Calan: ‘There’s a real interest in Welsh language music at the moment’

Welsh folk group Calan have a loyal following around the world and today release their latest album. Duncan Seaman reports.

Calan. Picture: Richard P Walton

Over the course of five albums in 12 years Calan have established themselves as one of the most successful contemporary proponents of Welsh folk music, with fans as far afield as Australia and the USA.

At the inaugural Welsh Folk Awards last year the quintet’s achievements were recognised with a prize for Best Band and to mark St David’s Day last month they performed a special concert with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at Cardiff’s St David’s Hall.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Today sees the release of their sixth album, Kistvaen, an old Welsh term for a tomb. Fiddle player Angharad Jenkins feels the record marks another stage in the band’s development. “We approached the traditional music in quite a different way here, quite different from the other albums that have 12 separate tracks and they go from one to the other,” she says. “This one, because of our recent commission and performance with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, we took inspiration from symphonic work and rather than do 12 separate tracks, this album runs more like one long piece of music.

“You can either choose to listen to the tracks separately or if you’re still using CDs it will play almost seamlessly from one track to the other. There are little link sections between each track and when you get to the end, if your CD or digital player goes right round [to the start] it will link seamlessly back to the beginning. So it’s a new approach for Calan doing an album and we’re quite excited about it.”

At the St David’s Hall concert they performed Can Cnawd y Pridd, a suite of songs inspired by the collection of traditional Welsh songs in the National Library of Wales. The commission originally came from the Breton Symphony Orchestra, Jenkins explains. “There are quite strong links between Wales and Brittany. We perform there regularly at the Lorient Interceltic Festival, our cultures are quite similar in terms of our traditional music and our language and through that we got the commission. We actually performed it a year ago in Rennes in Brittany on their St David’s Day celebration and it went down so well it just seemed silly not to do it on home turf. So then we brought it to the Welsh Orchestra and it was a thrilling experience, probably one of the big Calan career highlights.”

Calan have long mixed folk music with dynamic modern elements such as pop and rap to attract a younger following. “I think it’s one way of introducing an audience to this traditional material that they perhaps wouldn’t necessarily be interested in listening to,” Jenkins says philosophically. “We’re really passionate about traditional music. Certainly when we started over ten years ago there wasn’t much excitement about it in Wales but things have definitely changed now. I would definitely classify myself as a folkie so I also love listening to quite pure traditional music, but I think [what Calan does] is just one way of attracting a younger audience to the music.”

Jenkins’s mother, Delyth, is a harpist and her father, Nigel, is a celebrated poet, meaning she grew up in Swansea steeped in Welsh culture and traditions. She recalls going to folk festivals with her mother and being taught at a Welsh language school. “As part of my education I went to eisteddfods every year so I couldn’t escape traditional Welsh music,” she says. “That said, I don’t think I particularly found it that interesting as a young person at school; I thought it was very old-fashioned. In fact I used to listen a lot more to Scottish folk music.

“Because I played the fiddle, I loved Shetland music, as a teenager that’s what really inspired me, but I had a bit of a turning point when I was 16. I thought, ‘we’ve got traditional music, why don’t we do more with it?’ In Scottish music they were pushing it and bending it and putting a shine to it and taking it to international stages. There wasn’t music of that going on in Wales and I thought, ‘I’ve got a chance here to try and draw people into our tradition as well’. As a moody teenager I didn’t think it was very cool, I was listening to any other music.”

Jenkins first met fellow band members Bethan Rhiannon (accordion, vocals), Patrick Rimes (fiddle, Welsh bagpipes), Sam Humphreys (guitar) and Shelley Musker-Turner (harp) while on a folk course in Sweden. Although they were all of differing ages, ranging from 13 to 22, and from different parts of Wales, they quickly found a connection. “I think it was more a social thing, we became friends, and the music kind of came from that,” says Jenkins. “That was the turning point, going on that folk course, Ethno in Sweden, meeting young people who were passionate and approaching their music with such fun. I was used to competitions and eisteddfods. So we made friends and stayed in touch because we were also spread out geographically, there was a good few hours’ drive between us all, but we all loved this type of music so it was maybe three years after that course that we put Calan together, with the help of our parents.”

Calan’s success has grown organically, with each release building an audience across the world. Jenkins says: “It’s a long slow burn, which is probably a more authentic career in music than they have in the pop or rock industry; it’s a bit more real. Some of our fans have followed us since we were in school and seen our audience develop and us grow up as well. We really feel like we’ve worked hard to get our audiences. Every release steps things up a gear. It takes a while to build an audience and maybe turn people on to Welsh music as well. There wasn’t much going on before so maybe we’ve had to try to persuade people to listen.”

Having toured all over the world, Jenkins recognises that the band have become ambassadors for traditional Welsh music. “Certainly in America there’s a big following for Irish music, and Celtic music in general, but I don’t think many Welsh bands have toured over there before, so people are really interested to hear the traditions and see the similarities. In a way we do feel like ambassadors in America. I don’t think a traditional Welsh band has toured there since the 90s, it would be nice if there were more.”

They sing in Welsh and English, partly to help get their messages across to an international audience. “It’s a bilingual country, we’re all Welsh speakers, so it’s very natural for us to sing in Welsh,” says Jenkins. “I’d say 90 per cent of the traditional repertoire is in Welsh but we have written some new songs in English and also translated some of the traditional songs to draw other people in who maybe I don’t know if they feel alienated by the language but to help broaden the audience. But there’s definitely at the moment, I think, a real interest in Welsh language music across all genres.”

Step dancing is also a part of Calan’s live act. Jenkins says they like to keep the energy levels up during their shows. “When Bethan starts clog-dancing you can tell by people’s faces they love it,” Jenkins says. “It’s energetic, it’s lively, it’s a visual spectacle and it’s always thrilling. I see her perform at every show, she’s a champion clog-dancer, she learnt from her father. The shows are lively.”

Kistvaen is out on April 3. Calan’s gig at The Greystones in Sheffield on April 26 has been postponed until until December 2.