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root salad Llangollen Eisteddfod

A world music festival founded long before such things were ‘invented’. Thomas Brooman slips below our radar.


uly is upon us and summer is sprinting along in an action-packed season of festivals, football, events of every shape and size. No huge surprise, then, that some great events may fall completely beneath the radar – Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod unaccountably being one of them.

My last fRoots mission took me east, to St Petersburg in Russia, for the first International Terem Crossover Competi- tion. This time I’m heading west to Wales, not to an inaugural competition, but to the 63rd year of a very different form of competition and festival, an eisteddfod, an event with a truly ancient heritage.

I love a good definition and so here we are with eisteddfod: a Welsh festival of literature, music and performance, from a bardic tradition of meetings of Welsh artists. The word itself is derived from the Welsh word eistedd, meaning ‘to sit’, and bod meaning ‘to be’ and therefore means ‘to be sitting’ or ‘to be sitting together’.

So here am I, heading west and then north by train on a sunny day, through the beautiful countryside, valleys and moun- tains of mid-Wales, to the pretty backwa- ter that is Llangollen in Denbighshire. For me it’s an adventure of real proportions. I live in Bristol, just a few miles from the border with Wales, but this is the first time I have crossed that border in years.

One of the reasons I was interested to visit Llangollen was to better understand the Welsh identity of the event. The Welsh language has been on my mind a lot recently, partly because of 9Bach, from Gwynedd [coincidentally featured on page 17 this issue…Ed.].

The week’s activities take place just a short walk from town along the beautiful River Dee, and the main evening perfor- mances and competitions are held in a huge permanent tent structure called the Pavilion. As soon as I arrive on site, the scale and distinct individuality of this event begin to strike me. For one thing, the music competitions lying at the core of the Eisteddfod feature soloists, choirs and dance groups from a staggering 50 differ- ent nations – from places as far-flung as Barbados, China, Nepal, Patagonia and Iceland – and more than 4000 participants come to Llangollen each year to take part.

As a result, most of the people I see have a real reason to be here, an engage- ment in one way or another, whether in participation or support of the event in some fashion. The audience it creates has a curiosity that is both engaged and warm, certainly made unusual by the huge number of international – and very young – attendees.

21 f

Jaipur Kawa Brass Band at Llangollen T

here are 24 different competitions being held over four days and the excitement and intensity of the heats and results announcements create a buzzing and entirely positive vibe. And here today, shared by thousands of participants and public alike, the Welsh language lives on: warm, cadent, poetic, mysterious.

Everything combines to make an incongruous event through and through, made all the more unusual by a great pro- gramme of international artists also per- forming, brought to Llangollen by Graham and Angie Breakwell, pioneering agents at Access All Areas. Their outdoor daytime programming has qawwali stars Rizwan and Muazzam Mujahid Ali Khan from Pak- istan, Sudanese maestros Rango, Tashi Lhunpo Monks of Tibet, Jaipur Kawa Brass Band, Farida, Bayou Seco and many more.

On the full day I was able to attend, Rizwan-Muazzam were already playing a blinder of a set as I arrived (at 11.15am!), their passionate, mesmerising music per- formed for a somewhat bewildered crowd, many people there bright and early in readiness for their own competition perfor- mances later that day. As I nipped back and forth, sampling both the outdoor stages

and competition activities inside the Pavil- ion, the incongruity of it all simply grew. One very surreal moment came during Rizwan-Muazzam’s second outdoor set. As they sang, the winners of the Young Peo- ple’s Choir Competition – eight countries competing –were being announced indoors, the chief adjudicator telling the audience of literally 2000 or more, “We’re looking for clear consonants and good cadence”, while outside the Pavilion, Rizwan sang on with, well, unusual cadence and precision-clear consonants in a lan- guage very few of us could understand.

In truth, at points, the whole day felt more of a collision of activities than a really coherent musical experience. But it is diffi- cult to find fault with an event that offers so much that is entirely positive. It seems to me that all tradition belongs to its own future and in its encouragement of young people, for this reason alone, Llangollen counts as a major and fantastic event.

Its language, its internationalism, amateur spirit and values of participation and education were brilliant to discover and this Eisteddfod creates an undoubted- ly important life experience for the thou- sands who take part. F

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