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Rediscover: Welsh Rare Beat

Rediscover: Welsh Rare Beat

An enjoyably eclectic and eccentric compilation of artists on the late ‘60s-‘70s indie Welsh-language label Sain.

This enjoyably eclectic and eccentric compilation of artists on the late ‘60s-‘70s indie Welsh-language label Sain (“Sound”) makes a strong statement for the cultural nationalism that that era’s agitation fomented. It emerges from the same strange brew as did Hungarian music from the same decades, when artists inspired by English-language rock and pop and folk decided to make their own assertive messages in the same idiom, but colored by their own traditions and in their native languages.

Welsh Rare Beat’s second track (Brân’s “Y Gwylwr”), for example, echoes precisely the electrified fusion pioneered by their peers across the Irish Sea, the Dublin-based band Horslips, who energized folk music for younger listeners with an infusion of harder rock. Compared to the British “acid folk” artists concurrently in vogue, Welsh musicians emphasize a grittier, tenser and denser sound, even on the female-dominated vocal tracks here.

Excellent liner notes by Gruff Rhys (Super Furry Animals) explain that this meant no male choirs or winsome lasses with harps—although Heather Jones’ pair of eloquent cuts do show this influence, tastefully. Rhys judges this music a blend of psych, blues, rock, pop and proto-punk. The last of these genres can be sampled from Edward H. Dafis’ “Calan Gaeaf” and Y Tebot Piws’ “Mae Rhywyn Wedi Dwyn Fy Nhrwyn,” which sound as if the unpredictably eclectic and eccentric Super Furry Animals could’ve composed them in Cardiff last week.

Down at track 19, Huw Jones’ “Dŵr” shows the more experimental side of this music; the latter half of the Welsh Rare Beat anthology album displays how counter-cultural trends open up and stretch out into more innovative takes on then-current popular sounds.

By contrast, the first half sounds more of its winsome time, and the tracks often start out very strongly, but, as if constrained by the three-minute-pop song rule, too often suddenly fade out just when you wish they’d start to expand and take the song another couple of minutes into tunefulness and a satisfying conclusion. Certainly, this feeling’s rare for a listener of many such compilations of previously unheard music. It’s easy to understand why Gruff Rhys favors best Meic Stevens’ “Y Brawd Houdini”—it’s a clever and lively tune that shows why that artist is considered a peer of Dylan (Bob D. more than D. Thomas, perhaps).

The packaging deserves special mention. There’s even a map of Wales which imitates the cut-and-paste graphics and period typography in showing the relevance of such movements as the rise of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society), the Abergawn martyrs and the social unrest that led to the political as well as cultural demands for recognition of Welsh nationhood and autonomy. Not everyone in this part of Britain cheered the much-hyped investiture of the then-young Charles, claimed by the United Kingdom as heir to the title of Prince of Wales. Exactly a half century has passed. The continuity of a Welsh-language indigenous D.I.Y. rock scene endures, as does an aging son, still awaiting his ascendancy to the throne. The longevity of both cultural markers may surprise those who in the summer of ’69 glorified none outside a youth cult.

These historical hints may send less-informed contemporary audiences to look up these events in the near-past. For they remind listeners in another era of cultural and political upheaval that music does not always have to be explicitly topical to cause change in the wider society. The effect left when these 25 cuts conclude remains not strange sounds you’ve never before heard, but a testimony and an assertion of the artists and label’s right to simply convey music they wanted to play in the language they naturally wanted to sing.

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