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Around Fernhill
- by Janet Dub,
Issue 30 December/January '98


When Fernhill musicians Julie Murphy, Ceri Matthews, Jonathan Shorland and Andy Cutting played for the king of Swaziland in August 1998, their music had come full circle. The visit to Swaziland came soon after the formation of Fernhill and as Ceri says: "we learned a lot during our time in Africa". The band's current CD "Llatai" is a beautiful demonstration of many musical comings together, or full circles.

Brought up in the New Forest, Jonathan Shorland learned how to make reed pipes as a child and as a young man at university in Aberystwyth on the Welsh coast, he remembers liking the "reedy noises" he heard on David Munro's Radio 3 programme "Pied Piper". He then began to listen out for other reedy noises in the "orchestral concerts, Hungarian choirs and Jimi Hendrix" he heard but without much luck, till he came across an Alan Stivell LP in a friend's house. Sounds pretty unlikely of course, but any account of Jonathan's part in the renaissance of traditional Welsh wind instruments is bound to sound unlikely! One of the joys of Fernhill is the sense of four fine musicians equal in co-operation: but there's a sense in which Jonathan arrived first.

After a few years at Aberystwyth Jonathan was listening to what is now called Celtic music - Irish, Welsh and Breton. Through developments in his personal life he spent a lot of time in Brittany, got to know Breton musicians, and learned a repertoire of Breton dance tunes which he played on his whistle: "I remember one event in mid-Wales in about 1980 where I just went on playing, finding I could improvise because I'd learned the basic shapes of the music". Jonathan was probably the first person to import a Breton bombard into Wales and in an act of true musical heroism, learned to play it all by himself on the beach at Borth! Soon he was making bombards, oboes and bagpipes, for himself and others who asked.

Meanwhile, Ceri Matthews from the Swansea Valley and Julie Murphy from Essex had met at Art College in Maidstone. Julie came back to Wales with Ceri, who was teaching her the Welsh language through love and music. They performed Welsh songs together, Ceri playing a mandolin (which Julie gave him) and Julie's voice young and clear. They met Jonathan in 1986, when they were all performing at the Victoria Inn, Pontardawe, in the South Wales town's music festival. Jonathan "recognised what they were doing and pulled out a pibgorn" - a Welsh hornpipe. Ceri was taken with it. Later, Jonathan stayed with Ceri and Julie, paying his rent with bagpipes: "I wanted someone else to play the bagpipes so I could play the oboe with them!" says Jonathan.

Jonathan, Ceri, and Julie worked together with three others for years in a 'music and art' group called Saith Rhyfeddod. There is an early recording of Jonathan and Ceri in the group's name, carrying a photo with Jonathan on the bagpipes and Ceri on a pastoral oboe. When Jonathan was making and playing the bagpipes on his own, his inspiration came from Eastern Europe. The 1993 recording of the two musicians, with bagpipes, hornpipe, oboe, bombard, pibgorn and percussion was a conscious act of reclaiming a Welsh repertoire for wind instruments.

The family of wind instruments which was played long and widely over Asia, Europe and North Africa, was played in Wales to the end of the last century, especially for dancing at fairs and processions at horse weddings. Ceri and Jonathan's recording towards the end of this century is part of a re-emergence of Welsh traditional music, mentioned before in the music press, and both pipers (in fact all four musicians) continually reach out in practical music making, in ways outside the scope of this piece.

By the time Tim Healey at Beautiful Jo Records asked Julie, Ceri and Jonathan to play Welsh music for a Celtic compilation in 1996, Saith Rhyfeddod were no more. Ceri and Julie were now living in west Wales, speaking Welsh in their daily lives and with two boys at primary school, they dovetailed professional commitments, often working separately from each other and with other musicians. Julie had sung in Pakistan and Eritrea, with Nigel Eaton's hurdy-gurdy in "Whirling Pope Joan"; and through Nigel she met Andy Cutting, melodeon, squeeze-box or accordion player in today's Fernhill.

