Welsh chamber folk trio VRï have won Best Album for Islais a genir at this year’s Wales Folk Awards, which were held at Hoddinott Hall at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff last night.
The band also picked up the award for Best Instrumental Track for their song ‘Yr Ehedydd’. Islais a genir (‘a sung whisper’) is the second album from the trio, whose acclaimed 2019 debut Tŷ Ein Tadau earned them a clutch of accolades, including Best Album and the Best Traditional Welsh Language Track at the 2019 Wales Folk Awards, a nomination at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards and a nomination for the Welsh Music Prize.
The awards, which are a partnership between Trac Cymru (Wales’ folk development agency), BBC Radio Wales and BBC Radio Cymru, the Arts Council of Wales and significant individuals from the world of Welsh folk music, recognize the ever growing talent of the folk sector in Wales.
The awards come at the start of a major UK tour for the band which takes in 31 performances across the UK, playing festival and venues from Orkney to London between 5th May and 16th June, including St Giles Church FOCUS WALES Festival, 5th May; Tredegar House Folk Festival 6th May; Clwb y Bont, Pontypridd 17th May;
The Borough Theatre, Abergavenny, 18th May; Pontio, Bangor, 19th May; Hermon Arts, Oswestry 20th May; Catstrand, New Galloway 21st May; Lyth Arts Centre – supporting Breabach 24th May; 25-28 Orkney Folk Festival 25 – 28th May; Tolbooth, Stirling,1st June; The Globe Hall, Ireby 3rd June; The Hill, Millom 4th June; St. Michael and All Angels, Spennithorne, Swaledale Festival 5th June, St. Mary’s Church, Muker, Swaledale Festival 6th June; Mwldan, Cardigan – supporting Breabach, 7th June; Aberystwyth Arts Centre 8th June; Liverpool Philharmonic Music Room 9th June; St Augustine’s Church, Penarth, 10th June; Gower Folk Festival 11th June; Cecil Sharp House, London 14th June, finishing at the The Live Room, Saltaire, on 16th June.
VRï are Jordan Price Williams (cello, voice), Aneirin Jones (violin, voice) and Patrick Rimes (viola, violin), three young men from deepest, darkest chapel-going Wales who have mined the cultural upheaval of past centuries and drawn inspiration from the incredible story of a time when Wales’ traditional music and dance was suppressed by Methodist chapels, and, earlier, its language by Henry VIII’s Act of Union. As audio archaeologists, VRï have unearthed long lost nuggets that shed a new light on a vibrant folk tradition that harnesses the raw energy of the fiddle with the finesse of the violin, the beauty of chamber music with the joy and hedonism of a pub session. Their songs, sung with powerful vocal harmonies, tell stories of the people who struggled 200 years ago, just as many struggle today. It’s a euphoric and unique soundscape that connects across the centuries to give us a sense of belonging, of community, and a magical feeling of weightlessness and uplifting freedom.
VRï’s music takes hold of the traditional songs and music that Methodism felt obliged to obliterate in a bonfire of spiritual purification, and blends them into a joyous celebration of Welsh identity, sung in the Welsh language. Three part harmonies, stunning fiddle playing and the unusual addition of cello forge the VRï sound that is totally unique.
Since forming in the summer of 2016, the trio have been in search of an elusive ‘chamber-folk’ aesthetic – pumping out their native foot-stomping dance tunes whilst maintaining the poise and elegance of a string ensemble. It’s a cross-genre idea that’s hitherto unheard of in Wales. The band recently performed at the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow, to an enthusiastic response.
VRï explore the ‘broken history’ of traditional fiddle music in Wales, much of which was cast aside during the Methodist revival. “There was a lot of pressure on people to reject that tradition and its ‘devilish’ ways – the old Celtic joys of fiddling, dancing and carousing it associated with them,” explains Aneirin. “People were burying their harps under floorboards.” “We still have a popular expression in Welsh,” says Patrick; “’rhoi’r ffidil yn y to’ which is when you give up on something, literally you put the fiddle in the roof. Which would have been to make sure that it wasn’t burned in the Methodist purge.”
A lot of Wales’ traditional music survived thanks to Wales’ Romani Gypsy population, who travelled the land playing harp to earn a living, paying scant attention to the Methodists. Thanks to this, much harp music survived, providing both a challenge and a liberation for VRï as they reinterpret this music for fiddle. “Our fiddle tradition is a broken tradition, unlike the harp. And it’s quite nice in a way to not have the pressure of a really strong tradition that’s been handed down, you know, somewhere like Scotland or in Ireland or in Scandinavia, where you’ve got generation on generation of fiddle players who have played in a strict, authentic way. We don’t have any of that. We’ve had to make it up for ourselves. And it’s quite nice, really – we’re free to beg, borrow and steal from other traditions”.
A love song for the old, if it’s sung with wisdom, skill and passion, will always be a love song for the new. For the present. For life. The characters that inhabit VRï’s songs –plough boys, pit ponies, new recruits, milkmaids, ox-drivers –come alive in the imagination when we realise that they’re the equivalent of today’s zero-hours contract worker, single mum or stay at home carer. The people who struggle at the bottom of the heap. In essence, their song remains the same. Only the style, the sonic clothing changes. The truth is that old never really goes away. “It constantly trickles down into the now,” says Jordan. “People are shaped, opinions are made, intrinsic instincts are developed from what has come before us.” Which is the reason why hearts can connect across the centuries, a living beating heart to a bygone heart that lives again thanks to music.
Some of the tunes in VRï’s repertoire may be two hundred years old and more, but their mission is to make them feel intensely alive. “The way we make our music is fraught with danger,” says Patrick. “I guess if you were in a band with a drummer or a bass player, it’s an anchor, keeping you grounded. Whereas we’re like three helium balloons just revolving around each other… when that chamber music energy happens, it happens for real… it can feel a bit like you’re flying or floating off the ground.”
Islais a genir released on 28th October on the bendigedig label, and is available to buy via the band’s website, where you can also find full tour dates and ticket links. VRï’s UK tour is produced by Mwldan, Cardigan.