Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Observations from the Welsh Invasion of Washington DC - Hanging out with Gai Toms

I've been slow getting my stories from The Smithsonian Folklife Festival out, but this morning I've got a few minutes to tell my favorite moment from the whole festival - Hanging with Gai Toms. This was a simple and rather silly time.

We met on the first day, but during 4th day at the event I brought my guitar to the festival on the DC Mall. I was hoping at some point to jam with the musicians. Now Gai had a drum set (find info on the set here) he developed from recyclable materials. After he played for a bit, we pulled out our guitars and jammed. Sang a little Meic Stevens - "Y Brawd Houdini" I played his guitar, which I liked a lot. He played mine. He wanted to take it home - my Martin is a pretty sweet little guitar, and I have it strung with medium gauge John Peirce strings, and then to take advantage of the fuller sound of a heavier string, but also to regain some of the bendability and softness of a lighter gauge I tune the guitar down a full step. I tried to convince Gai to do the same thing with his guitar, because I thought it might add to the fullness of tone with a heavier string. We jammed a song of his, a song of mine. A few people stood around and listened intently. It was fun.

Then a little later in the day as the festival was closing for the afternoon Gai and I (which could be a title for song I guess) grabbed a beer at the little pub tent on the festival grounds. We stood by the counter under the edge of the tent talking with our guitar cases in hand ready to head off after a brew, and then it began to rain.

It rained. Then it rained harder. Then the wind started up, and we had to run to the other side of the tent with our guitar cases, and brew in hand, and crowd in with the other people who were there at the pub tent. The rain was now coming down hard and blowing sideways. We were all laughing huddled under the small edge of the tent, and against the counter.

Finally the time under the tent ended. Not because the rain stopped, but because the security from the Smithsonian came to the tent and yelled at us.

"You have to leave! The tents are not safe. A thunderstorm is coming! You have to leave now!"

So, we looked at each other, and decided to make for the subway, which was about 150 yards away on the edge of the DC Mall. Guitar cases in one hand, beer cups in the other, Gai Toms hat flying off every so often, and me wearing these silly flip flop sandals which I could not run in because they kept wanting to fall off. Off we went to the Underground. Hundreds of people were running for the subway, and we all arrived at the escalators at the same time and crowded on. Then the lightening started.

We made it down and were now safely out of the rain, but the wind was still howling through the opening to the underground, and Gai kept loosing his straw hat, and we would have to chase it.

So I decided to follow Gai to the hotel he was staying at. That night I was supposed to meet John the Pibgorn maker at the hotel anyway. So after finishing our brews in the subway station, off we went soaking wet to the hotel.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Observations from the Welsh Invasion of Washington DC - Part 3

This Ariel. Ariel comes from Patagonia. He came to Washington as a specialist in herbal remedies and other such things. Sitting behind the cooking tent with Ariel and Chef Anthony Evans one day Ariel shared a couple health remedies with us involving onions and lemons.

Ariel looked at me and said, "Now you learn." He ran into the cooking tent and returned with an onion and a knife. As you can see he cut an onion in half. What he did next was squeeze some onion juice into a spoon. Then he tilted his head back, and poured the onion juice in his left nostril. He did this with his right nostril. I guess this is a remedy for clogged sinuses, and is supposed to be good for you. Hmmmm....

Anthony Evans is a chef who specializes in cooking game he catches. I suggested that as a adventurer type he needed to try this remedy. He declined. I am not sure why.

After about ten minutes of recovery, and some snorting, Ariel said, "Now, you learn again." This time he went into the cooking tent and emerged with a lemon. After cutting the lemon - well you can see what he did here. As I understand it, lemons in the eye are a good thing to cleanse your eyes, and keep them fresh.

So, here's to Ariel Grant Hughes the agronomy engineer from Patagonia. You're the man Ariel!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Welsh Invasion Observations Day 1 part 2

After an afternoon of musician stalking, and wandering around the tents to experience the cultural dynamics of the Cymru Smithsonian Wales* Folklife event I was exhausted. I had driven 9 hours through the night, and stopped to sleep for about two hours, and then made my way to the Washington Mall for this event.

(*a note about the name "Cymru Smithsonian Wales" - this does seem like a clumsy name for the event - it basically means Wales Smithsonian Wales, because Cymru is Welsh for Wales. I realize that the purpose of the title is to put forward the Welsh language, and I am completely in agreement with doing that. Yet the title also means something akin to "Friend (or Comrade) Smithsonian Stranger." You see the Cymru called themselves Cymru and it means something like Comrade, but their invaders called them Welsh, and that name means something akin to stranger or foreigner of non-Germanic origin - a Celt. Can you imagine being called a stranger in your own land?)

So, Aled Llion Jones had arrived and we stalked musicians together, but he is more graceful about stalking I think. If you speak fluent Welsh you can't be a stalker of Welsh musicians. Well Aled came to Washington to take part in a Welsh TV show Pawb a'i Farn (People Talking, or Question Time, or whatever people relate it to being, but it means something like "everyone's opinion.") I asked Aled if the show was open to attend. He said he did not know, but it was worth checking out. I thought it might be worth the look-see - after all I was in Washington to experience everything Welsh. So who cares about needing a little sleep. It had only been 36 hours since I had really slept.

