There was a strange duality about growing up where I did. My father’s first language was Welsh- he had even received his secondary education in Welsh, some sort of experiment in the 1950’s. He viewed this as having being a disadvantage in life, and consequently ( I don’t think that I’m doing him a disservice here) he didn’t bring me up to be a Welsh speaker. Welsh wasn’t frequently spoken in our village- only by the older people, and then often a curious hybrid of English and Welsh.
On Saturdays we went to visit my grandmother. Even though she lived only three miles inland the contrast was ridiculous. The village, the soil of its cabbage patches glistering with shards of coal and the monumental detritus of the coalmining industry looming above the stunted nut trees, was a stronghold of Welsh. Welsh was the default language, and people would look slightly startled if , as I did, you appeared bemused when they addressed you in Welsh. Everything there was somehow homespun and outdated. It was a different planet- 15 minutes by bus.
My dark eyed Welsh named cousins and their Welsh named friends spoke English haltingly. They attended Urdd ( Welsh Youth Club), Chapel Sunday School, and performed at eisteddfodau and gymanfa ganus.
One Saturday afternoon I was playing with my cousins in the crescent of council houses that seemed to have been built as a half hearted afterthought opposite my grandmother's house. I trailed behind my cousins around the side of the house where a small group of children were seated intently on a low brick wall (remember those little scarlet insects no bigger than pinheads?) watching two girls.
'They're being a pop group' my cousin patiently explained.
I took my place on the wall. The girls were older than me, about eleven, pale, with plain pinafore dresses and Alice bands. They seemed to have put some preparation into the act, and sang quite harmoniously, strumming along on tennis racquets.
It was an upbeat number, something like ye ye music (I didn't know this at the time), and they sang in Welsh. The only word I understood was the oft repeated boyfriend, but even this was given a Welsh lilt, pronounced boiffrind, and addended with an oh, boiffrind-oh. I felt a little uneasy, unsure of how to take it; the other children sat there watching them with great reverence. The girls themselves were very earnest about it all, but to me it just didn't sound right- I had never heard pop music sung in Welsh before.
As I grew older I found that a great deal of Welsh pop music that made it onto the TV was bland and cliched; guitar heroes in aviator glasses and garish Black Sabbath Paranoid style lighting effects for the racier acts, mordant middle of the road stuff the norm. The lyrics seemed clumsily ill suited to the genre. People followed these bands because of their enthusiasm for the language rather than the merits of the music, a band could break into this 'scene' simply by singing in Welsh.
I'm no authority on the Welsh Music Scene past or present, but I get the impression that the situation was remedied to some degree by the arrival of a Welsh medium TV channel in the early 80's, and by the compatibility of the punk/ independent D-I-Y ethos with the small target audience. By the end of that decade Welsh language bands had benefited from the interest in World Music, with acts like Yr Anhrefn and Datblygu being championed by John Peel.
In the nineties of course there was the bi lingualism of The Super Furry Animals, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci and even Catatonia, as well as a healthy growth in Welsh language music right across the board, from punk to trip-hop.
We've already had a couple of Welsh language posts on Burning Aquarium and I can feel a few more coming on...
well, no time like the present...