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Stephen Rees and Huw Roberts

Stephen Rees and Huw Roberts are fiddlers in the Welsh tradition who have taken the music of Wales to international audiences with the bands Ar Log and 4 Yn Y bar.

(This interview was recorded in Edinburgh at the city's venerable harp festival in 1998.)

Fiona:

I'm glad to have a chance to meet up with so many Welsh musicians at the festival. And although the harp is the focus of this gathering, we have an opportunity with you two to find out more about a largely overlooked musical tradition: Welsh fiddle music. First of all, welcome. And tell us about how you came into your musical life.

Huw:

Thanks Fiona. Well, I started playing fiddle in primary school in the classical tradition, but I knew about folk music from my family. Then, at college, friends were playing folk music. So, I started playing instrumental music too -– Welsh, Irish and Scottish.

Since leaving college, I played in a few bands. I know you've played some of our music on your radio program in America: Pedwar (four) Yn Y Bar, and Cilmeri. And thanks for doing that, Fiona.

So now I'm interested in Welsh musical traditions and in trying, really, to promote the instrumental music of Wales. And recently we discovered two manuscripts written by 18th century Welsh fiddlers, one from Aberystwyth and one from Bangor, which have been a good source.

Fiona:

So, we already know Huw through these two Welsh bands we've heard so often. And the same is true of you Stephen, right?

Stephen:

Yes, well I also began to learn classical violin at school aged 10, as well as a couple of other instruments. At 11, I started to play piano-accordion and began playing for folk-dance teams; so I really learnt Welsh tunes through the accordion. But I was mostly playing classical violin, and not much on the fiddle at this time during my childhood.

But after leaving school, before going to University, I met the guys in the band Ar Log, whose fiddle player was about to leave. So that was it: from 1992-1994, I was a member of Ar Log playing fiddle and accordion. Now since 1995, I've become very involved with the Society for Traditional Instruments of Wales, organising workshops and teaching people traditional tunes on traditional instruments, by ear.

Fiona:

Ar Log was actually included in the playlist of the very first edition of The Thistle & Shamrock, back in 1983.

Can you help us to identify what distinguishes Welsh fiddle playing from Irish or Scottish fiddle styles?

Stephen:

Well in terms of style, there is an unbroken tradition with Welsh harp playing, but even though the fiddle repertoire has been preserved, we don't know how the fiddle was actually played in 19th or even the early 20th centuries. Many manuscripts from 18th and 19th centuries contain tunes which appear very similar in style to contemporary classical or popular music.

Early Irish printed collections are very similar too. When you play the tunes, they seem to sound very classical. In the various Celtic countries, the boundaries between what we would consider classical or popular music were more blurred in the past than they are today. And because the tradition was broken in Wales, it's necessary to look back at how the music was written down.

In Ireland and Scotland, there has been a continuous fiddle playing tradition since the 18th century and as a result the music has changed its form, even though its roots are in the 18th century. With Welsh music, because of the need to go back to the manuscripts, it is maybe possible to get closer to how people would actually have played at that time.

Fiona:

Makes me think of what happened in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia where you had Scottish Highland musical traditions which migrated there but remained unaltered by the fashion and style of Victorian times, as happened during that time in Scotland. What about the content of your manuscripts? What's special about the repertoire?

Huw:

A lot of them are typical of the period: listening pieces, a few dance tunes, especially the Morris Edwards manuscript.

Stephen:

There are a lot of pieces in 3/4 there, a lot of minuets and a number of jigs. But quite different to Ireland and Scotland. We don't have reels as a dance form although there are lots of marches and hornpipes. But these fiddlers just wrote down what they liked to play.

There was no nationalist agenda whereby they wrote down only Welsh tunes. As such, the manuscripts include tunes you would find in Playford's publications in England and other tunes which are better known in Scotland, for example Flowers of Edinburgh.

So, there's not a repertoire of Welsh tunes, but a repertoire of tunes, some of which seem to be distinctively Welsh, which were played in Wales. A broad scheme that represents the tastes of the period and of the particular players.

