AmeriCymru: Helo Cai and many thanks for agreeing to this interview. Care to introduce your new album Gwaed y Cymry for our readers?
Cai: My pleasure, it's very cool to be answering questions for you. Thank you for the opportunity to talk to your readers.
Gwaed y Cymry means 'the blood of the Welsh people', and music really is the lifeblood of Wales. The idea of recording a solo album came about after being away from home for a few years. For almost four years now I've been adventuring out in the countryside and wilderness of Minnesota; camping in the forests, staying on farms with friends and family and living in small towns surrounded by lakes and forests, and I am at my happiest when I'm outside, miles from anywhere. I'm very much an outdoors person, my soul is rarely at ease when I'm inside or walking on concrete city streets. But when I'm out in the woods or next to a lake, after a day cutting firewood or fishing, the first thing I want to do is get out an instrument and make music. There's nothing better than playing an accompaniment to the nightscape. Yet music is a thing to share, and music really is alive in many ways - it wants to be shared, and it will whisper in your ear and sneak inside your head and it can drive you to do its bidding. So the music told me to put a little studio together, and for the most part it makes itself, I'm just a vehicle for the tunes. And these Welsh tunes are so old that they have gathered a lot of power. They've been jumping from generation to generation and heart to heart for so long that they have their own will to live and to continue proliferating, and they have become strong. With each new host they gain more resonance. So these are the tunes that have been wandering with me for years, with my own little spin on them. This is the sound I make when I'm out in the wild and playing for the birds. They're pieces my grandfather carried with him and used to sing to me, that I used to play out in the landscape back home, and songs I play now when I'm missing the beaches and mountains of Wales.
AmeriCymru: You are a multi-instrumentalist. What instruments do you play on the album?
Cai: On this album I used the harp, the guitar and whistle as the core of the sound, I was planning to play fiddle as well but as fate would have it I snapped a string on the first day of recording so the violin parts are played as if it were a ukulele - three stringed pizzicato chords underpinning the guitar, which had a good feel so I let fate lead me on that. There's also a pibgorn, the ancient Welsh woodwind instrument, which was made for me by the excellent piper Gafin Morgan. For the song Y Fari Lwyd I used a lot of percussion, as well. The Mari Lwyd tradition is something that happens in pubs late at night, with family and friends, after a few pints, and it's a raucous, spectacular, lively affair, so I wanted to try to capture some of the energy and chaos of a real live Mari Lwyd; I wanted the noise and clatter of a country pub full of excitement and beer, the atmosphere of the winter rain outside kept at bay by a log fire and a band of drunken musicians. So for percussion there's a washboard, a set of bottles and glasses, and I used the dining room floor and dinner table as a drum kit to give the impression of a pub full of people clapping and stamping and hammering on the bar. The harp takes the lead for most of the album, backed up by the ensemble though I've included a couple of solo harp pieces, the pibgorn takes over from time to time as does the whistle and there are a few guitar solo spots here and there, and I also sing on four of the tracks.
AmeriCymru: You currently reside in Minnesota. How did you come to relocate there? Any plans for gigs in the area or the US generally?
Cai: My wife and kids are here in Minnesota, they hail from a farming town north of Minneapolis, and I've really fallen in love with the area over the last few years. I'm playing for the Saint David's Society of Minnesota on the 4th of March, they're hosting an event in the Twin Cities for Saint David's Day focusing on the work of Meredydd Evans, who I've always been a big fan of. I'm also hoping to arrange some shows further afield in Chicago and Milwaukee soon. Ive explored a lot of Minnesota in the last few years, America is a magical place with some fantastic people and I'm chomping at the bit to get rolling and investigate the rest.
AmeriCymru: Care to tell us a little about your Welsh and musical backgrounds?