We made our way to the Newseum a few blocks away, and entered the back door. The Newseum was closed to the public, and those who were there for an event had to come in the back door.

They were checking off names at the door as though this was an invitation only event. Aled spoke to them about me, and assured them that I "siarad tipyn bach" Welsh. They were happy to let me in, and so we entered and took the elevator to the 3rd floor.

Once we had arrived to at the reception area I noticed first that everyone was dressed in suits - except a few people, and they gave me great comfort. I had come to the Washington Mall on a warm humid day, and I was dressed accordingly: off-white shorts, a green short sleeved polo styled shirt with stripes, and some funky sandals.

We all stood around and met people, and small talked, and ate costly Horse-doovers - or durves - oer d'ouvres - ah, whatever they're called, and drinking wine or just as costly sparkling water. I saw a couple people I already knew. Among them was Catrin Brace from the Welsh Assembly Government office in New York.

After what seemed like a minor eternity of small talk someone told me that my group was headed into the studio. I followed and tried to catch them, but straggled in last. This was the group of Welsh living in America, and they were going to sit in the front two rows.

The presenter Dewi Lloyd was seating people where he wanted them. As I arrived last he pointed down the front row, and said something in Welsh which I translated as between the guy in the glasses, and the man in the blue shirt. I smiled hoping I understood him correctly, and wriggled my way down the row to my seat. As I sat down I realized that I was in the middle, and on the front row. I sat down, said "Shwmae" to my neighbors on either side, and thought that I was certainly in a pickle now. I was desperately hoping they would not call on me to answer any questions, because I would have to say "Sori, dw i ddim yn deall," or something equally as disconcerting for a Welsh talk show host.

I turned to look around, and saw that Catrin Brace was sitting behind me, and I thought that she must surely be wondering what the heck this silly man from Salem, MA who understood only the most basic Welsh was doing at a Washington DC Pawb a'i Farn taping - especially front and center. I was wondering the same thing.

They prepped the audience for the show. There were scripted questions, by prepared questioners, and we practiced clapping, and I noticed the camera angles, and saw myself in the monitors with some frequency, because I really was front and center. My clothing choice for the day was not quite as comfortable in this setting as it was on the field.

After quite a bit of prep the show began. We clapped. We listened and tried to look attentive, and I had to work harder at it since I was understanding about 50% of the conversations. Unfortunately, it was the not the important 50%. In a political discussion people say things like I feel..., I think..., I believe... and then they attach larger words to the sentence. So I was hearing, "dw i'n teimlo..., dw i'n meddwl..., dw i'n credu...blah, blah, blah...." Fortunately the show was scripted tight, and they did not reach out too far to ask questions beyond the prepared individuals - of which Aled was one.

The first Minister Rhodri Morgan, Allison Hill living in North Carolina who was a Welsh celebrity of some sort, and Gareth Howell were the guests on the show. Rhodri is an excellent communicator - well, as far as I can tell in my broken Welsh.

I began to feel the tiredness rush over me, and had to work real hard to keep my eyes open as the camera would pan to pick up the guys on either side of me who were prepared questioners, but I made it through the show without sleeping, and without being asked to respond to a question.

A couple days ago I received a facebook greeting. Gwenno Dafydd who helps organize the Christian Youth who serve in Y Gorlan at the Eisteddfod Maes B field said that she was watching me on Pawb a'i Farn, and said it was surreal. I was able to find the show later online, and saw myself working hard to stay awake on the front row. I just hope no one else noticed it, but I am sure the heavy bags under my eyes gave it away.

I would return to the Dudek's home in Virginia about midnight, and crash hard, but it was all worth it for the first day.

Want to see the show? Watch here.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Observations from the Welsh Invasion of Washington DC - Part 1

Last week I spent four days at the Cyrmu Smithsonian Wales Folklife Festival on the Washington Mall. That's right! Wales stormed the castle of Washington DC, and planted itself between the capitol building and the Washington monument.

I will post some short stories of my experience, and my observations about the people. As a native Californian who has been transplanted into Salem, Massachusetts I am already an outsider in the world in which I live, and I deeply love the city which is now my home. I have this same appreciation for the nation of Wales. Despite the fact that I have never lived in Wales I experience hiraeth - that deep longing for home - specifically Wales. For me hiraeth is the discovery of a place that is more like home than home itself, and that describes Wales to me.

So these will be the observations and funny stories which come from the place more like home than home itself as it planted itself on the Washington Mall this summer.

As of the time of this writing the event is still going from July 1st to the 5th, and then they will pack up and go home.

I had five reasons for going to the event:

1) I would not have missed it for the world. For my wife yes. For the the world, no.
2) I am starting a company called CeltiConnect and our first goal is business and trade development between the US and Wales.
3) Because of point 2 I was visiting the festival to meet with people from 80 Welsh companies who were in the US on a trade mission.
4) Because of point 2 I was attending "Convergence on Zero," a free conference on sustainable energy put on by the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, Powys, Mid-Wales.
5) Because of point 2 I was going to network with the musicians and entertainers from Wales.

