Cerys Hafana’s distinctive style brings a contemporary twist to the traditional sound of the Welsh triple harp. Gary Raymond sat down with her at the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow to discuss tradition, iconoclasm, and ranting on Facebook.
Gary Raymond: I’m really interested in some of the points you brought up in your essay for the Welsh [Plural] anthology. Do you find that when people come to your music, they’re expecting something a little bit different to what they get because of where it sits within ideas of traditional folk music?
Cerys Hafana: Yeah, I think people have quite fixed ideas about what harpists look like and what Welsh folk music should sound like, and I don’t fit those stereotypes. So, they kind of get a sense quite early on that I’m going to be doing something different. That article I wrote for Welsh [Plural] has followed this album launch around a bit, getting brought up in The Guardian and stuff. I mean, it’s great, but it’s kind of strange as well. I do feel like there are a few parts in the essay that can be taken out of context quite easily and that has happened a few times. There has been some kickback from it. Darren [Chetty, co-editor of the anthology] was really shocked that my essay ended up being the most controversial, particularly because it seems like the most niche piece in there, in many ways.
Gary Raymond: Do you think that has to do with those perspectives? Or is it just that the folk music community is quite fiery?
Cerys Hafana: I think the folk music community, especially the triple harp community in Wales, is quite complex. It’s quite tiny and it’s sort of unwell; it is under threat. It’s endangered and I think that sense of threat makes people a bit bitter and a little paranoid that it’s not being treated in the right way. It’s a tiny number of them, within a tiny group of people, but I think they feel that I’m kind of erasing the history of the instrument, or that I don’t have enough respect for it. Or, at least, that was the accusation because of the Welsh [Plural] article – that all of us young uns doing folk music in a way that sounds different to how it would have sounded in the 1800s, are eradicating all that history, so it’s no longer Welsh.
Gary Raymond: It does feel like a really important part of the Welsh [Plural] book, because it seems like a microcosm for the modern Welsh experience. There’s a certain area of Welsh identity which is protected by a traditionalist elite of people who think this is what it means to be Welsh. Then there are other people who were standing up and going “well, no. This is all part of what it means to be Welsh” and that seems to be what you’re tapping into.
Cerys Hafana: I really think that the triple harp gets seen as a symbol of Wales in the eyes of a specific group of people who have a certain idea of what that means and, to them, it means a pure lineage that almost got erased by the English, but has fought through and kept going throughout history. Yet if you look at it properly, there are so many different paths and so many different histories that I don’t think you can hold up the triple harp as this big symbol of everything and say that if you do something different with it, you’re threatening someone’s concept of being Welsh.
Gary Raymond: It’s strange because the triple harp is not a traditional Welsh instrument, you allude to this in your Welsh [Plural] essay, but it’s a European instrument that was then adopted by the London-Welsh.
Cerys Hafana: This is what’s quite frustrating about it; it doesn’t feel like a coherent argument really to say that it’s the Welsh harp. So it becomes a question of where you place the date at the start of that timeline and, for some reason, this certain group of people have chosen that it’s going to be how the instrument came from Italy, in the Baroque era, and was played by Welsh people in the seventeen and 1800s. Obviously, it’s true that happened, and that’s a sort of heritage that we have, which is great, but it seems kind of daft to pretend that that’s Welsh music, because you could throw the dart at any other point and say the same thing.
Gary Raymond: I suppose it’s a personal perspective, really, isn’t it? I mean, even if I don’t have much sympathy for it, I can understand people who feel very protective over this thing, and then they see young whippersnappers coming along kicking over the statues, as it were. But then again, when was the last time a Welsh triple harpist had a 2000 word article in The Guardian? Arguably you’re doing much more good for the profile of the triple harp that way.
Cerys Hafana: Yeah, I think that’s the mentality that’s so difficult to tap into. I think it’s similar with the language; there are people who kind of feel like it needs to be kept within quite a small group of people, so that it’s kept sort of pure and correct. On the whole, that attitude is changing, but I think there are pockets of people who still feel that way, but they’re very much a minority.
Gary Raymond: How do you find audiences respond?
