Marie Summers and Helen Wilding Smith live on the porous border between modern England and Wales. Both have strong Welsh family and childhood connections. Being outside, they remember a cultural inheritance, and give a forgotten dance form, the estampie, back to the giver of that inheritance.

Ceri Jones was born and raised in Canada but this summer came to visit his grandmother in Llangrannog for the first time. He remembers his inheritance in a different way.

A reverie between John Morgan, Diarmuid Johnson and Chris Grooms. From the quiet and abstract opening notes, the musicians’ conversation is like the dawn, from which we can read the signs of the day to come. Here are elements of the memory, magic, song tunes, instrumental music and emotion which will unfold thought the rest of the anthology.

Linda Griffiths remembers how a lover hurt her.

Ceri and Catrin Ashton moved away from Conwy to Sheffield. The dance tunes they play, they played as young girls at home.

2. Describing magic

Daniel Huws sings of the mystical nature of the nativity, in a plygain carol from Anglesey that has been unsung for some generations.

Christine Cooper sends a bird as a love messenger, or llatai, from a winter-like desolate, treeless place without love, to a lover. “Wait,” the lover says, “wait until May.”

Llio Rhydderch and Tomos Williams improvise on a forgotten tune. They explore the tune like dancers, with two of the instruments of the forest.

Cass Meurig and Nial Cain engage in a mystical dialogue with the cuckoo about the nature of time, a story Cass sings to her children, and then brings us into the world of dance.

3. Dance and celebration

Jo and Elin play triple time hornpipes from the border, as Jo prepares to make a new life abroad.

Jem and Tom have some light hearted fun with flutes.

4. Emotion and the fabric of life

Max Boyce, with Christine and Llio, explores the fabric of sentiment and emotion, and ask the question; what is loss?

Julie, Martin and Sille compare the different emotions men and women feel in love.

These small individual narratives are the grains of sand in which the whole of the land may be seen, with its towns, mountains and beaches; its rivers, rocks and stones; its lovers, friends, families and homes. Taken together, these songs make a snapshot of a hive of activity. The story of a posy of wildflowers.

Americymru: What is planned for its release and where will it be available?

Ceri: The CD will be on general release coinciding with the folk-life festival. There will be a launch concert during which six of the musicians who appear on the CD will take part. I don't know that all dates and times are finalised yet. The musicians appearing in Washington will be Ceri Ashton, Catrin Ashton, Linda Griffiths, Christine Cooper, Sille Ilves and Martin Leamon

Americymru: Will you be appearing at the Folk-life Festival?

Ceri: Yes, I'm pleased to say I'll be performing mainly in a duo with Christine Cooper. But also, and this is very exciting, different combinations of musicians are encouraged to collaborate with each other throughout the festival, so expect some exciting combinations. Last night, a group of seven of us got together that will be playing for a twmpath one evening. Musicians are getting together with storytellers, poets etc. in all sorts of great combinations. But I'm really looking forward to getting a chance to play some really straightforward beautiful flute and fiddle tunes with Christine.

Americymru: How did you come to be a musician, what lead you to music? What instruments do you/have you played and what was your musical education?

Ceri: Well, I don't know that I am a musician. At least I was always told by my teachers in school that I wasn't one, so I've never really believed that I am, or counted myself as one. I suppose I play music. And I love music. And I love listening to it - I love listening to other musicians, and so I suppose that's how I started. There was no-one playing the music I wanted to hear- so I had to play it myself. I met a man called Jonathan Shorland who had made a pibgorn and some pipes and he showed me how to get started... And so I did. I played pipes and things. Then when we started fernhill, the group I play with, we needed guitar sounds, so I had to do that, learn to play the guitar. Then wanted to play the flute - more than anything else, really (except singing) and so I learned to play the flute, and make the sounds I wanted to hear and the tunes I wanted to hear.

Americymru: You've recorded and performed both solo and as part of an ensemble, you formed fernhill and collaborated with Christine Cooper, including on your 2005 solo CD, 'yscolan'. What has been the path of your career as a musician and where do you intend it to go?

Ceri: Ha! career!! To career is to lurch about, out of control isn't it? If I have a career it's not a normal trajectory I'd have to say. I don't know. I went to Art School where I learned that everyone is an artist. This really fitted in with my idea of what folk music is about. And so my career is to get as good at playing tunes as I can - as often as I can. So I don't have a job or anything - and I don't earn enough money, but I think I'm getting better at playing music. And sometimes people ask you to play for them, and that's brilliant. And every so often like a painter has to make a painting, a musician has to make a record, and so if we can we do. I've been really lucky in that my music has found patronage with some inspired people. Wyn and Richard Jones at Fflach records and Tim Healy at Beautiful Jo records. They are truly enablers, and friends of musicians. Geniuses in their way and kind and generous souls. Where do I intend it to go? To play as much music with Christine and fernhill and all my friends as well as new people I meet, as is humanly possible.

Americymru: What performances are you most proud of in your career?

Ceri: Well, performance and the sort of narrative music that I'm engaged in don't really sit comfortably. I'd have to say that when the listener and the player connect, then something special happens. It often happens between musicians and that's magic and what keeps you going. When it happens between the listener and the player, it's like you're dancing with each other. That's happened a few times. It's quite rare and special and happens in unexpected places often. Bessie's in Cwm Gwaun has had many special moments. And my time piping in Libya with Berber musicians was special. But piping along the via Dolorosa in Jerusalem to al-Quds university with thousands of Palestinians roaring and dancing still makes the hairs on the back of my neck rise.

Americymru: What would you most like to achieve as a musician?

Ceri: To attain the freedom I hear in musicians who can hear things which seem unreachable to me. People like John Coltrane or Micho Russell. And singers, like say, Bjork or like Mary Hopkin, or Tymon Dogg or Otis Redding - They all make me cry. I'd also like to earn my place in the anonymous pantheon if that's not an oxymoron.

Americymru: What's next for you and where can people see you play and find your music?

Ceri: Well, the folk-life festival comes up soon. Then there's my regular teaching at Dolgellau, and at Canolfan William Mathias in Caernarfon. I run a music retreat in Pembrokeshire three times a year for all types and abilities of musicians - but musicians who want to get closer to the essence of their own musical voice - the next one's coming up in August. Gigs around Wales with Christine and some exciting fernhill dates on the horizon too. We need to record some sounds too, but it's harder and harder to do so these days what with the ugly commerciality that chokes everything. Still, if we can raise some money we will. So that's a big thing that needs doing soon.


Interview by Ceri Shaw Email

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