These will be my stories from the above attempts to make friends with Welsh artisans, musicians, poets, and businessmen. Hopefully it will give you a picture of the people, and the absolute friendliness, and fun of being with the Welsh. Now I wish I had pictures of everyone I will talk about, but I am just not that prolific a photographer - okay, I am not a photographer at all - I just take some pictures.

Day 1 at the Cymru Smithsonian Wales:

I arrived at my home away from home at 6:30am after driving 9.5 hours through the night. I arrived, said hello, and then crashed for a couple hours, before I headed off to the Washington Mall.

I was staying an hour away at the home of Jeremy, Sarah and Alex Dudek. Jeremy and Sarah are the in-laws to my son Elijah, and were very gracious hosts. I had to take the Orange line Metro into DC from the furthest point west at the Vienna stop. Fortunately for me the Smithsonian stop is on the Orange line, and it comes up on the Washington Mall. As I emerged from the subterranean world of commuters and tourists I found myself between two of the three worlds of the Folklife Festival. To my left was Las Americas with its latin beats - somewhere between oom pah pah, and a habanero. To my right was the larger world of Wales

I smiled like a kid in a candy shop and immediately walked into Wales without looking around Las Americas first.

Later this day I would meet Aled Llion Jones. Like myself, he came down from the Boston area. Unlike myself, he was a native of North Wales, and speaks Welsh as his first language. I speak it as a clumsy attempt to overcome my sad monolingual American existence.

On this first day I would meet a few musicians and artisans, and get caught on the front row of an all Welsh language TV show praying that I would not get picked to answer questions, but those tales will come later. This is the simple story of my first musician contact.

I am not a stalker - really I am not. I don't typically hang around the stage areas to talk with musicians. Despite the fact that I am one, and that I book musicians for events in Salem, MA, when it comes to concerts, and shows I do not hang around trying to impose myself into the lives of the players, but here I was needing to do so.

My first contact felt more like stalker activity than anything during my four days.

I had already written a few of the musicians: Gareth Bonello, Silhd, and Gwyneth Glyn were few of the musicians I had contacted, and now it was time to meet them. The first musician I found performing from this list was Gwyneth Glyn.

Somehow rushing to the side of the stage while Gywneth was getting ready to set up, and saying, "Hi Gwyneth, my name is Phil. I wrote to you about coming to Boston, and blah, blah, blah... I'd like to get a chance to talk with you afterwards" seemed a bit like stalking. The pretty young musician being hounded by the gray haired midlife crisis looking Jerry Garcia impersonator that I am was definitely outside my comfort zone.

She was gracious and said, "Oh, of course, I didn't recognize you."

"uhm, oh, well we've never met before, I wouldn't expect you to."

She then said she would be glad to talk.

She played a short set. I sat in the front at a table in the middle feeling like a groupie/stalker. The guy at the table with me was about ten years younger than myself, but appeared to be another groupie/stalker type guy. He was running up to the stage and taking pictures of Gwyneth while she played. Now I had the inside scoop that Gwyneth is going back to Wales and getting married shortly, but I kept that to myself, since it appeared that it might break his little groupie/stalker heart. Stalkers have hearts too you know.

When she was finished, she sat on the far side of the tent in a space that the musicians would seem to congregate for the next few days. I popped up, and like a professional stalker made my way across the small circus tent to impose myself once again - leaving the groupie dude behind. He probably was heartbroken that he did not make a stalker/groupie move first. But as for me, I just felt like an old man who should have been arrested for stalking.

Again she was gracious, but it turned out that she was going to be going back up on stage to play a few songs with Gai Toms. Knowing the dynamics of preparing to play, I simply made a few small talk comments to her, and then it was her turn to go back up as I remained behind wondering if the DC police had been called to deal with a stalker in the music tent.

During her second performance Aled Llion Jones arrived, and plunked down next to me. Gai Toms and Gwyneth sounded good together until they played a Meic Stevens song - Dim Brawd Houdini, and then somehow were not quite in tune with one another, and they laughed about it like I would have done. Been there done that actually, and it is painful while it happens, but most of the people don't recognize it anyway, and it is funny as heck later.

After she had completed her sets Aled and I talked with Gywneth about coming to Boston - potentially in October for our Ysbrydnos event this October. I felt less like a stalker/groupie with Aled there. Aled is from a North Wales town not far from Gwyneth's home, and they babbled in Welsh at a pace that sounded like one long word with no breath stops to me. Then again I always feel like Aled goes at that pace.

Gwyneth seems to like the idea of coming to our Ysbrydnos, but we'll see how things go. Here's to hoping that it will work out.

I guess I wasn't really a creepy stalker/groupie guy after all - but I still don't like hanging around the stage to meet people, and wouldn't feel any better about through the next few days - except that many of the others would be ugly guys and not pretty girls. I was actually going to be quite thankful for that - no, no, not because I like ugly guys better, but because my wife likes it better when I talk to the uggly guys.