Andy, born and brought up in Harrow, had a few piano lessons as a child, but was a drummer 'til he was sixteen, playing in school orchestras, brass bands, and local musical theatre. His parents enjoyed "the traditional folk music of England", but there's no simple explanation of how he came to his present mellow brilliance on the squeezebox: "I used to listen to John Kirkpatrick and wonder how come he was so good?" says Andy. He spent eight months playing button accordion for eight or nine hours a day, influenced towards his own unique style by hearing rock player Bruce Warburton and players from all over.

Andy had only been playing for eighteen months when he met Nigel Eaton and other Blowzabella musicians at a music workshop at Sidmouth Folk Festival. Soon he was playing regularly with Blowzabella and when Julie needed a musician to play with her on a British Council tour in Gaza, "she knew I could make a lot of noise" says Andy. He'd quickly come far and Julie recognised someone she could work with.

The four musicians came together as Fernhill in 1996, and went almost immediately on tour in Africa where they played with African musicians in several countries. Ceri cites a particular workshop with Ugandan musicians: "We did a big number together, developments of a Welsh nursery rhyme and a Ugandan nursery rhyme". Ceri had been working on how to accompany Welsh songs on instruments such as the guitar, new to the songs. "Being told by local musicians that we were getting their music wrong, actually: getting detailed technical criticism and learning specifically Ugandan ways of playing and phrasing opened up the doors to any influence you care to choose" says Ceri: "Being exposed to these things together" was the consolidation of the still new group: so that by the time Fernhill's first disc "Ca' Nos" came out, the group's live playing at festivals and workshops in Wales and England had already moved on.

"Ca' Nos", recorded for Beautiful Jo was a lovely recording, but the development of the music between that and this year's "Llatai" must be heard to be believed. One of the remarkable things about their latest album is the way Breton dance rhythms open up Welsh song. Welsh and Breton languages and cultures diverged about a thousand years ago while medieval pan-European circle and processional dances survived in Brittany; many dances sometimes with only one tune each: "In Wales, this tradition of dancing was suppressed or overtaken, to be replaced by something like the English country dance tradition" says Ceri.

Tunes and songs survived in great abundance but "the intuitive historical tradition of dancing wasn't thought worthy even of being written about". Remnants of the traditions of circle and processional dancing, such as "Ring o'Roses" and "Oranges and Lemons" were played in Welsh and English playgrounds and children's parties until recently. Folk or country dancing had developed into formalised pattern dancing, as enjoyable to watch as to "do" - indeed, more enjoyable for most!

The surviving, live, developing traditions of Breton dance, learned by Jonathan, Ceri, Julie and now Andy are simple and inclusive. The rhythms, often specifically 'Gallo", from Eastern Brittany, emerge from Fernhill's music today, and when conditions are right - as they were at Dolgellau when the group played at a local festival in July - people dance: "There's no reason, in Welsh at least, for separate song and dance traditions because Wales is rich in songs which are easily available to dance to" says Ceri.

For Fernhill, it's the song and the poetry of the words that determine the instrumental arrangements but an ancient tradition of unaccompanied song is developing a new musical groundwork. Julie's voice, described as "remarkable", and "one of the most expressive voices in British traditional music", is the fine instrument that focuses what the others do. Her voice has developed in range, warmth, and confident professionalism through singing with musicians from Brittany, Africa and the Middle East. Most of the words she sings are Welsh, but in performance and in the CD blurb, Fernhill happily make the meaning accessible to the rest of us.

August's British Council tour in Swaziland and Mozambique opened up another level of learning, another "practical lesson in listening" says Ceri. It was the group's first visit to Mozambique, but in Swaziland they played for a week with musical colleagues from their earlier visit: "Our ears are more in tune with the inflections of voice, the subtlety of intonation and rhythms" says Ceri. "It's a whole body thing, as Welsh music used to be, and can be again". Fernhill hope some of the African musicians they worked with will be able to visit Wales and the UK soon, for more grassroots collaboration.

Before Africa, Fernhill played England, Wales, Norway and their first major European festival; Swansea and Athens are next up. A live Fernhill performance is a joy, a mini-festival in its range, inclusiveness and musicianship: of course it can't be described in words. Watch the music press and catch them if you can.


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