Writer and broadcaster Gary Raymond was at the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow where Wales was one of the showcase nations.
And we’re back in the room! In its thirtieth year, and after a hiatus of the physical version for obvious reasons, the Celtic Connections Festival is a real live experience once again. And with it has returned the energy, the passions, and, of course, the music. Over the last week or so, some of the most exciting and admired names in world of folk music have descended upon Glasgow, and Wales has been a showcase nation.
It has been easy to forget just how important it is for people to congregate. We have, perhaps trying to stay positive in the face of the odds against us, become used to telling ourselves that a zoom meeting has trimmed the fat from the inefficient business of having to get somewhere, of having to brave the cold and the rain (not to mention public transport), or simply having to get out of our leisure wear. But the truth is – and Celtic Connections has stood as testament to this – there is no substitute for being in the room.
And the power of the opportunity to be collectively, physically, present has been a hot topic of conversation at the festival. People embrace, old friends and new, connecting and reconnecting, from all corners of the world. A British Council delegation alone has brought to Glasgow creative directors, musicians, and filmmakers from places as diverse as South Africa, Jordan, and Bangladesh. This is how relationships are formed. This is how ideas are forged. This is how music is made.
From Ukraine, bandura player and co-founder and director of the Lviv Bandura Festival Anastasiya Voytyuk is a breath of fresh air, funny in several languages, full of passion for her art, and a symbol of the determination that creating cultural connections is a part of the wider resistance to Putin’s war efforts. Russol Al Nasser from Jordan speaks beautifully about her own country’s growing resistance to theocratic cultural conservatism. “Some times in our country,” she says, “we forget to sing.” She goes on to say how at a previous Celtic Connections Festival began the seed of a project that eventually brought together Gaelic and Bedouin artists.
“Networking” gives the wrong impression. Bringing people together in the hope and promise that creative sparks will fly is done a disservice by this cold corporate buzzword. Networking may have proved all but impossible via zoom – because the real work is done in the idle moments between meetings and showcases and speeches – but the Celtic Connections Festival is more than just a mass exchange of business cards. The Thursday afternoon showcase event, in which Welsh artists performed for a congregation of international delegates, is a perfect example of why it is so much more.
At the outset, with speeches from facilitators thanking the litany of organisations that have made all this possible, (plus some slightly awkward videos of thanks and encouragement sent in from various ministers of Wales and Scotland projected on to a huge screen), it had all the hallmarks of a dry soulless corporate event. But the hundreds who filled the hall of the Drygate brewery venue where it took place may have been programmers and directors and administrators, but they were also musicians and composers and singers. In the world of folk, these people are one-and-the-same. They were all there for the love of the music. And as the Welsh acts came on and performed the vibe was more folk club than corporate shindig.
And what of those Welsh acts? The Welsh had been talking the talk but what did we really have to offer? Well, with the support of the British Council and Wales Arts International, what Wales was able to present was some of the most exciting young artists the Welsh folk scene has boasted for as long as I can remember. They showed that Welsh folk music is in fine fettle, that it is urgent, vital, and raw, and, most importantly, its future is very much in safe hands. In turn, as folksinger Gwilym Bowen Rhys, triple harpist Cerys Hafana, and chamber folk trio VRï, took to the stage and did their thing, people all around the room began to sit up, take notice, and soon that became foot-tapping and head-swaying, and, in, the end, rapturous applause. Or, in the words of one of a group of Canadians sitting behind me, “Well, that was bloody brilliant.”
Cerys Hafana is going some way to re-inventing the way the world views the Welsh triple harp (You can read my interview with her at Celtic Connections here). Her sound is gritty, full of energy, full of the tension between the tradition of the instrument and the need to be singing about things important to the hear and now. Gwilym Bowen-Rhys is an impassioned, raucous performer, always on the edge of explosion, his guitar brandished like an agricultural tool, his voice coming at you like a force ten gale. VRï, a barnstorming three piece, were a different package again, jaunty and punchy and full of the joys of the music they played. These are artists perhaps more suited to the sweaty suburban dens of underground folk clubs and smoky pub lockins rather than the resonant and respectful air of the sedate concert halls of a festival like this, but everyone who saw them that afternoon knew exactly what they were seeing: the energy of the next generation of artists.
Celtic Connections is also a place of discussion. But the arts, always having to defend itself from the joyless, also indulges incessantly in conversations about itself. Many conversations at Celtic Connections start on a stage but filter out into the evening and every bar in Glasgow. A British Council symposium on the current health of folk music went off in directions you wouldn’t always think is the usual domain of the folk musician. What is art? How do we measure its impact? How do we define culture? If we know what art and culture is, then can we better protect it? Danny KilBride, Director of Trac Cymru, the organisation dedicated to the development of folk music in Wales, said that in thirty years as a project leader and arts administrator, no report he has filled in for funders at the close of a project has ever once demanded to know how much fun everybody had. As the people who bring us our culture fight for every penny, are we in danger of forgetting why we’re all here in the first place?
Raymond Williams said, “culture is what we do.” Brian Eno said, “culture is everything we don’t have to do.” They were both right. Somebody else said somewhere once that culture is how we live, but it is also what makes life worth living. Being back in the room is what makes life worth living and knowing that Covid did not change us in the end. If anything, what I saw at Celtic Connections was renewed determination to make great art, to collaborate, to break down barriers and share ideas and cultures. The music will continue to play.
A version of this article was first published in The Western Mail on Saturday 28th January 2023.