Damon Krukowski on musicians who drop their mother tongue and sing in English – and why it's great to sing in Welsh
Touring as Damon & Naomi, when asked by concert organisers we’ve always had but one request for any opening acts we don’t already know: no drums. As a result, we’ve been paired with local singer-songwriters most everywhere we’ve traveled since the mid-1990s. The rise and fall of freak-folk was just a blip in this stream – there's always someone in town with an acoustic guitar, fashion be damned. We’ve made some wonderful discoveries and even met a dear friend this way (Richard Youngs). And we’ve had a number of valuable lessons in what not to do as singer-songwriters.
But the one near-constant that emerged from all these acts was singing in English. It didn’t matter where in the world we found ourselves; regardless of the language used for between-song patter, once a guitar was strummed everything flipped into English.
Meanwhile, I ask people everywhere we go for recommendations of singers in their own language. Taxi drivers have proven to be great informants for this – so many listen to music all day long. And so have many of the opening acts singing “baby” and “yeah.” Many singer-songwriters grow up strongly attached to the songs of their parents’ or even grandparents’ generation. Even if music in their own language doesn’t seem cool enough to emulate, they often know it far better than they do the Anglo-American tradition.
Imagine my surprise at a recent show in Cardiff, where this long-standing pattern was reversed. Our opening bands’ between song talk was all in English, but the songs were in Welsh.
Why sing in Welsh if you feel it better to speak to your local audience in English, I asked? And I got the answer I always expect from singer-songwriters round the world, but hardly ever hear: Because when I sing in Welsh, something else happens to the song. Hallelujah! Vive la différence!
A recent scholarly study found that biodiversity and linguistic diversity are linked – nearly a third of the world’s languages have become extinct since 1970, the same period that has seen such a drastic decline in animal and plantlife. There are still roughly 7,000 languages spoken on the planet but, as an article in The Guardian summarised from these findings, “Because of colonisation, globalisation and the worldwide move to cities in the last 30 years, a handful of global languages increasingly dominates: 95% of the world's population speaks one of just 400 languages… and 40% of us speak one of just eight languages: Mandarin, Spanish, English, Hindi, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian and Japanese.”
Even among speakers of those eight dominant languages, I would add, far too many sing in English. Our diversity of song is perhaps even more threatened than diversity of speech.
For the sake of the planet, then, as well as your listening pleasure, here are three great Welsh records I brought home from Cardiff (with thanks to Spillers, “The Oldest Record Shop in the World”):
Sidan's Teulu Yncl Sam – sole album by a 70s group with two fantastic women’s voices in close harmony, reminiscent to me of the revered acid-folk band Mellow Candle.
Meic Stevens, Disgwyl Rhywbeth Gwell I Ddod – the ‘Bob Dylan of Wales’ (as anyone will tell you) is nearly as prolific, so this three CD selection of recordings from the 60s and 70s is a great way to sample the range of his work in Welsh. Makes for interesting comparisons with his better-known but lone LP in English, Outlander.
Various, Welsh Rare Beat – an excellent comp of singles released over the years by longstanding Welsh label Sain (translates as “sound”), with informative liner notes on the artists, and a lovely essay by Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals.