Several Welsh bands are experimenting with the Eastern European Klezmer tradition and finding intriguing parallels. Klezmer is a strong part of a musical tradition that originates with the Ashkenazic Jews of Eastern Europe. It is lively dance music, infectious and laden with emotion - both happy and bittersweet but ultimately lifting the spirit. Like traditional Welsh music, it has been largely passed on from generation to generation by example rather than written down. Several Welsh bands are now experimenting with playing Klezmer and, in one notable case, hybridising the style with Welsh music.
Cardiff's Klezmer Kollectiv is an eight-piece who play all around the Cardiff area. They employ the traditional instruments of clarinet, accordion, bass and guitar, but also add cello, sax, trombone and cajon (a box containing a snare for percussion) to give a full, romping sound.
Similarly the Llanidloes-based Klezmonauts, while gigging less often, are educating audiences in this infectious dance style.
Machynlleth-based former Ember member Rebecca Sullivan is also experimenting with Klezmer at the monthly Ceinws acoustic sessions.
South Wales duo Fiddlebox, however, are unique in trying to meld that tradition with the Welsh one, and in so doing to redefine the boundaries of Welsh traditional music. Fiddlebox claim to have invented a new musical style, which they call 'Klezreig' - a synthesis of Cymreig and Klezmer that is proving highly popular with audiences everywhere. The duo are fiddle-player Helen Adam and George Whitfield on accordion. They have just recorded their second important album, On The East Wind, which was launched late last year at a special concert at Burnett's Hill Chapel, Martletwy, Pembrokeshire.
Nowhere is the Klezreig style better exemplified than by a Klezmer version of the traditional song 'Machynlleth' which, by being played in a Klezmer scale, immediately gains emotional poignancy. This version arose from an improvisation at a party in Machynlleth, between Helen and Tony Corden, the guitarist and organiser of the politics and music festival El Sueno Existe.
I interviewed them at George's house in Narberth, Pembrokeshire, and wanted to know first of all about the story behind the title.
Helen began her answer by referring to one of the album's key tracks, ‘The Girl From The East’. ‘This song takes as its starting point an English folk song, 'The Girl I Left Behind Me'. I wrote three variations on it... the first is written in the Klezmer style’.
George has a more poetic attitude to the identity of ‘The Girl From The East’. ‘She's got her eyes on her own country in Eastern Europe, but is dancing in these green hills of Wales!’ he smiles. ‘The “girl from the east” is actually Helen!’
Helen Adam is one quarter Lithuanian Jewish, and a quarter German, on her mother's side, a part of her heritage of which she is increasingly aware. So you could say she arrived in Wales on the east wind. A recent visit to the Jewish Museum in Berlin led her to reconnect to her Jewish heritage.
‘My grandmother emigrated to Germany and converted to Buddhism to marry a German Buddhist writer,’ she says. ‘Then she left him and came with my mother to England and became a Catholic. But she ended her life in a convent in North Wales! The Klezmer track ‘Hora Dorothea’ on our first album called, simply, Fiddlebox, is about her.’
If you didn't know Fiddlebox was a duo, at times you'd think there were four of them, especially since both members sing. This is in many ways also due to George Whitfield's ability to make his custom-made accordion, which is vital to the unique Fiddlebox style, sound like two instruments at once. George had his accordion specially constructed by a top craftsman, Claudio Beltrami, in Stradella, Italy. It employs a unique bass switching system, designed to his specification, with an electric midi on board (that he doesn't use for the purely acoustic Fiddlebox), three rows of bass buttons that permit more complex bass lines and four sets of hand made reeds. Together these produce a big sound with chunky chords, that is usually only achieved with larger concert accordions. The bellows have a short delay time enabling a punchy reverb effect, which George uses eerily to open his song ‘Simply Fly’.
Helen and George are both immigrants to Wales, where they met, but they have made it their home. Helen is fluent in Welsh and has represented Wales at the International Celtic Congress. Fiddlebox are a regular at events at the National Botanic Gardens and the Royal Welsh Show.
‘So, the “girl from the east" is happy to be here, but remembers her country,’ says Helen. ‘She feels an interloper, but that's how I present the Welsh material we play because I don't think I can pretend to be Welsh. We are trying to channel Welsh music through the prism of our own identities.’
George nods. ‘We are doing what no one else is doing. I think it's a shame that Welsh culture has a lack of extension outside Wales, unlike Irish culture which extends all over world. One of the reasons for this is that there is a perception that Welsh music is just scales and arpeggios and we are trying to say it's not true.’
Helen attributes this to the point at which Welsh music was written down. In fact, its historical development up to date seems to have gone through two phases. Firstly, before the advent of Methodism, Welsh music was highly social, just like Klezmer, and centred around community celebrations, both seasonal and familial. It was jolly and upbeat.
In the eighteenth century, however, Methodist ministers frowned on such profane practices and the music became more sombre, or overtly religious. There are stories of musicians' harps being stowed away and falling into disuse.
Secondly, there is a feeling amongst some historians of music, such as Phyllis Kinney, author of Welsh Traditional Music, that the scale in which Welsh music was originally played was the Dorian scale, which contains notes similar to those used in seventh and minor chords.
However, when it came to be written down, by collectors such as D. Emlyn Evans and Llewelyn Alaw, there was a tendency to regularise it to fit with accepted musical theory. For example, seven-bar phrases might become eight-bar, and Dorian might become minor. This is how it is now played. A further change is that originally tunes were closely associated with the lyrics, and thus followed the stresses and cadences of the Welsh language. Often, the original words were lost, and this has contributed to a further regularisation of the tunes. Therefore, in the past, it is likely that Welsh music would have had more emotional depth or breadth than it does now, perhaps something like the blues and gospel music.
Fiddlebox's Helen Adam offers her own angle on this: ‘For me, Welsh music must be robust enough to stand its own ground against others, and not have too much preciousness about it,’ she says.
The implication is that we need to keep an open mind about how to present this material. A culture is not static, but rather changes in reaction to the times. Just as it has been forced to evolve in the past, as Wales opens up to welcome visitors from abroad, this is bound to influence its culture and its music.
But Fiddlebox's new album is not entirely Klezreig. George Whitfield cites his influences as rock, country, blues and folk, while Helen also is classically trained and practises contemporary composition. Between them they offer the full emotional range and some very catchy tunes, from George's upbeat ‘Simply Fly’ to an update of the gruelling traditional English song ‘Pills of White Mercury’ which is about syphilis in the eighteenth century.
George observes, ‘On the whole album, nothing was recorded that wasn't played live first, and much of it was played live for 6 months beforehand to make sure we had it down.’
Fiddlebox were insistent that they wanted no special effects like echo or distortion. It would all sound exactly as it would at a live gig. The album was recorded in an old Welsh chapel by producer David Unlimbo. The chapel also contained nesting swallows, and the mikes picked up their chirruping songs. Listen closely to the album and you can hear them, deliberately left in.
The swallows are gone now, blown on the east wind far away for the winter. Perhaps they are like the girl from the east, and dream of their homeland. Except Fiddlebox's girl has made Wales her home, and Welsh music is all the more enriched for it.
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Gwen's next blog: more on Grayson Perry, The Hare with the Amber Eyes and the renaissance of the object