Sunday, September 03, 2006

Welsh Parking Only: All Others Will Be Dragon-ed Away

Yesterday, I competed in the North American Festival of Wales Eisteddfod. (I believe that is Eye-STETH-fod, where the dd is a lisping "th' as in thistle, but my Welsh is yet of beginner's quality.) This a competition of language and music: poetry, prose, recitation, storytelling, singing and instrumentals. It is divided into categories such as Welsh and English with Welsh themes/origins, solo and groups. It is also divided by age, a common occurrence in Celtic style competitions for the primary purpose of protecting the adults from the scary prodigy-children.

The scene was a familiar one: a small number of enthusiastic competitors, friends and family supporting, chaos and last minute changes, and a venue considered substandard in comparison to the rest of the event - though it was one of the nicest competition areas I've ever been in. No airplanes, no bagpipes, QUIET, restrooms within ten miles. Like other national Celtic style competitions, it maintained the tradition that even if there were only one competitor in the category, a first placement must be earned. In sum, it was one of the most organized and well-run competitions I've ever seen ... and the Welsh? Gorgeous.

I've always been fascinated with Welsh language and music. It's a mild obsession that goes back to the first fantasy series I ever read: Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles. It was many years before I realized that they were inspired by Welsh mythology, but the seeds had been planted. The mere appearance of Welsh on the page is mesmerizing. It's a language that's visually lyrical and airy on the tongue. Welsh music is very rich and chordal, with an unusual convention of accidentals due to the use of the triple-strung harp - an instrument with three rows of strings, the outer ones tuned like the white notes on a piano an interior row capable of handling any and all accidentals. The triple harp allows an incredible range of quick sharps and flats and also some exceptional doubling techniques (where the same melody is played in both hands a split second apart, creating an "echo" effect on each note).

Of course, a lot of Welsh folk songs were borrowed and made into hymns - and a few others have become common folk culture. Chances are, you know far more Welsh than you realize ...

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