"If you don't know where you've come from, you don't know where you're going" - Maya Angelou
Cynefin : Dilyn Afon27.01.2020 I Astar Artes Recordings
Cynefin is the recording name of West Wales folk musician Owen Shiers, who played a hugely promising solo showcase at FOCUS Wales 2019, heralding Dilyn Afon.
Gracefully arranged and produced, Dilyn Afon is a breathtaking, emotionally resonant contemporary folk album - which could be thematically filed between Bless the Weather-era John Martyn and the early releases of The Gentle Good. And, as those comparators might suggest, the songs it contains demand to be listened to in absolute stillness to fully reveal their meditative magic.
Dig deeper and there is something else profound to find. As the Maya Angelou quote above, taken from the album's notes, hints, this is music with a deep-grained sense of place, and music that sings a song of the life of a community.
Dilyn Afon takes its name (which translates as Following a River) from a 1973 film that documented a journey up the Clettwr River by the poet and author T. Llew Jones, who explored the area by its songs, poems and traditions.
It is a carefully made choice of title. Shiers has recorded his first folk album acutely aware of the change and cultural erosion time has brought to the place Jones explored - it is where he was brought up and where he calls home.
Inspired by its content, Shiers retraced the documentary's path and followed a myriad of leads to lost songs and music. He started lightly, but the experience deepened as he went on, as he is happy to explain if asked,
"All the music is geographically bound in its source - it's all from Ceredigion. I began from curiosity, but then you start asking questions of the music, and the lyrics, which are unique - I ended up with a sense of the musical topography of the place. We have all become rootless, but the long search I made to find the pieces for the album has reconnected me to my home."
Shiers moved back to Wales three years ago. He had been away, first to study at Bath Spa University, then to work as a studio engineer (notably for Real World and John Hollis' label, Astar Artes) and in between played in trip hop and jazz bands - folk is a recent genre shift for him, but also a track back to a childhood of traditional Welsh melodies absorbed at home (his father is a renowned harp maker) and at innumerable Eisteddfodau.
Despite that early grounding, he acknowledges that working with the traditional songs he found for this project has been a challenge,
"There is the question of the parameters the existing material sets - although sometimes you are just working with melodic or lyrical fragments - how far should you steer from that, and how much keep intact."
"There is a definite aim to achieve - someone else has written a song in the past, and you try to connect with it, where they are coming from - but you are also trying to bring it to a contemporary audience."
Yet, after a long learning process, he has found a well balanced resolution,
"For folk culture preserving is important, but preserving through performing - the music has to be performed to be kept alive. Not in the sense of a museum - the need to develop and experiment is vital."
So well balanced that dissecting out standout moments from the flow of Dilyn Afon is a difficult task.
The album opens strongly with the soul-stirring a capella Cân O Glod I'r Clettwr, with Shier's voice backed only by the whisper of the river being celebrated. A short, bucolic instrumental drift then leads into two conjoined songs of love and deceit, Dole Teifi / Lliw'r Heulwen, the pairing animated by Steve Chadwick's cornet - one of an eclectic, international set of musicians who worked empathetically on the studio recordings.
The skiffling pace and Wenglish lyrics of Taith y Cardi might offer an undoubted further highlight - but then so too does Lliw'r Ceiroes' elegant melodic murmuration. Bethan Lloyd's vocal for Broga Bach, framed by a stately piano and Alfie Weedon's percussive double bass, is beautiful, and is followed by the equal enchantment of Cân Dyffryn Clettwr.
The slow, lamenting Myn Mair here contrasts with Lleuwen's vivid and dramatic recent reading of the same song, but is its match for impact. The last track, Ffarwel i Aberystwyth, is a plaintive, affecting sketch of sailors' hiraeth.
A score of plays lead to the inescapable conclusion that this is a flawless album. The artwork and packaging are brilliant, the liner notes, that bring the area's history and musicology to life, are illuminating and fascinating, and the music is spellbinding. Dilyn Afon is a triumph; the brightening firmament of Welsh folk has a new star.
CYNEFIN I Y Fwyalchen Ddu Bigfelen (The Yellow Beaked Blackbird)