I’m just back from Calgary in Canada where I was attending the North American Festival of Wales. That’s Wales without an H. Wales is an area of Britain. It’s on the west side of the island. Welsh folk were there before the Romans, Saxons or the Normans. Their language is more ancient than most in Europe and has given few words to the modern English language. It very nearly was a dead language since the rest of England tried to outlaw the language, but it and it’s people still survive.
Many Welsh people emigrated to the Americas where they became miners, teachers, farmers and businessmen. If you see someone named Jones, Roberts, Williams and a host of other names, you can probably trace their roots back to Wales.
I go to Welsh/American events for the singing. It’s the only reason I go, well maybe not since I married into a Welsh/American family that has been, and continues to be very active in Gymanfa Ganu’s (or more properly Cymanfa Canu) and many other things Welsh. It is only half a joke when I tell folks that I had to audition to join the family.
I’m of German/Prussian/Norwegian decent. When I was growing up I remember my dad’s family singing German and American songs at family gatherings. There were violinists, pianists, accordion players and guitar players, and that was just the men. One uncle had a polka band. On my mothers side we had a great aunt who had run off to Hollywood to join the music scene then came home to work in a music store and give piano lessons. Holiday gatherings there were filled with Norwegian and American songs. Music was part of my growing up years.
School years also contained music. I took piano lessons, studied the clarinet and bass violin, those things never took with me, but singing did. I joined a barbershop chorus and the church choir and continued singing harmony when I settled into my own place, I still do. That tells you why I love to sing with the Welsh, it’s for the harmony.
The Welsh have a joy of harmony that is hard to contain. You will be just as likely to find them bellowing out a hymn at a rugby game or a pub as you would in church. Music seems to fill them. They will let anyone with a similar joy of harmony join in. The most difficult part of singing with the Welsh is learning to sing Welsh.
For those of you unfamiliar with the language, it contains 28 letters, and leaves out about 6 or 7 letters usually found in English. DD and LL are actual letters of the alphabet for them. The rules for the differences between F and FF give you a hint as to why English is at times so hard to pronounce and spell. Their list of vowels also includes W, and has some interesting sounds for the rest of the more common English vowels.
After 40 years of attending Minnesota based Gymanfa’s and a few national festivals I can almost pronounce the words, there is no way I can understand more than a few of them. The Welsh joke that it is a language in which you cannot buy a vowel. Their words seem to be all consonants. Much of the time I will just sing on a oh or keep singing the same English verse over and over. I’m not the only one. There are many a Welsh descendant that is doing the same.
It is perhaps the habit of singing in harmony that most draws me to Welsh music. Yes, you can find songs that have only the melody line, but most are 4-part harmony. Many Welsh enclaves in the America’s have a habit of holding Gymanfa’s at least once a year locally and a “National” or North American event annually also. In Wales there have been Gymanfa’s going on for over 1000 years.
So if you have a hankering for singing in harmony and hear about a Gymanfa Ganu, Cymanfa Canu or Welsh Festival of Song, check it out. Join in as they sing out those hymns and folk songs. I know you’ll have a great time.
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