Welsh experimentalist Gwenno’s debut album Y Dyyd Olaf is the most recent release to truly draw me in on an emotional level and has reignited my enthusiasm for exploring the interconnections between music and language. Y Dyyd Olaf (The Last Day) is a groundbreaking “Sci-Fi concept album” – hypnotic, Welsh-language, urban experimental electronica, fusing an open pop sensibility with driving Motorik rhythms, samples and musique concrète sound collage – a music that absorbs and celebrates the environment it originates in – inner-city Cardiff.
The 2015 release marks both Gwenno Saunder’s return to her linguistic roots and to her embarking on new explorations in sound that transcend time and space. Y Dyyd Olaf simultaneously explores a dystopian future and celebrates the possibilities of the present, its finely crafted pop-electronica driven by an idealistic call to humanize and diversify our lives.
I was drawn to this music by the lilting melodicism of a language from the fringes of the Atlantic Isles that I do not speak, in the same way I was absorbed and fascinated by Björk singing in Icelandic, or Liz Fraser’s self-constructed protolanguage, proof of music’s innate capacity to transcend linguistic barriers and touch lives. Gwenno’s Welsh-language debut in fact stresses the mutual compatibility of localized languages with a “lingua franca” like English and confronts the Anglophone prejudice that musical and cultural expression in “minority languages” is some kind of aberration.
Based on Owain Owain’s 1976 Welsh sci-fi novel of the same name , Gwenno’s Y Dyyd Olaf explores the themes of Owain’s book – the resistance to uniformity imposed by linguistic and technological hegemony, the search for an autonomous space to express (and challenge) ideas. Gwenno’s debut album is a deeply significant political gesture, countering global uniformity with a defence of diversity and independent thought. Y Dyyd Olaf is a powerful assertion of the cultural vitality of the Welsh language in the face of the pressure to conform to the expectations and sensibilities of a dominant Anglo-American pop culture, whilst in many ways also firmly rooted in its traditions.
Lyrically, the jaunty, playful Stwff recalls her experiences as a member of (English-language) retro pop act The Pipettes. Since quitting the band she has regained the courage of her convictions via her native language and has emerged as her true self, where previously she had been submerged under a sea of conformity – drained by “trying to be normal”- in order to fit with industry demands placed upon her:
Yn ifanc ac uchelgeisiol mewn diwylliant lleiafrifol
Ymaelodais i â’r canol ond wnaeth e ddim ym mhlesio
“I can only apologize for feeling the frustration, Young and ambitious in a minority culture…
I joined the middle but it didn’t really impress me.”
Patriarchaeth a dy enaid di tan warchae “Patriarchy… and your soul is under siege”
In a similar vein, Patriarceath (Patriarchy) explores the souls of women “under siege” in a male-dominated society that negates individuality. Gwenno asserts the rights of women, as autonomous individuals, to take protagonism in their own lives and forge their own futures. She carries this outlook on into her work as a performer, as well as her personal life, demonstrating a sincere, down-to-earth approach to politics and music.
“Paid anghofio fod dy galon yn y chwyldro”
“don’t forget that your heart is in the revolution”
The Motorik pop pulse of album opener Chwyldro (Revolution) transmits a warning against “living the past on your computer”. The song asserts “quiet genius” – patient, constructive co-operation – as the dynamic of social transformation. Looking at recent human history, any future revolutions will need to look very different; as Gwenno herself says: “making change rather than… beheading.”
Cam o’r Tywyllwch…A Step out of the Darkness
To this end, the Cam o’r Tywyllwch show she hosts on Radio Cardiff is another example of her “thinking creatively to push things forward”, extending possibilities for the Welsh language to broaden its constituency and articulate new ideas and creative impulses . Such efforts to promote the democratization of music and culture are very much in the spirit of forerunners such as Welsh-language record label Anhrefn and Ceredigion post-punk act Datblygu.
Gwenno’s forthcoming album Le Kov (to be released in March 2018) continues the linguistic thread of her debut albums’ Cornish-language closer; Amser (Time). The eagerly awaited new album is recorded entirely in her other native language, Cornish, learned from her Cornish father – a language with only a few hundred speakers I had personally never heard in any form until listening to Amser…
Gwenno as a performer expresses an openness to difference, a will to experiment and a commitment to diversity in a real, lived sense which is refreshingly free of ethno-nationalist exclusivism. Like Owain’s long-lost novel, Gwenno’s Y Dyyd Olaf reminds us that “time is slipping away”, of the bleak consequences of a world devoid of wonder, nuance and variety…and that there is still time to opt out!