Cerys Hafana: They’re very positive and receptive. Over the last year it’s been really fun; I’ve been doing gigs, like supporting Adwaith and playing at Greenman and feeling like I’m kind of tricking people into coming to see the harp when they usually wouldn’t. And actually, I usually wouldn’t! So it’s one of my favourite compliments when someone says, “Oh, I hate harp music, but I liked what you did with it”. That’s fun and it’s partly why what I do interests people. There’s a weird tension from playing an instrument that you don’t actually like the sound of that much; it can be quite productive creatively, because you’re kind of trying to get something out of it.
Gary Raymond: It’s interesting you mention that tension. The harp is something you’ve been playing since you were a child, so is it kind of like a sibling, a family member that you’re stuck with now?
Cerys Hafana: Yeah, I can’t escape it! I got to 14 and had a crisis about it and wished I could play the drums, or something cool, but I’d spent six years learning it and I realised it was a waste of time to get rid of it. I just found a way of using it that interests me and that’s led me down the path of writing my own stuff and having a sound that’s a bit more distinctive than if I was playing the piano. It’s a very limited instrument in lots of ways and there is kind of a reason why it’s died out to such an extent. For lots of types of music, it’s just a completely impractical instrument. That’s part of the fun though, finding the things about it that are unique and that open up a whole new world.
Gary Raymond: When you come to compose your own work, who can you sense gazing over your shoulder? It’s obviously not traditional composers. Although, I suppose, you’re kind of hemmed in by the parameters of what the instrument can do?
Cerys Hafana: In terms of influences, I learned the harp by playing all of the old pieces. So there’s not a particular person, but I listened to more contemporary stuff – alternative pop music and electronic music – and I kind of feel like there’s a bit of that in my head that’s trying to think of the harp as a synthesizer. I’m trying to think about textures, more than you get taught to do if you’re learning classical composition.
Gary Raymond: Your most recent album has this really great energetic sound to it. It’s quite raw and the production is very up-front. It’s a really contemporary sound, but also, it’s more reminiscent of those acoustic punk artists from the 80s and 90s, people like Ani DiFranco and Hammell on Trial. It must be quite difficult to market in some ways because it is so idiosyncratic with the instrument.
Cerys Hafana: Yeah, the guy who produced it, Mike West, is a bluegrass banjo player and I think there’s a slight sense, in the album, of him recording a banjo in his head. I’ve had people come up to me and be like, “it was recorded wrong. You’re supposed to record the harp from a bigger distance to get all of the resonance and beauty.” But I like being able to hear my fingers on the strings and getting that texture. To me, that’s what makes the triple harp more interesting than other types of harp; it has a better sound, but it also has a more raw sound. Because pedal harps that are played with orchestras have been built so that they can project over a concert hall and they have that beautiful resonant sound. The triple harp doesn’t have that at all, it sounds like elastic bands! But that does mean that you have the buzzing and you have the tactility of it, and I think I was lucky to find Mike who kind of understands that recording it from a much closer angle than you normally would gives it another edge.
Gary Raymond: A lot of this goes back to what you were talking about in the Welsh [Plural] article and the reaction to that. You talk in it about your teacher, who clearly comes across as one of those traditionalists when it comes to the harp and it’s a beautiful picture that you painted of the kind of environment when you had your traditional training. Which is why I asked about the audience response, do you ever get people that come to your gigs and say, “this isn’t what this instrument is meant for”?
Cerys Hafana: Yes, I mean, I’ve never had someone come up to me after a gig. I think that’s either because I’ve just not been doing gigs in the right places, or because the triple harp is such a niche instrument that unless you are one of the people who has a strong idea of what it should sound like, you’re not going to get it. As for my teacher, I think that was one of the most frustrating things about that article and the fallout from it, that she had clearly interpreted what I’d written as being quite negative and patronising. I can see how that would happen, but it hadn’t been the intention when I wrote it and what I’d been trying to say was, “all of this stuff is in safe hands”; it has these people who care for it, and who dedicate their whole lives to it.
Gary Raymond: It’s the idea that things don’t have to be preserved in a certain way to survive. You were let loose in National Library of Wales folk music archive last year, and much of that forms the basis of your last album, but how did you decide which songs you wanted to develop from that project?