Cai: Well my grandfather sang in a male voice choir, he had a superb voice and he adored anything Welsh, so the old songs were a big part of my childhood. His family were farmers and coal miners, and of course poets and bards as well. So when I hear their language and the sounds of the harp it feels like home to me. My mother's a big fan of Jamaican music, and plays a lot of ska and calypso which I'm sure has influenced my style. Growing up my dad was always buying me folksy stuff like the Pogues and Django Reinhardt, which gave me a hunger for traditional music. In school I experimented with a broad range of styles, my taste has always varied from early jungle/drum & bass through punk and rock to classical and jazz. When I went off to music college in England I was very lucky to have been tutored by a list of big names, one of whom was the late, great Eric Roche. Eric was an acoustic genius, and he was an amazing teacher. He did a lot to influence my musical direction. For theory lectures his style was to half hyptontize the class in his soft Irish accent and implant the music theory into our subconscious minds. That way, when I need a scale or a chord I don't have to think about it, it's just there. For practical lessons he'd bring in his Lowden acoustic guitar, always set up in some strange alternate tuning, and his skills were jaw dropping - he would play a bassline, two or three guitar parts along with a melody and drum on the instrument all at the same time. He treated the guitar like an orchestra and opened my mind to new ways of playing. And I've been very lucky to have been able to watch a lot of really excellent musicians up close, so when it comes to learning a new insrument I already have a fair idea of how it will work. I've learned a lot just by watching people like Robin Huw Bowen and Gwenan Gibbard play harp. Through my travels I've encountered lots of different musical worlds, from the vibes that the Jamaican and Indian immigrants brought to Britain and the Welsh Gypsy harping tradition to the music that Indonesian and African friends introduced to me when I was living in Holland. The way I perceive music has a lot to do with my mother's indigenous roots which are in northern Scandinavia, and through the work of Sámi musicians like Áillohaš and Mari Boine I've come to see music as something spiritual and much deeper than just a form of entertainment - for me it's more than a pass-time, it's an act of worship and a sacred medicine as well.
AmeriCymru: You formerly played with Welsh band Calan. How would you describe your experience with them?
Cai: Working with Calan was an awesome experience. They're such a very talented group of musicians and wonderful people, and we got to play the music we love in some supreme venues. Recording at Sain's legendary studios was an absolute privilege, and working alongside Maartin Alcock as producer was a massive honor, not to mention Paul Burgess of 10cc fame who played drums for us on the first album. The show that sticks in my mind as my favorite was on a tour in Italy - we were out in the countryside, the venue was a little stage looking out over a tiny village and a backdrop of steep wooded mountains, the day had been very hot and we'd been fed home-cooked Italian food with local wine and cheese and we played our show watching the sun setting behind the hills with a cool breeze in our faces. Playing at the Lorient Interceltique festival in Brittany was a lot of fun, too - one day we were invited to play at a party in the mayor's mansion, where we were filled with salmon, caviar and fine champagne before playing for the movers and shakers in a great, chandeliered marble hall; that was a pretty swanky gig. And then there were the small venues all around Wales with cozy atmospheres where it felt like the audience was all family, those were very happy times. And the audience we gathered are so enthusiastic and appreciative, the fans gave us a great deal of encouragement and inspiration. Making music with Calan was truly joyful.
AmeriCymru: Who are your favourite Welsh musicians/bands at the moment?
Cai: Right now I'm loving Elfen - a new trio I haven't yet met who have just put out a record called March Glas which has been going round and round my head for a couple of weeks. New on the scene is also Kizzy Meriel, a solo singer/songwriter act I'm really enjoying, and Patric from Calan is working with a new group named Vrï who are putting out some fantastic stuff. Of course I'm following Calan with glee - their new material is just brilliant, and last year I went to see them play in southern Minnesota when they were touring the States and was pleased to meet the new members and see the line up gels really well. Angharad from Calan has been doing beautiful work with her mother, the harpist Delyth Jenkins, under the name DnA (as in Delyth'n' Angharad). I'm very excited to see what all these guys come out with in the future.
AmeriCymru: What's next for Cai ab Alun? Any new recordings in the works?
Cai: I'm currently looking into starting a show on public access radio, focusing on Welsh music but not exclusively, and maybe there'll be some comedy thrown into the mix. Alongside that I'd like to set up some Welsh language classes, because the language is an important part of the culture and it would be very good to help reconnect the Welsh diaspora here with their roots. I'm beginning work on another album now, and for the next one I'll be adding some new instruments to the line up, though I'll be drawing on the same inspiration as before I'd like to open up some new horizons and augment the sound I've crafted with something more. I'm hearing drums, a double bass and perhaps accordion too. I'm adding flute and recorder to my wind section, I'd love to get hold of a crwth and I may do some experimentation with tuned percussion like steel pans and xylophone. There are lots of tunes and songs I wanted to do for this first album but I felt some of my absolute favorite pieces deserve to be given more considration, a little more rumination and some additional colors on my palette. I'd love to try collaborating with a couple of other musicians over the internet, as well - with modern technology it would be easy to do a duet with someone on the other side of the world and that could be fun. So I am planning to make a lot more music in the next few years.
AmeriCymru: Any final message for the readers and members of AmeriCymru?
Cai: Only that I'm looking forward to getting out there and meeting a new audience here in the States!