Music is the Welsh language’s secret weapon
Gareth Ceidiog Hughes
Music is cultural power.
It has the power to move, to inspire, to elicit emotions, to shape our perceptions.
In the parlance of geopolitics, it is referred to as “soft power”.
Hard power is a proverbial big pointy stick. Military might is raw hard power.
Soft power is a delicious carrot. The more admired your culture is, the more people will want to follow it. There is much to admire about Welsh language culture. But is it being used to its full potential?
The Welsh language is at a pivotal juncture. It could wither and die. It could be lost forever. Or it could flourish. What happens depends on us; on what we do and how we harness its cultural power.
Music is a potent weapon in the fight to save the Welsh language. It could well be the most powerful weapon that we have. It should be pumped out at every available opportunity.
It shouldn’t only be targeted at Welsh speakers. It should also be targeted at people who aren’t fluent in the language.
Some might object to this idea. They might believe that people aren’t interested in listening to music in a language they don’t understand.
But while everyone may not understand the Welsh language, but the vast majority of people understand the language of music.
Music is so much more than words. It’s been described as a universal language. It is the language of melody, the language rhythm, of pitch, tone and tempo.
If music is a universal language then Welsh language music has universal appeal.
To believe that Welsh language music can’t appeal to English language audiences is to ascribe to a rather narrow Anglo-centrism. Our horizons stretch beyond those stultifying confines.
The worldwide smash hit “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi by ft. Daddy Yankee has nearly six billion views on Youtube. As the title suggests, the song is in Spanish. This did not stop it from becoming a hit in the US and the UK. Music transcends language barriers. This is just as true for music in the Welsh language as any other.
Teenage rock duo Alffa recently became the first band pass one million plays with a Welsh language song on the streaming service Spotify with their song Gwenwyn (Poison).
It’s an extraordinary achievement. Is there any reason why this couldn’t become ordinary for Welsh language musicians in time? Why shouldn’t it be the norm?
If you haven’t listened to the song yet, you should. It’s brilliant. Add it to your playlists. Share it with your friends.
Alffa have picked up fans across the UK and the US, as well as in countries such as Brazil, Mexico and Poland.
The band was chosen to take part in the Horizons project. It’s collaboration between BBC Wales and the Arts Council of Wales to promote new Welsh music.
The song’s success is due in part to PYST, a Welsh global distribution and label service set up aimed at Welsh indie labels. It got the song on Spotify playlists Walk Like A Badass and The Rock List, alongside artists such as Arctic Monkeys, The Strokes and The White Stripes.
In an article for the Guardian Alun Llwyd, the chief executive of PYST, said: “What’s beautiful is that Spotify judge the songs on music merit, not the language or the band. Nobody knew Alffa outside a small part of Wales. This is testament to the strength of the song.
“There’s a massive, organic growth thanks to the digital revolution. Streaming has made it more of a level playing field. The fact that Alffa sing in Welsh has no bearing on how far their music can travel, something that seemed impossible for a minority language in years gone by. This is just the beginning.”
The digital revolution has levelled the playing field. The Welsh language has faced structural disadvantages for centuries. It was banished from public life, banned from the courts, whitewashed from road signs and from public view in general.
I still wouldn’t describe the playing field as level. It continues to be slanted against Welsh speakers. But the digital revolution has made it more of a fair fight. Alffa have proved that Welsh language music can compete with the best and win. As a nation we punch above our weight.
If music in the Welsh language can compete on Spotify and win, then why not English language radio stations too?
Music is one thing that we Welsh do really rather well. It is perhaps what we do best. It’s woven into our culture.
This is rooted in our cultural traditions, such as the Eisteddfod festival where Welsh speakers get together to share their pride in who they are.
It’s one of the main reasons the Welsh language still lives. It’s an expression of its vitality, its vibrancy.
In his poem “In Passing” Brian Harris said: “To be born Welsh, is to be born privileged, not with a silver spoon in your mouth but music in your blood and poetry in your soul”. He’s right. So why not play to our strengths?
Dydd Miwsic Cymru or Welsh Language Music Day should be pretty self-explanatory. It’s a great initiative backed by the likes of Radio 1 DJ Huw Stephens.
It’s on February 8 and I would urge everyone to get involved by listening to, discovering and sharing the wonderful music that the Welsh language has to offer.
Music is an enormous part of most people’s lives. On average people spend around 4.5 hours a day listening to music. The more of that time we can get people listening to music in the Welsh language, the better.
To connect the Welsh language in people’s minds, hearts, and souls with music, is to connect it with their lives and with their identities.
Ysgol Bro Lleu in Penygroes, Dyffryn Nantlle, Gwynedd has started playing Welsh language music in the schoolyard. Every school in Wales can follow this example. We need more initiatives like this.
We shouldn’t underestimate its potential as a boon for the Welsh economy either.
We’re a nation with humility; perhaps too much. We’re not a nation of show-offs. We’re not particularly good at tooting our own horns. We’re only a nation of horn-tooters in the literal sense, not the metaphorical one.
It’s commendable in many ways. However, it does have its drawbacks. Let’s not allow our aversion to arrogance become an impediment to sharing our pride and our passion.
The success of Alffa wasn’t an accident. It happened because they made brilliant music. But crucially it happened because they got it in front of an audience. There is a lesson here.
People can’t embrace music or a language they don’t get to hear.
The Welsh language music scene is bursting with talent. Let’s share that talent with the world.
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