Bob Delyn a’r Ebillion – Dal i ’Redig Dipyn Bach
Sain – 24 November 2017
Bob Delyn a’r Ebillion have a special place in the history of Welsh language music. Their debut came out in 1990, at a time when Welsh – in the arts and in daily life – was at a particularly low ebb. At times in the late twentieth century, it seemed – to the outsider at least – as if the language was on the verge of dying out. But at some point, a quiet revolution started, a movement whose causes were uncertain. Perhaps the growing pride in national identity, particularly among the working classes, reflected the need for people to distance themselves from the English in general and from a decade of Thatcherism in particular. Perhaps it was all part of the natural, gentle slide towards devolution that began to gather pace in the 1990s. Either way, being Welsh began to matter to people. The language, once the preserve of isolated communities, came down off the hills and into the cities, schools and public buildings. It also began to make itself heard in the arts, particularly in music, and Bob Delyn a’r Ebillion were at the forefront of that movement, paving the way for a whole host of artists to follow.
But Bob Delyn frontman Tym Morys is no mere revivalist or promoter of coarse nationalism. Far from confining themselves to the stuffier traditions of folk music, the band have always embraced a driving folk-rock sound, a punky spirit and an eclectic array of global influences, most notably Breton folk but also plenty of non-European instrumentation. Dal i ‘Redig Dipyn Bach is their fifth studio album, and the first since 2004’s Dore, and it kicks off with the typically astute Cân John Williams. Williams was one of one of only five Welsh speakers left in a particular valley in the Black Mountains in 1939, and his voice was recorded by T.J. Morgan. Snippets of that field recording bookend the song, which itself is a gentle, almost wistful evocation of a period in history which, despite being within living memory for some people, feels like a completely different time. Fy Mendith ar y Llwybrau is historically closer to home, but geographically wider ranging. Morys recounts a journey to Canada but imbues it with a sense of longing that is typically Welsh.
Morys has a background in poetry – he has been the Bardd Plant Cymru (children’s poet laureate) and the Chair of the National Eisteddfod, as well as publishing two volumes of verse – so it is no surprise that he looks to the rich poetic heritage of Wales for inspiration. Waliau Caernarfon is a traditional lyric, translated and made famous in English by R.S. Thomas as Walls of Caernarvon. Morys sings the original version, which in two short stanzas distils the beautiful, harsh, contradictory Welsh landscape (and by extension the complex Welsh identity).
By this point, it is clear that the band’s current incarnation is mellower and less confrontational than of old. But this doesn’t mean that they sound in any way complacent. Morys – who lived and taught in Brittany for ten years – is never afraid to explore the Breton language. The wonderful, sinuous Meur a Wech unfolds over a shimmering six minutes and shows both the similarities and the differences between the two ancient Celtic languages. Equally impressive, but for different reasons, is Comin Abergwesyn, a brief, tender evocation of the Welsh landscape, and a showcase for Morys’s stark, highly original language: ‘On Abergwesyn Common, the rhythms of the world are far away; one road on the end of its leash, one crow still meaning business.’
That wild and somehow homely landscape is a major subject throughout the album. Y Mab Pengelyn (a traditional song from Maesteg) describes the moment when a raincloud lifts over Nant y Bedw, the Valley of the Birches, the boy of the song’s title experiencing a moment of mysterious personal epiphany as the moors, and the girl he loves, appear from the clouds. Personal relationships are explored more pragmatically in the short but wise Cyfod dy Wely, while Swn ar Gardyn Post is a more abstract meditation on how sound and music affect us in more ways than we can imagine.
Cân Begw is perhaps the most unabashed love song on a record that has love at its core. Morys, accompanied here by just his acoustic guitar. The guitar and the lyrics are deceptively simple, exploring the nature of devotion with an emotional depth that would not be out of place in a Leonard Cohen song. Rhydd also channels Cohen, but in terms of lyrics is a different matter altogether, a kind of incantation, a call to arms and a cry of freedom that packs an enormous melodic and emotional punch into its two minutes.
Never one to rest on his songwriting laurels, Morys takes another sidestep with Cân Syndans, a neat retelling of the story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, while Dweud, which he describes as ‘half traditional’, is full of humanity and homespun wisdom. Deryn Du’s warm, soulful saxophone interlude hints at a different musical direction. But the past never disappears entirely, and the ‘boots of Spanish leather’ that appear in Deryn Du are echoes of those in Cân Syndans, and in countless other folk songs down the ages.
If this album explores the ideas of homeliness and wildness, end and renewal, then the penultimate song – Gyda Mwynder – is perhaps its focal point. Morys offers up a vision of hope in spite of the loss of a world in which ‘we’d go wherever we wished and be welcomed’. He conjures up the vision of a tree, ‘half in leaf, half-withered’, and is determined to make it whole again. This sense of positivity, tinted with melancholy, finds its way into every corner of this rich and multifaceted album. It infuses Nemet Dour, the record’s Breton closer, a song about the inexorable passage of time and the realisation that everything gets old. Morys and his band may not be as raucous as they once were, but they more than make up for that in melodic inventiveness and lyrical panache. Dal i ‘Redig Dipyn Bach summons images of the slate and moss of the Welsh landscape and lays bare the Welsh psyche. It is an impressive and moving piece of songwriting, in any language.
Dal i ‘redig dipyn bach is released on 24 November via Sain / Proper Music Distribution