Ask the average American to imagine Welsh music, and they’ll probably mention either harps or singing. This month, the Puget Sound Revels take its folk-tradition Rialto show — opening Saturday— to a long-ago Wales with plenty of both. There will be 51 singers, no less than three harps, a fiddle-harp cross called a “crwth” and two musicians all the way from Wales itself.
“It is a bit tricky to travel with them,” says Ceri Owen-Jones as he unpacks a Celtic harp with golden cherrywood. Two more harps stand in padded cases in the corner of First United Methodist Church where the Revels rehearse, along with the fiddle case of Owen-Jones’ partner, Elsa Davies, and her two crwths.
No, that’s not a typo. A crwth (pronounced, “crooth”) is an ancient Welsh instrument with a violin fingerboard, flat square sound box and short gamba-style bow, plus four violin strings and two off-the-fingerboard strings that are tuned in octaves and fifths. Thanks to a flat bridge, the bowed strings sound all together, a little like a Norwegian hardanger fiddle, with a curiously metallic, pre-medieval sound.
For Davies and Owen-Jones, who perform traditional Welsh music as the duo Deuair, it’s all part of what they do for a living: research ancient instruments and melodies and bring them to life. For the Revels, Deuair isn’t just a pretty sound accompanying the singers on their loose plot journey through a traditional Celtic Yuletide. They also echo the Revels’ whole reason for existence.
“They’re kindred spirits to the notion of what we do here, what traditional arts mean to a community, and why you bother with all the research and archives,” explains Revels director Mary Lynn. “Revels sees the traditional arts as the seedbed for all the arts, and our work is to tend that seedbed. Since songs, dances, tunes and stories lie at the heart of all cultures, the traditional arts represent something about what it means to be human. … We strengthen our community by weaving communities long gone into our own.”
Plus, says Lynn, there is “a special internal resonance when singing or hearing a song that has been sung hundreds of times over hundreds of years.”
As the 33 adults and 18 children in this year’s Revels line up to file onto a dimly lit stage for the show’s first song, that resonance is palpable. In soft melodic tones, Deuair strikes up an introduction to perhaps the most well-known of all Welsh songs: “All Through the Night,” with Davies’ coppery soprano singing the lilting Welsh words to gentle plucking from Owen-Jones’ harp. Then the chorus walks on, hand in hand, singing four-part harmony. The moment is magical.
But it took a lot to get there. While Lynn and her musical director Megan Oberfeld firm up both the budget and the theme of each Revels in spring and audition their singers in August, they didn’t actually find Deuair until September.
“Our original idea was to get an American group,” says Oberfeld. Each year the Revels include a brass choir plus a group of folk musicians to match the setting. Only twice have they imported musicians internationally. “We went through Welsh and harp societies who sent us through a chain of people, who eventually said we should get someone from Wales.”
Finally their request landed with Deuair (pronounced “day-ire”), who for years have performed throughout Britain, gaining accolades such as “amazing, magical, inspirational” (Aberystwyth Music Festival Fringe, 2013). The duo liked the idea, and in September Oberfeld finally met them at a Wales festival in Calgary, Alberta.
“Their energy is lovely, and their music is beautiful,” says Lynn, who then had to order expedited visas, rearrange the Revels budget and discover the extra expenses of traveling with six instruments.
Because Deuair doesn’t just play with a fiddle, two crwths and a Celtic lever harp. Owen-Jones, who was born in Canada but migrated with his family back to Wales as a child, also plays a tiny wire-strung travel harp (around a foot high, built originally for horseback-riding bards) and a larger Gothic harp called a bray. Called “telyn wrachod” in Welsh, it has all-gut strings and a stunning sycamore body wreathed in clouds of ashy black, with pins called brays that give each string a unique buzzing sound.
The two write some of their own music, but research most of it from library archives, wax cylinder recordings made in the 1960s and other living musicians.
“We try to find music that hasn’t been published and bring it to life,” says Owen-Jones, who played jazz trombone before beginning the harp in Wales and meeting Davies, who learned fiddling at school, at a kitchen music session.
All their songs, as well as their website, are in Welsh, a language that, like traditional Welsh song and dance, has seen a resurgence in the last few decades after centuries of English political oppression.
“(Wales) has had such a difficult time,” says Owen-Jones. “But everything from the language to the music is doing well, although it’s not as strong as in Ireland.”
“People love music and singing in Wales,” adds Davies in a voice as soft as her fiddle notes.
This year’s Revels span centuries of Welsh tradition, from 18th-century hymns such as “All Through the Night” and “Cwm Rhondda” back to medieval poems like “The Book of Taliesin,” medieval traditions like the wren blessing and the Grey Mare wassail, and then forward to more recent music such as “Old Land of My Fathers.” There’s also an excerpt from Dylan Thomas’ 1914 poem “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” plus Morris dancers, sword dancers and the usual mummer’s play — this year involving Welsh dragons.
Of course, that means the chorus has to learn to get their tongues around those twisting Welsh syllables.
“Welsh is very phonetic, so once you get it wrapped around your tongue it’s OK,” says Oberfeld. “But there are sounds that just don’t exist in English, like the ‘ll,’ where you touch your tongue to the roof of your mouth and whoosh the air around it; and ‘ch,’ which is not quite either a Hebrew ‘ch’ or a German ‘ch.’ ”
“It’s kind of hard,” admits chorister Josie Crane, before reciting a Welsh verse completely from memory.
“They’re doing great,” says Owen-Jones enthusiastically. “Especially the kids choir — I was really impressed.”
“And (Reveler) Bob Matthews even greeted us in Welsh when we arrived,” adds Davies with a shy smile. “That was lovely.”
Christmas Revels: A Welsh celebration of the winter solstice
When: 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 5:30 p.m. (interpreted in American Sign Language) Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday.
Where: Rialto Theater, 310 S. Ninth St., Tacoma.
Tickets: $18.50-$34.50 adult; $18.50-$28 seniors, students; $12-$24 ages 12 and younger.
Welsh instruments in the 2016 Revels
Fiddle: A modern violin, played in Celtic style, with steel strings and normal tuning.
Crwth: An ancient fiddle-harp cross (mentioned by the Romans), with four gut strings on a violin fingerboard and two off it, tuned g-g’-c’-c”-d’-d.” Played with a short curved bow gamba-style (thumb on hair), with a flat square soundbox.
Celtic harp: 34 gut and steel-wound gut strings in diatonic scale with chromatic levers on each note. Made by Teifl of cherrywood and cedar soundboard.
Gothic harp: Also called bray and telyn wrachod. 29 gut and copper-wound strings, each fastened at the bottom with an L-shaped pin (bray) that causes a buzzing sound. Sycamore wood.
Travel harp: Small, with 19 wire strings. Re-created in Scotland from historic manuscripts and artwork.