Huw:

It also depended on who they were playing for: they played at weddings and fairs and also in the country houses. We have records of payments made to fiddlers in the 18th century in Anglesey. There were 40 fiddlers at least on that island in the 18th century. So to say that Wales is just a land of the harp is wrong.

Stephen:

Yes it's a very partial view to say it's just the harp that represents Wales. There are several other instruments, including the crwth which is important in Wales before the 17th century.

But to go back to the manuscripts, there's one in Bangor by a North Wales fiddler called Morris Edwards which has a lot of the slightly more polite music, because Morris Edwards played for some of the minor gentry.

The big fascinating manuscript was by a chap called John Thomas and was written around 1752. He was active in mid-Wales and this has got everything in it from bits of Handel's Water Music to tunes you find in Playford to tunes that are very old and we know were around in Wales in the 16th century, to Welsh song tunes, to Welsh ballad tunes, to Welsh dance tunes which don't occur elsewhere.

So it's a collection of everything that he liked, in as much as it's also got a little essay in there on how to catch and cook a trout. So it's like his common place book and it's got 500 tunes in as well.

Huw:

And I've been primarily, over a number of years now, involved with Welsh dance. I'm in charge of a dance team back home and so we play the jigs and the horn pipes and as far as style, you were asking earlier about style, I tend to use a lot of drones and double stopping, very little ornamentation and it's fairly plain in style.

I try to play out quite loud and strong because there have been times when I've been the only musician playing for the dance, so obviously you have to play out, especially if you're dancing in the open air. Your style, Stephen, is slightly different.

Stephen:

It is a bit different. I've certainly been more influenced by Scottish and Irish music. I tried to practice doing my rolls on the fiddle a long time ago and a while back, I went to a Stirling Scottish Fiddle week course, about 15 years ago, which had Angus Grant and Tom Anderson and Alastair Hardy in it, and I really learnt a lot just in terms of taking a piece from what's written down and what you do with it.

I think I use more ornamentation than you. On the other hand, what we've found when we've played together over the past couple of years is that playing in harmony is something that seems to have occurred naturally. Huw, more often than not, takes the lead or the melody and I'll either improvise the harmony or work something basic out.

Subsequent to that, I've found that that seems to be an aspect which is more closely related, not to the Celtic countries but to European music. Talking to some Swedish fiddlers recently, I learned that the beginning of the 20th Century is when Swedish fiddlers started playing together and creating harmony.

Before that it tended to be solo fiddle. It's not that I'm claiming any authenticity for what I do but, in a sense, it's a natural progression, and now, one associated Swedish fiddle music, more often than not, with fiddlers playing together in harmony rather than just soloists.

I think that's one important aspect of what we do in Wales. We don't have just one offering. We have a single line ornamentation working against that. The idea of counterpoint is really important.

Fiona:

What can you tell us about the present and future state of fiddle playing in Wales? Are you both representative of what's happening? Are there lots of other up and coming players who are getting excited about playing Welsh music on the fiddle?

Stephen:

There are lots. I lecture at Bangor and I have a student, she's a very keen fiddler, and she's working on one of these manuscripts for a post-graduate degree. But it's not only that. I don't think there ever was a uniform Welsh tradition, there may have been a common repertoire.

But just as in Ireland people say "Irish fiddling," but Martin Hayes plays differently to Kevin Burke, plays differently to Frankie Gavin, plays differently to P.J. Hayes and it's much more to do with the individuals.

On the Welsh Fiddle CD, which is a compilation of 13 different fiddle players from Wales most playing in duos, then you actually get an awful lot of different styles. Sometimes people interpreting similar things in a very different way, sometimes people interpreting different tunes in a similar way, but that richness, that diversity, the fact that nobody's the same as anybody else, is one of the big strengths of what is this resurgence in Welsh fiddling.

Huw:

At the moment, with the society, we are the only ones that offer young kids and adults the opportunity to learn Welsh fiddle tunes. It would be nice if this came through into the education system because it's with the youngsters that the future lies.

I teach, and so many children, when they see me bring the fiddle into school and play them these tunes, say "can we learn like you Mr. Roberts?" They then are taught, in the same way that I was taught, by the same teacher, she's still coming round to teach, and she knows very little about my style of playing, and about Welsh fiddle music.

