Catalysts : Owen Shiers30 May 2020
West Wales folk musician Owen Shiers, working under the recording name Cynefin, released an acclaimed debut, Dilyn Afon, earlier this year.
The Guardian lauded the album, stating it: "rubberstamps a stunning new talent ... this Welsh-language album explores his home valley in West Wales through gorgeous jazz-folk arrangements, deep storytelling, and tender vocals." We had it as 'spellbinding' - Shiers is also a remarkable live performer.
The hallmark of Shiers' recorded work is a connection to place, culture and history.
When asked for three key enlightening influences as the first interviewee for our 'Catalysts' series Owen didn't, as might be expected, chose albums or musicians, but instead experiences - each emphasising the centrality of community to his outlook.
The intent behind the interviews is to explore the cultural hinterland of musicians and writers whose work is, or will be, in turn influential - and the heft of Dilyn Afon, its clear roots and historical context, make it an essential stop for anyone interested in contemporary Welsh folk.
Mulling his choices carefully, Shiers began the task set with a sketch of slow motion, low-key traditional uproar in West Wales;
"I'd have to start with the Mari Lwyd in Dinas Mawddwy. It is an old Welsh tradition which takes place around the old New Year and involves 'Y Fari' (somebody dressed in a sheet with an adorned horses skull on top) and a group going from door to door singing and carrying out 'pwnco' (a sort improvised poetry slam). "
"The whole village gets involved and it usually ends in a raucous sing-along until the wee hours at the Llew Coch pub. It’s become a yearly staple for me and reminds me of the importance of seasonal rituals and the role of singing in bringing people together, especially given the decline in chapels and other challenges facing rural populations."
Perhaps needing sustenance after such revellery, he next detoured to Pembrokeshire for the recollection of a memorable feast;
"Then, Caerhys Organic Farm Harvest Party was an unexpectedly intense cultural encounter. A dear friend of mine Gerald Miles runs a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) project near St. Davids and has an annual harvest gathering on his family farm overlooking the sea off the Pembrokeshire Coast. "
"Gerald is passionate about local food, community and treating the land with care. The gathering usually involves an rustic feast in his barn comprising only of food grown on the farm."
"The four course meal last year was hands down the best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. When I relayed to Gerald half way through the second course that I was having full on gastro-spiritual experience, he simply looked at me in that knowing old-time way which Welsh farmers have, and winked. What a man!"
And finished, three thousand miles from West Wales, with memories of West Africa;
"Finally, although very locally rooted, my music is also influenced greatly by what I have experienced elsewhere. Playing music in West Africa, my two months in Senegal in 2013 were akin to something like cultural time travel."
"It was my first real exposure to a vibrant and unbroken music tradition, which only relatively recently has begun absorbing more Western influences. The experience blew my head off on many levels. They call West Africa the birth place of rhythm, and for good reason."
"Their musical traditions are wonderfully sophisticated, but it's somehow all embodied rather than intellectual. I realised very quickly how rigid and conditioned my Western musical mind was. Much of this experience informed how I relate to music as well as my own culture and heritage. "
The last, expansive experience certainly underpins Shiers' approach to the traditional music he has found near to home, and the impact of the trip has been profound - explaining, at least in part, why he so readily qualifies as one of Wales' most important musical exports, with language no barrier to forging an emotional connection to his songs.
CYNEFIN I Cân Y Melinydd (The Miller's Song)