Mid-20s Malaise

Struggling against the inevitable since 1986!

Foreign Language Music Week: Welsh

I like a lot of foreign language music.

Sometimes I worry that it makes me seem like a wander wanker. (Thank you to my friend and hero Andrew P Street for making sure I insult myself with correct spelling.) I don’t necessarily seek out foreign language music, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to avoid enjoying music just because you don’t understand the words. Because I’ve been thinking about it a lot and neglecting this blog, I thought I’d write about – and post! – some of my favourite foreign language music.

The artist that got me thinking about this stuff is Cerys Matthews. You may know her as the lead singer of Catatonia, a Welsh band from the 1990s. The band used to split their time pretty evenly between English and Welsh language songs, but as they became more successful, recorded only in English. One of their Welsh songs, however – the title track of their breakthrough album International Velvet – blew my little 12-year-old mind.

I’ve since learned that the song is a little satirical, listing cliched things that people think of when they think of Wales, but I thought it was very brave: a major-label band putting a song sung in a dead* language in the middle of a pop album. More importantly, though, I was fascinated by the sounds of the language, which has a phonology completely different from English. It’s a language which renders jumbles of letters like “cysgld” and “dwfn” (“sleepy” and “deep” respectively, apparently) pronounceable. It all seemed very ancient and mysterious and, coupled with my musical inability, I was in awe of the mighty humans who were able to play music and master multiple languages.

Anyway, the point is, after the band broke up, Cerys Matthews embarked on a solo career. I’ve enjoyed this career for many reasons. Towards the end of Catatonia, her raspy delivery bordered on self-parody, and her quieter, country-tinged solo releases display a simply gorgeous voice. But that’s not my point. When I was in the United Kingdom last year, she released Don’t Look Down and its Welsh language equivalent Paid Edrych I Lawr, which is made up of more-or-less faithful translations, I believe. In most cases (as you will see later in the week), when songs are recorded in multiple languages, I prefer the original versions: it just flows a little better. It’s easy to tell that these songs were written in English first and then translated, but the Welsh versions make an interesting counterpart. In addition, I find her commitment to promoting and preserving her second language most admirable.

If you’re interested, I present to you to English and Welsh language versions of the album’s lead single, Arlington Way. It’s a lovely song in its own right, but the lilting nature of the Welsh language adds something special to it. I always smile to myself though at the few English words that snuck into the Welsh version. Whether they didn’t fit because they were untranslatable (“anyway” is a difficult concept to translate, implying both time and indifference as it does) or simply didn’t fit, I don’t know.

Anyway, she’s just released her second full-length Welsh album, Tir. It’s a collection of Welsh folk songs. She played a few of them when I saw her perform in Cardiff earlier in the year, and it was just wonderful. At the time, I said

I’ve been waiting twelve years – half my life – to see her sing. She was wonderful. Her new solo material is fantastic, but when she sang an old Catatonia song, suddenly I felt like I was a teenager again, sitting outside the art rooms at my high school listening to my Discman (remember those?). My favourite moment though had to be the couple of Welsh standards she sang. The whole room sang along, and I had no idea what they were saying. That’s what I love when travelling – being lost in the midst of a bewildering culture.

The album is beautiful. Recorded in a pared-down format – a little guitar, piano, glockenspiel and such – it sounds like an album by an elf. I read a book about Matthews and Catatonia while travelling, and it talked a lot about the booming Welsh language music scene of the ’80s and 90s: a scene so exclusive that one was ejected from a club if one uttered English there. I’m sad that I left the book on the train, but will have to forge on and do my own research into Welsh rock.

I’ve blathered on enough. Come back if you want to hear about my favourite French-, German-, Danish-, Finnish- and Swedish-singing artists.

Edit: I’ve just seen this clip of Cerys singing Migldi Magldi on the London Eye. She led a sing-along version in Cardiff, and the album has her singing with legendary Welsh singer Bryn Terfel. This version is quite cute, excepting that god-awful hat.

* Okay, it’s not really fair to call the Welsh language dead. It’s the healthiest of the Celtic languages and, unlike the indigenous languages of Ireland and Scotland, it’s possible – albeit difficult – to conduct all your business and live your life in Wales without English.


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One Response

  1. joshua william says:

    I think my favourite when it comes to enjoying non-English lyrics would have to be Icelandic! So many amazing artists seem to emerge from what is such a small island.

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