Welsh-language pop culture is having a party – and everyone’s invited | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett | Opinion

When you’re a speaker of a minority language, you become fairly used to that language and culture being ignored by the rest of the world. If you move away from home, encountering another speaker of that language can feel strangely exciting: moving, even. As you chat, your corner of the planet suddenly feels less small and insignificant, and long buried personality traits start to shine out – every multilingual person I have met says their character differs depending on the language they are speaking. These traits can spend months in hibernation, and then a fellow speaker comes along who truly sees and understands you.

Imagine my excitement, as a Welsh expat, when I read that two lads from down the road had produced the first Welsh song to hit 1m Spotify plays. The rock duo Alffa’s song Gwenwyn (meaning Poison) is being streamed as far away as Brazil, having been placed on influential rock playlists by the Welsh music distributor PYST.

Growing up in rural Gwynedd, Welsh-language music was an everyday part of our lives. Every local gig you went to would have at least one Welsh-language band, with school friends often forming their own. But despite the success of bands such as Super Furry Animals and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci – and the support of John Peel, who always encouraged and supported Welsh bands – it still felt niche and community-based.

There are upsides to this musical localism, of course. The UK live music scene is in trouble – in February, the first live music census found that a third of Britain’s small venues outside London are fighting to survive in the face of high business rates and noise restrictions. A group of 17-year-olds I spoke to recently, based in southern England, had never been to a gig, telling me that guitar-based music just isn’t on their radar. It couldn’t be a more different climate to when I was younger, where local guitar bands abounded. This live music circuit continues to exist around the pubs of Pen Llŷn and in other venues in Gwynedd, providing Welsh language musicians with a supportive environment in which to improve, experiment and develop. Except these days, the internet is there to provide these bands with a launching pad to the wider world.

Alun Llwyd, the chief executive of PYST, told the Guardian that Spotify’s inclusive cultural attitude contributed to Alffa’s success. “What’s beautiful is that Spotify judge the songs on music merit, not the language or the band,” he said. “Nobody knew Alffa outside a small part of Wales. This is testament to the strength of the song.” For music fans, the internet has widened our cultural spheres, providing access to more genres and traditions.

Hence Wales’s other great success story, Gwenno, who sings in Welsh and Cornish. The fact that her latest Cornish album has been credited by the Cornish language board as sparking a rise in the number of people taking exams in the language shows what an impact musical success can have. The Welsh Assembly aims to get a million people speaking and using Welsh by 2050 – the spread of Welsh music can only contribute positively to this. Historically, Welsh people have faced oppression and prejudice, particularly from English people. It’s still not uncommon to hear anti-Welsh sentiments expressed even by people in the public eye, and reading English-language media can be an eyebrow-raising experience, with jokes about throat clearing and sneezing with regard to Welsh place names ridiculously common. Just the other day I came across a description in the Evening Standard of the comedian Elis James as “unapologetically Welsh”.

Gwenwyn

Accusations of xenophobia are often countered by accusations that the Welsh-language community is insular and exclusive: but in recent years interest in a more civic form of Welsh nationalism has taken hold, which envisages an independent but inclusive Wales as part of a larger federal EU. Rather than taking place in the middle of a hard-to-reach field somewhere deeply rural, the national Eisteddfod this year took place in Cardiff Bay with free admission, opening it to a much wider audience and including the multi-ethnic population of Cardiff. Efforts like this, alongside the younger generation’s embrace of the language, means Welsh- language culture has ceased to be the preserve of an ageing, white middle-class elite.

There are so many exciting things going on in Welsh culture at the moment. Musically, I would recommend Omaloma, NoGood Boyo, Ffracas, Gareth Bonello, Y Niwl, and Adwaith (you can check out the BBC Horizons/Gorwelion site for more). In comedy, Elis James and Tudur Owen both do brilliant Welsh-language standup. The TV dramas Hidden and Hinterland have seen Welsh crime dramas dubbed “the new Scandi thrillers”.

In writing, there’s the feminist anthology Codi Llais and the new magazine Codi Pais (not to be confused – the latter is a magazine for all by the women of Wales). In theatre Nyrsys, by Bethan Marlow, shines a light on the stories of nurses in a Welsh cancer ward. In poetry, more and more people are signing up to learn cynghanedd (a form of Welsh poetry in strict metres) – my father included – and I’m particularly excited about a new edition of the poems of Gwerful Mechain, who penned an ode to the vagina and an anti-domestic violence poem in the late middle ages.

Of course, there’s much more out there than can be mentioned here, all of it, yes – unapologetically, defiantly Welsh. Thanks to technology, everyone’s invited.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist


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