Cerys Hafana: I liked the word “Edyf”, which is an old Welsh word for “thread”, and just this idea of picking songs and pieces, and subjects that felt like they had some sort of connection to now. I was also looking at a lot of hymns and old religious ballads and poetry, especially ones which aren’t sung today, and although I’m not religious, I grew up in Wales, so it’s quite a big part of my psyche. These old songs have so much in them that feels like it does speak to me, or speaks to our world. For example, the song about a comet is about a guy who’s gone up a hill to watch a comet in 1848 and for him, it’s amazing and a sign of God. For me, I can still look at a comet and be amazed and not quite grasp it, but not from a religious perspective. I was looking for songs in the library that had that kind of idea.
The other one, “Y Mor o Wydr” (The Sea of Glass) is about Doomsday, and it’s a really graphic description of the world going up in flames. And it was kind of like, oh, well, this sort of feels a bit like our fears about climate change. You know, I’m not scared about Doomsday, but it felt like the fears in the song tapped into those fears we have about climate change. The language is just amazing; it’s so vivid and so intense.
Gary Raymond: From an English language perspective, do you think that’s part of the evolution of folk songs? Because there’s an argument that folk songs, over the centuries, get streamlined to the most popular version and that’s then the version which survives. With these Welsh language songs, perhaps there’s something more raw and less “evolved” about them?
Cerys Hafana: Yeah, the idea of some songs getting streamlined is very accurate. There are also other factors, like the Methodist revival, which had a huge impact on that kind of music, but that didn’t really happen in Scotland and Ireland in the same way. I do think that a lot of the songs that have survived until now are the ones that were considered safe and appropriate, and maybe some of the weirdness that wasn’t allowed in the folk songs got channelled into these hymns that were getting written and any fears and anxieties were getting pushed into those. I’ve been doing a few English folk songs recently and I feel very aware of the fact that they’re so much stranger! There’s ghosts and supernatural stuff that I’ve never seen in a Welsh folk song and I think that’s partly the Methodist influence again. I assume they would have tried to stamp out things which didn’t fit with Christianity.
A lot of the English folk songs also have much more awareness of class inequality. It feels as if in Wales, everyone was poor and the wealthy were too far away to be a problem, whereas in England, everyone was just much more aware of this huge inequality and that might have sort of twisted people a bit. Some of the songs are really violent and you can sense that tension just under the surface.
Gary Raymond: So folk music means something different in Wales?
Cerys Hafana: Yes, perhaps Wales has a marginally more egalitarian society. Whereas in England, historically and still today, you’re just made more aware of there being this inequality. You know, there aren’t really private schools in Wales and that was a shock to me when I went to uni in England, suddenly meeting people who had had lives that were so different to mine. That’s expressed in some of the old folk songs, you can sense that extra tension that wasn’t there in the Welsh folk songs. That tension has turned into something twisted, and that’s been expressed in the types of stories that have been told in their songs. It’s not a very fleshed out theory though.
Gary Raymond: Well, no, to be honest, I’m hearing quite a coherent musical philosophy there, which is that you are a student and, now, also an expert on the folk tradition in Wales and beyond. You see contemporary attitudes and issues in the traditions, no matter how far back you go, and that is what you’re bringing forward in your music. I mean, there’s obviously a thousand other things, but that’s what seems to keep coming through in this conversation and that seems absolutely vital, in any kind of musical tradition. I mean, in a thousand years time people will be trying to protect German electronica of the seventies.
Cerys Hafana: I can’t wait to be an older person, complaining on Facebook about young Welsh people doing microtonal folk music. It’d be great! I think it’s also partly that I kind of came to folk music by accident. Well, that’s not entirely true; when I was a kid, I was really into folk dancing, I was the only one in Wales who enjoyed Dawnsio Gwerin at the Urdd. I loved the outfits, I loved it all and that’s how I got into the harp! As I’ve grown up, I’m not as interested in that anymore, but I feel a bit like I landed on folk music by accident just because of where I grew up. But like with the triple harp, it’s kind of this family member that I’ve got to lug around with me and so I’ve come to see things in it that interest me. That’s been the mission to decide what weird things I can find that speak to me on some level, that I can do something with.
Cerys Hafana’s latest album, Edyf, is available now. Upcoming tour dates can be found on her website.