It takes time and money and persuading people high up in authority and this goes not only for the fiddle but for the harp as well. In places like Norway, they have folk fiddlers going around the schools, teaching these kids. And there's a much more progressive approach in Scotland, for example, as you'll know. If there was money and time, I'm sure the talent is out there. We've seen it.

Stephen:

They pick it up in no time at all. You know the way that people learn music classically; I'm a classical musician and lecturer in classical music, but people are taught to read from the copy and then they have to learn in their teens, if they're good musicians, to use their ears again.

Why do you teach people to read music before you to teach them to play? Do you teach them to read literature before you teach them how to speak? The analogy just doesn't work. Wales since the early 19th Century has had this layer of authority where people have aimed for respectability by imitating high culture from England and Europe and that is seen as the condition to aspire to.

All music in Wales has seemed to aspire to the condition of concert performance. We've lost a lot of this idea of informality. There's no doubt that when we pass it on to young people it creates a great enthusiasm but, because it's not classical, because it's folk music, many of the funding bodies have up to now, tended to look down on anything that isn't part of high culture and that's a real shame.

Fiona:

Because it's part of Welsh culture and there's nothing else that can represent your own history and roots and their future more than your own musical culture.

Stephen:

Precisely, Fiona, and what people did in the last Century, with The Eisteddfod, the music festival, that had a very bad effect, not because it was competitive but because it created a particular aesthetic set of values where, what you get in Eisteddfod, as an American told us a few years ago when he was there looking for folk music.

He said "you guys have Schubert on stage and big golden harps. Where's the folk music?" We told him there are a few competitions, but it's that which takes primacy. You'll get Puccini, Verdi, Mozart sung in Welsh, but you won't get Welsh music.

Fiona:

As if somehow making Welsh culture elite and high brow should make it more acceptible. To whom, I wonder?

Huw:

Yes that's right, and we're still suffering from the effects of the blue books in Wales, where we were really given a clout by the inspectors on the state of education and on the state of morality in 1847. We've got to have respectability and the people of Wales have got to be as good as their neighbours in England.

Stephen:

One of the great promoters of Celtic literature, Matthew Arnold, was one of those inspectors and his report, after the Inspector of Education's report had been finished, said that the sooner the Welsh language died out, the better. As a reaction to that, people wanted to preserve the Welsh language, but they preserved it via non-conformist religion by adopting international culture and translating it into Welsh.

Fiona:

Hopefully now we're seeing Welsh music being more embraced at home in Wales. Can we look forward to more international recognition for traditions such as that of Welsh fiddle and for Welsh music in general?

Stephen:

Because of the way the world works in terms of folk festivals, I think it depends on a number of people who are good in this line, giving up their day jobs and going out and doing it full time, like the great Welsh triple harper Robin Huw Bowen who's done that on a full time basis for well over a decade.

In the early days, Ar Log did it. 1976-84 they took that abroad. There's a great reluctance among people who might be respectable Welsh people, who may be good musicians, to leave their day jobs and to take the risk. But for it to happen, people have to do that.

Huw:

I strongly believe that, out there, the world is waiting. Wales' day will come, but people have to go out and perform and take this music out there.

Stephen:

The level of ignorance -- you can't blame people for not knowing about Welsh music. I went to a conference last year and there were a group of Irish musicians, one of whom told me he was really looking forward to my paper because he didn't know anything about Welsh music.

Fair enough, why should he? Welsh music is opera, it's brass bands, it's Tom Jones, it's Shirley Bassey, it's choirs and this emphasis on singing, at the expense of instrumental music, has been really detrimental. The harp and fiddle were seen as instruments of the margins of society, disreputable and associated with the tavern. It was hymn singing and being good for your soul that were important.

Huw:

Recently we were at home playing Welsh music in pub in Bangor and a local asked if we were from Ireland. It's got to change.

Fiona: Well I know it has a chance to do just that in your hands, Huw and Stephen, and that your passion for the traditions of Welsh music will help it all to find an international audience. We'll look forward to hearing more on The Thistle & Shamrock, anyway, as you make your plans to take it to the world. Thanks for giving us all these insights into what you do.

Stephen and Huw:

Thanks, Fiona.