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Album review: The Gentle Good “Y Bardd Anfarwol” (Folk Radio UK)

November 29, 2013

The Gentle Good - Y Bardd AnfarwolThe paths we tread through our lives often take us to places we didn’t anticipate visiting, be they geographical, intellectual or spiritual. And, although we may not be great believers in the idea of fate, sometimes it’s hard not to believe that things do indeed happen for a reason. Perhaps I’m projecting, but I wonder if similar thoughts have occurred to Gareth Bonello, front man of The Gentle Good, since he travelled to the city of Chengdu in China in October 2011 to take up a 6 week artistic residency with the Chengdu Associated Theatre of Performing Arts.

The residency was part of the ‘Musicians in Residence – China’ project organised jointly by The British Council and the Performing Right Society Foundation (PRSF). Gareth used the opportunity to explore Chinese folk music and literature and to collaborate with local traditional musicians.

Upon his return to the UK Gareth continued to work on the project with composer Seb Goldfinch, The Mavron String Quartet and members of the UK Chinese Ensemble and now, some two years further along the road, the fruits of the labours of Gareth and his various collaborators can at last be tasted in his new record Y Bardd Anfarwol. It tells the life story of the Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai (701-762), who took traditional poetic forms to new heights. Around a thousand poems are attributed to him, often celebrating the pleasures of friendship, the depth of nature, solitude, and the joys of drinking wine.

The album begins with the poet leaving home as a young man to search for a Taoist master in the mountains. It moves through his days of travelling along the great rivers of China in search of patronage as a court poet, along the way it deals with such things as the loneliness and loss that he feels having left his wife and children behind, finally telling the story of Li Bai’s death at the age of 61, on his way back along the river from exile. This might, at first glance, seem a fairly esoteric concept for a folk record, but the themes have are clear parallels with the ancient Welsh bardic traditions – and it’s by no means stretching the point to say that Gareth himself is working very much within those same traditions on his own life journey.

Opening with the sounds of a street market in Sichuan, Erddigan Chengdu (Chengdu Harmony) represents the start of Li Bai’s journey, from his home in the city and out into the countryside. Gareth’s delicate finger-picked guitar and the string section of The Mavron Quartet mesh seamlessly with the traditional Chinese instruments in an introspective instrumental that sets the mood beautifully. With only a heartbeat’s pause, Antiffoni (Question and Answer) opens with Gareth’s acoustic guitar and voice before strings, flute and a selection of Chinese instruments enter to depict the quietness of the Taitien mountains where Li Bai conducts a fruitless search for a Taoist master before realising that the answer to his question was inside him all along.

Yr Wylan Fry (The Free Seabird) tells of Li Bai’s sadness at having left his wife behind; the song’s title comes from a poem by a contemporary of Li Bai’s, a poet called Du Fu, who said that the life of a traveller is like that of a seabird flying overhead; it’s easy to see going by but once gone he is gone forever. The following instrumental, Ymadael Dinas Brenin Gwyn (Departure from White King City), with field recordings of birds in the Chinese countryside, is intended to represent Li Bai’s travels along the rivers of China. Gareth’s guitar is counterpointed by The UK Chinese Ensemble and the keening sounds of the Xiao (played by Sun Xianchu).

The lonely lament of Li Bai’s wife (whose name seems lost to history) is sung by Lisa Jên Brown on Marwnad Chang-Kan (The Chang-Kan Lament) with the flute of Laura J Martin adding to the atmosphere while Callum Duggan’s bass underpins the sad string arrangements of The Mavron Quartet. It’s followed by Meddyliau Distaw’r Nos (Quiet Night Thoughts), an instrumental interlude which finds Li Bai far from home, musing on his own loneliness under the cold light of the moon.

The harmonies of Richard James are featured on Yfed Gyda’r Lleuad (Drinking With The Moon), which opens with what sounds like an excerpt from a traditional song before moving into the tale of a late night drinking game between Li Bai and his shadow. With The Mavron Quartet’s strings managing to be simultaneously lush and sparse, this song is without doubt one of the highlights of the album. The instrumental Brwydr An Lushan (An Lushan Rebellion) opens with a dazzling display of the percussive skills of Zhang Xu, before the introduction of an insistent guitar motif overlaid by the strings of The Mavron Quartet and the second appearance of The UK Chinese Ensemble.

Described as a meditation on getting old, Edau Gwyn (Threads of White) opens with a deep male voice chanting alongside bell-like chimes before Chinese instrumentation, a spartan piano part and slowly strummed guitar set the scene for Gareth’s rendition of Li Bai’s thoughts on ageing, in which he compares time to a weaver, craftily inserting threads of white into his hair. The story of Li Bai draws to a conclusion in Afon Arian (Silver River) which recounts the circumstances around his untimely death by drowning, having fallen from a boat while drunkenly reaching out to try and embrace the moon. A sad end, yet a strangely poetic one, The Mavron Quartet’s strings provide a poignant backdrop to Gareth’s skilful acoustic guitar and Laura J Martin’s flute.

The record is brought to its conclusion by two songs which, although not part of the biographical theme of the life of Li Bai, nevertheless sit well within the overall feel of the album. Bore Braf (Fresh Morning) is a traditional Sichuanese piece for the Guqin adapted for the guitar; Gareth explains that “it is a very old instrument that poets like Li Bai would traditionally sit and play whilst composing poetry”.

Closing track Dienw features Zhou Yuanlin from the Chengdu Associated Theatre of Performing Arts demonstrating her mastery of the Pipa; Gareth recorded it in Sichuan in 2011 and included it as a thank you to everyone that helped in the creation of the record. The fact that it’s a breathtaking display of virtuosity doesn’t hurt, either!

It’s a measure of the creative integrity of Gareth Bonello and his collaborator Seb Goldfinch that Y Bardd Anfarwol can take what many might regard as a huge chance in drawing together such a range of culturally diverse instruments to create a biographical concept album, and do it so successfully. This is a record which sounds new and fresh, as delicate as a watercolour yet with the energy of a master calligrapher’s work; it repays repeated listenings and is the ideal tonic for those whose ears are jaded by this year’s musical goldrush towards Americana-influenced contemporary folk music. If you value the work of those who are prepared to sail outside the mainstream, then Y Bardd Anfarwol will definitely float your boat. A wonderful record, a record full of wonder; I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (29 November 2013)

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