The Lyrics Are Perfectly Clear, in Welsh
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Thu Mar 31 13:23:21 UTC 2005
>>From the NYTimes,
March 31, 2005
The Lyrics Are Perfectly Clear, in Welsh
By BEN SISARIO
Gruff Rhys had just arrived from Wales with a guitar in his hands for a
concert recently, and though he was very friendly and smiley and polite,
he looked a little stiff. Standing amid the skyscrapers of Midtown
Manhattan, there was one thing he badly wanted to do: take the tram to
Roosevelt Island. When he finally did on a crisp sunny day, hovering in
the tram over the East River, Mr. Rhys began to relax. Then he lit up as
he walked down Main Street, saying that it reminded him of home: Roosevelt
Island, as a tiny appendage to a huge, dominant culture, could be the
Wales of Manhattan, he observed. Going into the Trellis diner, he slumped
happily into the far corner booth.
"I need to seek out these places," he said, "It's a part of my identity."
The Welsh identity has usually been an invisible thread in British pop
music, from Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey in the 1960's to the Manic Street
Preachers, Mclusky and Jem today. But Mr. Rhys, the leader of Super Furry
Animals, one of the most popular and acclaimed Welsh bands of the last
decade, has embraced it in a most polysyllabic way. His first solo album,
"Yr Atal Genhedlaeth," released last week on the Rough Trade label, was
recorded entirely in Welsh, from the first "Gwn mi wn" to the last
"Rhyddhawn ein penblethau."
The lyrics, which Mr. Rhys has posted at www.placidcasual.com, his Web
site, look like the result of an explosion in a type foundry that
specializes in W's, M's and G's and is short on recognizable vowels. One
song, "Pwdin Wy 1," a breezy midtempo number, goes: "Pwdin wy, pwdin wy/
Wyt ti'n caru fi mwy na dy gariad d'wetha?" Mr. Rhys is fond of oblique
political allegories, but this one, as he explains, is of a more standard
pop type, a love song set in the passionate flush of a brand-new affair.
"Pwdin wy," which means "egg pudding," is a term of endearment. ("Pwdin
Wy 2," an aching ballad, covers the stormy breakdown of the relationship.)
"Singing in Welsh can be seen as a political act," Mr. Rhys said, "because
it's a minority language in danger of dying out unless political action is
taken to protect it." In a nation of about 2.8 million, only about a
quarter are estimated to speak the Welsh language, and Mr. Rhys - whose
name is pronounced as if it were spelled Griff Reese - is proud to be part
of an activist tradition of linguistic preservation.
His parents took part in the civil disobedience campaigns of the 1960's
and 70's to resuscitate Welsh as a visible national language; the results
ranged from getting Welsh names on English-language road signs to, perhaps
less nobly but just as popular, getting Welsh-language game shows on
television. Mr. Rhys, 34, whose lilting accent comes in a slow, deliberate
stream of English - "I'm just as slow in Welsh," he said - grew up
speaking Welsh in the northern city of Bethesda, picking up bits of
English from "Sesame Street" and the radio. He began playing music at 13,
just as a Welsh-language rock movement was beginning to pick up steam.
He began to tour the Welsh punk circuit in his teens with his band Ffa
Coffi Pawb, and started Super Furry Animals about a decade ago.
Unlike Super Furry Animals' densely produced sci-fi rock, Mr. Rhys's solo
album is sparse and low-fi, recorded almost entirely by himself during a
series of informal sessions over the last two years.
But longtime fans will recognize an aesthetic of tuneful juxtaposition.
Pastoral ballads give way to thuddy electronica, and vaguely medieval
melodies blend seamlessly into perfect Beach Boys pop.
Mr. Rhys said the linguistic unity of the album came by accident, as he
recorded a couple of dozen working drafts of songs, in Welsh and English -
sometimes he has thoughts in one language, sometimes in the other - and
noticed that those sung in Welsh fit together thematically. The lyrics,
rife with punning and political commentary, form a picture of what he
calls "dysfunctional characters" struggling to fit into society.
The title is a pun on the theme of birth control. "Contraception in Welsh
is 'atal-genhedlaet'," he explains in the notes to the album. "It
literally means, 'Stop the next generation.' By adding 'the,' it becomes
'The Stopped Generation,' but 'atal' also means 'stuttering,' so it
becomes 'The Stuttering Generation.' "
The title song begins the album with the sound of Mr. Rhys's voice sampled
on a keyboard and played in a rapid stammer for eight seconds.
Another song, "Epynt," is a multilayered comment on politics, money and
the Welsh identity. Epynt is a mountain in Wales that the British military
has used for 60 years for artillery training, and is looked at bitterly by
many Welsh as a symbol of continued English domination. Mr. Rhys also
breaks the name into syllables to represent another conflict: the E stands
for the euro, which many Welsh support, and pynt is the Welsh name for the
British pound. The only solution, the song suggests, is to get rid of
Mr. Rhys knows that he is more likely to have an effect on
English-speaking rock fans who study his work than on his own countrymen,
most of whom do not speak Welsh.
"Most Welsh people wouldn't have a clue" what he is singing about, he
said. "I need to sing in English to communicate."
More information about the Lgpolicy-list