a giglet, and reflections from the Land of Song

On the first Tuesday of September I got up and played at an open mic night – first time for about five years.

The Cynon Valley is well provided with open mic opportunities – there’s at least three per month in different venues. The one I played at was in the Coliseum,  Aberdare.

Just a bit of background. This is South Wales.  This is the “Land of Song”. Is it really? Well, yes it is. Why?

All kinds of reasons. One is that going back through the years South Wales has been something of a cultural melting pot as well as being an industrial powerhouse. There was migration from all over Europe to work the mines and heavy industry. The gene pool is very diverse.  To survive the economic environment working class communities had to stand together against their capitalist overlords – and differences of race and nationality were largely eroded in the struggles with the ironmasters and coalmasters. There was undoubtedly racial and sectarian tension but the harsh realities of life gradually broke it down.

So there are lots of South Wales people who have got Spanish, Italian, German, Scottish, Irish, English ancestors within the last few generations. You can pick it up in their surnames and you can plainly see it in the faces of the people. These migrants may have been desperate but they were resourceful, talented, clever people – they were  survivors, they wanted to get on in life. They all brought their own cultures and music to Wales.

Were the indigenous Welsh resourceful, talented, clever people? You bet they were. They had a linguistic and cultural (especially musical) heritage of unsurpassed depth and sophistication. Bryddonig (meaning British) Welsh had been the main language of the British Isles for many centuries. They had a grasp of instrumental music (the harp) with proper harmonies whilst the  rest of Europe hadn’t got beyond chanting in parallel fourths and fifths. Except Spain, of course. Al Andalusia, under Moorish occupation, would be rocking out with lutes.

All this makes a cultural hothouse. It’s got a lot to write and sing about. Simply retaining identity in face of of political and industrial oppression for one thing; hiraeth (longing) for the homeland (wherever that may be) for another.

So Wales really is a profoundly musical place.  Why are we good at singing? My guess: Welsh people had to learn to project their voices just to make themselves heard over the machinery in the workplace.  Just listen to Valleys people talking – forget accent, listen to the clarity of the consonants and the resonance.  A Welsh teacher (one of our main exports) can inspire terror at a hundred paces. No wonder we can sing.

The other thing is that, despite all our recent economic challenges and the struggles between capital and labour in the past, Wales was once a hugely prosperous and dynamic place. We were one of the power plants of the Industrial Revolution. Look at it another way – Global Warming started with us.  The combined wealth of the working people who subscribed to societies, co-operatives, clubs was colossal.

And that explains how Aberdare – a community founded on coal – which has no coal to speak of now – has a theatre, yes, a theatre with stalls and balconies and curtains and lights – the real deal. And this is where the open mic evening is. But it’s not in the theatre itself, it’s in the bar.

Actually whilst we’re banging the drum, Cynon has three theatres…yes, three…count them.

I digress. Well, look at at this way. Us boyos know that Aberdare is the centre of the universe. But there maybe readers for whom South Wales is a far flung corner of the earth and need a bit of elucidation on the cultural significance of the Cynon valley. At the same time, there are a lot of people living in Cynon (and South Wales generally) who seem to hold this place in medium esteem – call it a dump, even. Wise up dudes. Anyone who has lived in London, Berkshire or Essex can tell you we’ve got a hell of a thing here.

However, far be it from me, a migrant myself (but Celtic – Scottish) to appoint myself Cultural Attache to Cynon. You can find out more at http://www.cynonvalley.co.uk .

So we’re in a theatre bar. The open mic event, which is open to all to come along and sing, play, recite, whatever ( I think there may be some restrictions), is run by the Cynon Valley Acoustic Club http://www.myspace.com/thecynonvalleyacousticclub. This is largely run by Steve and Christine Chandler (I’m sure there are others and I’ll correct this when somebody pulls me up on it), who do it for no other reason than the rewards of good music and good company. Many thanks to them – and all people who run this kind of event.

