An Interview with Nancy Carlin (1st of December, 2004)

Cat Eldridge here. If you've spent anytime in the Green Man Pub, you'll have noticed that the Neverending Session has a fondness for Welsh tunes. That's not surprising, given how popular Welsh music has become over the past few decades. Being curious about why this was so, I invited Nancy Carlin to sit down with me in the Pub over a nice cup of Glengettie -- one of the better Welsh teas -- to discuss her work as a promoter of Welsh music and Welsh performers. The list of Welsh bands that she represents is quite impressive -- Robin Huw Bowen, Crasdant, Telyneg with Robin Huw Bowen and Eiry Palfrey, Sian James, Rhes Ganol, Neil and Meg Browning's Never Mind the Bocs, and one of my all-time favorite bands, Carreg Lafar. In addition to these bands, she represents the Cornish group, Dalla; The City Waites from England; Jez Lowe, a fine Northumbrian musician; Gabriel Yacoub from France; and Phønix, a Danish group. In her 'spare' time, she's the administrator for The Lute Society of America.

As we were walking through the gardens here earlier today,  you joked that 'Welsh music has the potential to be the Thai food of the Celtic world, now that we've all heard a lot of Irish music.' A funny comment, but music lovers have -- unfortunately -- never heard of Welsh music. So how did you get interested in it?

It's slightly exotic, but quite accessible and the musicologist part of me loves learning about unusual instruments like the pibgorn and crwth as well as the nuances of Welsh Gypsy tunes and plygain singing. It's a living tradition that's been passed from one musician to another and like the Welsh language the music has been preserved, especially in the rural areas in North Wales. I guess part of it is the lure of the chase.

So how did you get started in Welsh music promotion? A decade ago, everyone I knew, including myself, thought Irish music was the cool Celtic music. And where the money was!

I got started learning about the Welsh over ten years ago, when Robin Huw Bowen contacted me about taking over his booking.  It took a while to get him up and running, but we work well together and now looking back, I see that we have made a bit of progress over the years. Robin has brought me other projects that he's been involved with: Cusan Tan, a group that featured Sue Jones Davies, who was in Monty Python's Life of Brian. And then there's Crasdant -- that band was really my idea and I had part of the first tour booked before Robin had the band all put together. By the way, they will finally get their third CD out this spring.  And there's also Telyneg, which is Robin with actress Eiry Palfrey. We've been doing Christmas tours for several years, so it's time for something different. They'll tour in March, 2006 with a non-Christmas program, probably featuring St. David's Day (the Welsh equivalent of St. Patrick).  So you can see that I have had a number of Welsh projects thanks to Robin.

How did it expand to the current roster of artists?

Robin had musician friends and they had friends, etc. Sian James often uses Stephen Rees from Crasdant, when she has the money for a back-up band; Carreg Lafar -- they are the group that the Irish music fans over here seem to understand best -- I read a review of theirs in the Welsh magazine Taplas, got a CD and mailed them a letter asking if they wanted to tour over here, and Neil Browning, who is now working with his wife and kids on a band called Never Mind the Bocs (Bocs is Welsh for box = accordion), I met at a Crasdant concert at the Sidmouth Festival. I had gotten a grant to go to the Pontardawe Festival and then it got canceled because of the foot & mouth disease epidemic, so the people who gave me the grant suggested I find another festival to go to.

Chortle -- I first read Never Mind the Bocs as Never Mind the Bollocks! (For those of you too young to get the reference, the U.K. punkers, the Sex Pistols, had their brief fling at fame with an album of that name.) So what made Welsh music here a success?

Looking back I can see that we now have a bit of momentum with the Welsh.  There are more Celtic festivals here in North America who are interested in giving it a try. We've got our toe in the door with some of the performing arts centers.  Is this because Welsh music is part way between Irish music and world music?  It's the extra herbs & spices in the "Thai food": the Welsh triple harp and pibgorn, the Welsh style of variations on a tune, improvised harmonies, music sung in an exotic language. People who like Celtic music might not be ready for Afropop and sambas, but they do like some variety and the music from what I think of as the minority Celtic countries (Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, the Isle of Man and Basque Spain) are waiting to be explored.  Along with that we are seeing a lot of interest in Scandinavian music from Celtic audiences, and the Scandinavians a geographically close to some of the Celtic countries too.

We've reviewed a fair amount of Welsh music here at Green Man, much of it thanks to your much appreciated efforts. How does one promote a music that very few have heard of? It's not like Irish music, which I swear everyone has heard!

The Web and the Internet have been very helpful, including the Green Man Review!!!  It's really a matter of working on the fans, via festival and concert promoters, radio, both on the internet and regular radio, and any place else that I can find. I run across so many Welsh-Americans who don't know anything about any kind of Welsh music except male voice choirs.  The Irish have had a network of Irish bars and newspapers all over North American but there are very few Welsh bars and only one Welsh newspaper in the U.S.  I am a big fan of listening to the radio on my computer -- I like some of the stations that I can get through places like Live 365 and I love listening to the BBC on-demand shows.

What's your connection to Welsh music. Are you yourself Welsh?

You don't have to be Welsh to like Welsh music -- I live in multi-ethnic California and thanks to my CD player, I can sample music from the 14th century to modern times, and ethnic music from all over.  Actually part of my family came from Cornwall (right next door to Wales), and that's why I'm excited to finally have a Cornish band. Dalla is led by Neil Davey, who I worked with when he played with Anam, and his wife Hilary Coleman.  Neil and his three brothers have been playing Cornish music for the last twenty years in various band, while Hilary comes from a family that has been working to re-establish the Cornish language.  They'll be touring over here in late-September to early -October of 2005.

If you were putting together a list of Welsh CDs for a person who had heard nought of that music, what would it be?

Carreg Lafar -- they have 3 CDs on Sain including their latest, Hyn.
Crasdant -- they have 2 CDs on Sain including this one.
Gwerinos -- several CDs on Sain.
Sian James -- 4 CDs on Sain, 1 on BBC, and 1 on her own label called Pur - I like Pur best.
Plethyn -- an older group - Sain just put out a best of CD that's very nice.
Ffynnon -- they have a CD on Green Linnet, Celtic Music from Wales, and an earlier one of their own label - I like Lynn Denman's voice a lot
Robin Huw Bowen -- my favorite of his CDs is Hunting the Hedgehog, which is now out of print -- It's music of the Welsh Gypsies.
Pigyn Clust -- they are also on Sain.

Nice list. The only one I'd add is Cass Meurig's new CD, Crwth. It's a little different than most of the music you recommended as it's more medieval in feel. As our reviewer Jack Merry said, 'If you like traditional instrumental medieval Welsh music played with skill, grace, and a lot of energy, you'll love this CD. If you like traditional instrumental Celtic music of most any sort that has fiddles in it, give it a try too.'

Doich yn fawr (thank you in Welsh) for giving me a chance to ramble on a bit. Hopefully my words will whet a few more appetites to explore Welsh and Cornish music.

I hope so! Croeso! (You're welcome in Welsh.)

[Cat Eldridge]