Khasi-Cymru Collective : 'Sai-thaiñ ki SurMay 2021 : Naxos World
“… here once on an evening like
in the darkness that was about
his hearers, a preacher caught fire
and burned steadily before them
with a strange light, so that they saw
the splendour of the barren mountains
about them and sang their amens
fiercely, narrow but saved
in a way that men are not now.”
Excerpt from The Chapel, RS Thomas
Recording as The Gentle Good, Gareth Bonello’s first solo EP, Dawel Disgyn, laid out the creative path he has followed for a decade and a half since - a journey of soft-hued, intimate and melancholy musical alchemy.
This new release is a triumphant evolution of his craft.
In the past Bonello has successfully extended his musical (and emotional) range through collaboration - including the Welsh Music Prize-nominated Y Bardd Anfarwol (The Immortal Bard) in 2013 - but never with quite as much reach as with this album.
There is a deeply thought frame for the new collaborative project.
'Sai-thaiñ ki Sur explores (with the nuance the task requires) the enduring link non-conformist religion forged between Wales and the people of the Khasi Hills, a stretch of land in northeast India that sits between Bangladesh and Bhutan.
Between 1841 and 1969, hundreds of men and women left Wales and travelled to the Khasi Hills to establish and maintain the Methodist 'Welsh Overseas Mission' there, and in doing so reshaped the region.
Bonello is a modern musician. He has approached the task of understanding the mission's impact with a necessary and profound humility that was rare in the imperial age. Welsh and Khasi sources are equally represented - hymns, folksongs and poetry. The music was recorded with artists from the Khasi community in the city of Shillong and in villages nearby.
The result is a complete experience - an immersive listen, its sounds and rhythms holding an emotional heft that draws you into a fully realised world.
The collaborators, musicians and poets, are all equal to Bonello’s gently organising mind. Risingbor Kurkalang (duitara), Meban Lyngdoh (duitara & percussion), Jewel Syngkli (vocals & duitara) and Rani Maring (duitara & maryngod) all make telling contributions. When it is used, Benedict Hynñiewta’s bamboo flute is a divine blessing.
As that list suggests, the plangent, tightly strung, emotionally expressive duitara shapes the album’s sound. It is a four-silk-stringed Khasi and Jaintia folk instrument, made from hardwood, with a hollow body covered with animal skin.
Two duitara pieces bookend the album - the mesmeric, rolling Mei Marang (composed and played by Risingbor Kurkalang, with Bonello accompanying) opens the thirteen track set, as sure as the echoing enchantment of Alawon Cenhaty (a Welsh dance tune played by Bonello) closes it.
Highlights flow between those instrumentals like a packed congregation might from the pews at the end of a service.
The lonely, mournful procession of Pererin Wyf, the atmospheric instrumental Bryniau Cassia and Bonello’s own beautiful guitar and vocal piece, Cwyn yr Afon, form a convincing early rush of rapture; a mood reinforced when Pahambir - a sketch of field recorded folk trance - leads into Kam Pher, a folk-pop interlude with Desmond Sunn’s light-filled and uplifting vocal offering a remarkable keystone.
The album’s overarching message is finely honed in Soso & Waldo (sung in English) - a simple, hugely effective, poetic reflection on the fragility of marginalised cultures and languages in the modern world.
In contrast to this long, serene moment, Lapdiang Syiem’s To the Men with Hate Speech on their Lips poem is a blunt personal and universal truth spoken over Prit Makri’s insistent, hypnotic melody on a muin (a four inch mouth harp).
Solo Bonello has made music of poignant autumn sadness, winning prizes and acclaim; with the Khasi-Cymru Collective, he has found a slew of like minded musicians and poets perfectly able to express the joy of spring.
The album’s title means ‘The Weaving of Voices’. They are woven with spare magic. From a four year exploration of the traces of chapel influences on the culture of the Khasi Hills, Gareth Bonello and his collaborators have produced a fitting celebration of cultural connection; an album that is an earthen, life-affirming delight.