For her new album, Friends and Enemies; Lovers and Strangers, singer/songwriter and musician Sharron Kraus has drawn inspiration from the Mabinogi, a medieval Welsh collection of eleven stories generally accepted to be the earliest prose literature of the British Isles. The tales are often believed to be based on much earlier oral traditions, possibly dating back to pre-Christian Celtic mythology and, it must be said, do make compelling reading. Brimming with magical creatures, shape-shifting, kings and queens, heroes and legends, tribal raids and power struggles, love and loss, the Mabinogion has inspired many artists and musicians across the generations. If you’ve ever read the Mabinogi, been drawn into the worlds described in the tales, it’s easy to understand the book’s attraction – although, as Sharron says, it can be a head-scratching read:
“I started off writing the songs as a way of getting to grips with what was happening in the stories, trying to understand things that at first seemed confusing to me, and quickly got sucked in to a strange and wonderful world. I fell in love with these stories whilst being mystified by them and the process of wrestling them into song form has been one of the most challenging and rewarding of my song writing projects to date.”
Musically, Sharron’s interpretations are impressionistic and highly atmospheric while her lyrics are clear and concise. In passing, the booklet accompanying the record is a work of art in its own right; Frances Castle’s illustrations are a delight and each song’s lyrics are reproduced along with quotes from the pertinent part of the Mabinogi (Sioned Davies’ translation, I was pleased to note!) and Sharron’s own brief summary.
The opening My Friend’s Enemy finds its inspiration in the First Branch of the Mabinogi; the story of Pwyll, prince of Dyfed, his fight against the enemy of Arawn, lord of the Otherworld and Arawn’s rival, the enigmatic Hafgan. The violence and uncertainty in the tale are reflected in Sharron’s vocal dissonance and the musical arrangement which evokes the clashing ebb and flow of battle and the doubts and compromises implicit in the forging of political and military alliances between humans and deities. A further strand of the First Branch is explored in The Hunter, which describes Pwyll’s first sight of Rhiannon, another deity from the Otherworld, his instant falling in love with her and consequent pursuit of her. The arrangement mirrors the lyric’s sense of anticipation with sweet, billowing harmonies and some gentle multitracked recorders over a quietly insistent guitar.
The Second Branch of the Mabinogi provides the tale of Branwen, the daughter of Llyr (a sea god) and wife of Matholwch, king of Ireland, whose mistreatment of Branwen ultimately provokes a terrible war between the two islands tantamount to genocide. Sharron’s first person narrative is a striking reminder of the high price that women and girls (human or otherwise) pay when men go to war. Harriet Earis’ harp introduces a note of foreboding to the tension of the arrangement and Sharron’s voice evokes the pointlessness and immeasurable personal loss experienced by women caught in armed conflicts. A Hero’s Death derives its inspiration from another strand in Branwen’s tale and Sharron again raises pertinent questions about familial rivalry and men who are quick to anger and slow to learn. The arrangement has its own inexorable momentum, light and shade flickering like flames in the dark, building to its inevitable conclusion.
When the war has ended, the seven survivors under the command of the mortally wounded Bran (Branwen’s brother) find respite in the Otherworld where, as Sharron notes, they feast whilst The Birds of Rhiannon sing to them more sweetly than any earthly birds. Following the death of Bran, Pryderi and Manawydan return home to Wales in search of A Quiet Place, only to find their dream coming true in an unexpected and unwelcome way when an enchantmentment befalls them, taking them to a Wales that seems to exist in a parallel world and which, although beautiful – “lush and green” – is empty of people. They realise that they must leave this Otherworldly Wales and Farewell records, not only their feelings, but also Sharron’s own sadness at leaving mid Wales at the end of her own sojourn there. Taken together, this triptych of songs – The Birds of Rhiannon, A Quiet Place and Farewell – creates a reflective mood entirely in keeping with the original tales, by turns dreamy, haunting and sad throughout which Nancy Wallace’s harmonies blend beautifully with Sharron’s clear, high voice while Harriet’s harp and Sharron’s dulcimer and recorder drift in and out like clouds across a sunny sky. Being “Welsh by adoption” myself and having been washed ashore on the harsh concrete Otherworld of 21st century London for more years than I care to admit, Farewell strikes a particular chord with me: anyone familiar with the concept of hiraeth will understand instantly the mood it evokes and Sharron’s own interpretation of it is probably the album’s highlight for me.
Blodeuwedd is a central figure in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, a woman made of flowers by two magicians, Gwydion and Math, to create a wife for the hero Lleu Llaw Gyffes. She falls in love with another man and the pair conspire to murder Lleu, a plan which misfires. As a result, one of the magicians turns Blodeuwedd into an owl, the bird hated by all others. While the story has been adapted many times – Alan Garner’s The Owl Service is possibly the most well-known – Sharron’s interpretation is set apart from the rest by retelling it in a first-person narrative, from the point of view of Blodeuedd herself, bringing an unexpected, but welcome, feminist perspective to the lyric.
“Out of flowers I was formed
A woman made not born
Conjured up into life
To be a stranger’s wife”
Stranger in Your Land brings the record to its close; while this part of the Second Branch of the Mabinogi contains some particularly dark passages as it picks up Manawydan’s story after leaving Wales, Sharron’s interpretation opts instead to expand on the impact of leaving one’s home and the associated complexities of settling somewhere new, strange and hostile. The theme develops the idea of hiraeth expressed so well in Farewell and the major key of this meditative arrangement closes the album in a way which is both bittersweet yet optimistic; the interweaving almost call-and-response vocals are particularly striking.
In my introduction to this review, I mentioned that the stories collected in the Mabinogi are often believed to be based on much earlier oral traditions and I think the key to understanding both the Mabinogi and Friends and Enemies; Lovers and Strangers is that, at the times in which the tales originated, reading and writing were the preserve of a privileged few, so performance and recitation were the main ways that these stories were passed on. Sharron’s interpretations and arrangements are very respectful of these techniques and the result is a record which works on two levels: it’s a highly original collection of compositions which can be enjoyed as a folk album like any other, but which repays a much closer listening to reveal a depth of understanding of its sources which shines a light on a classic text too often overlooked when we think of the great works of literature of these islands.
Review by: Helen Gregory
Released 18th May via Clay Pipe Music
12″ LP, 500 numbered copies, reverse board mat cover, with fully illustration booklet, and download code.
To celebrate the release of this album we will be featuring a very special guest mix from Sharron later this week.