So Steve and Christine set up the gear and work out the running lists – and play and sing a bit themselves. All us other musos have to do is turn up with voices and instruments. I confess this makes me feel guilty. I’m used (from band days) to turning up with a van and spending the next hour and a half lugging speakers and amps in, hooking up to a spaghetti network of cables, endlessly intoning “Testing…one…two…” into microphones, trying to damp down feedback. One of the outcomes of this is that by the time I actually got to play I was so knackered and hacked off that stagefright just wasn’t an issue.

Tonight, I have plenty of time to sit and work myself into a state of nervous disarray. Moreover, I’m late – the list has already been drawn up. This means I might not get to perform tonight or, if I do, it’ll be towards the end of the evening. I’m a bit new to this venue and my assumption is that more experienced performers go on towards the end of the night. Right now, I feel that my thirty odd years experience counts for nothing. I’m going to fall apart.

So why is this? It’s not like I’m really doing it for the first time, is it?

Ah, well. Last time I did it I was with the band. Safety in numbers. Then I was playing a different instument. Subtlety wasn’t the issue. Ok, so I was still a bag of nerves but I sort of powered through the nerves by gritting my teeth and slamming hell out of my SG. To say I was heavy handed is an understatement. I could wear away the points of a three corner Gibson heavy bass pick in a couple of hours. If I didn’t restring before every gig there every chance of breaking  strings.  But this is my first airing on the nylon strung guitar, fingerstyle. Subtlety is an issue, so is control. And – this is the big one – the material is original and I haven’t done myself any favours by making it easy to play or listen to.

Christine very kindly offers to move things round a bit. Some of the slots will be shorter than others – something can be done. I sit down and watch the other performers. This will hopefully take my mind off my impending doom.

One of the things that makes the Coliseum open mic special is the amount of original material being aired. So I can expect a sympathetic hearing. Does that make me feel any better? Nope.

Now here’s where I feel a bit bad. I can remember a few names, I can remember a few songs but I can’t put them together for the purposes of this post. Next time I’ll take a notepad. There’s a guy – I think his name is Colin (I can correct this obviously) who did a song about a policeman proposing to his loved one using police force jargon and protocols. I’ve heard him before doing a song about poisoning pigeons – very clever stuff, witty. There’s a lady (Jan?) who reads a poem about being a poet at urban guerilla level – competing with the bingo, pub quizzes and karaoke.

Later on there’s Gino. Like me he uses a nylon guitar rather than steel strung. And like me,  it’s a cheap guitar – thirty quid from Argos I think he said. Mine was £125 – buttons in guitar terms (but not from Argos). Gino’s songs are musically simple and emotionally complex. Tonight he sings a song about politicians. Okay, who doesn’t? But the anecdotal material in this song is hot off the press and stings. Then there’s a song about the awkwardness and mixed feelings of a one night stand – brilliant.

And there’s Pat, who’s been going to these events for years and years. An excellent guitarist, he does a stunning rendition of McCartney’s Blackbird. Which he says is about racism. Never thought of it like that.

How come the same plonker who gave us Mull of Kintyre and the Frog Chorus can give us something as exquisite as Blackbird – a consummate work of art, a masterpiece on a par with such as Dowland or Hoagy Carmichael?

So my turn comes along. Steve does a grand job with the sound but I’m used to the sound coming from the backline, not from the sides. That doesn’t help. The guitar won’t tune.  I might as well have two packs of raw sausages for fingers. I’m shaking so bad that the audience can feel it through the floor – so Christine tells me afterwards.

So I mangle two numbers with drop outs, misshapen chords,  missing bass notes.  I think the singing was quite good. The audience was appreciative  – like everybody said, there was no need to be nervous. Mistakes? Everyone else was making mistakes –  so why worry?

I probably came to this giglet with the wrong attitude: a bit of chip on my shoulder and thinking I had to conquer the world in one night – built it up to be too important. A fifty-one-year-old should know better. The reality is I will do a lot of open mic slots – many more than I ever did gigs – and there is plenty of time to re-invent myself as an acoustic performer. Process not product.

Many thanks to Steve and Christine and the old hands who reassured me that I’d be fine in just a couple of months. They’d seen it all before – first timers who looked like they were at death’s door as they did their maiden turns.

And despite all the cock ups, I got lots of positive feedback on my guitar playing – from people who would know.

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