Folk Music Society of New York - home page Article about Christine Cooper at Eisteddfod-NY, November 2011





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Article from The Jambalaya News, Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Eclectic Company: Christine Cooper At The NY Eisteddfod

By Leslie Berman

The Welsh are different from us.  Consider how they say and spell the lilting and soft shushing and trilling sounds of words in their Celtic language:  Popular actor Rhys Ifans name (Welsh-ified from his birth name Evans) is pronounced Reese EE-fans (appearing now in the Shakespeare authorship-debunking film Anonymous (and yes, you saw him first as Hugh Grant’s boorish roommate in Notting Hill), and internationally renowned bass-baritone opera singer Bryn Terfel’s name is said ter-VELL.  Many consonants are doubled in Welsh, as in the names Lloyd and Llewellyn, and doubled consonants may take an entirely unexpected sound, such as the almost impossible to represent “chthllan” (try to say the “ch” of Loch and a soft “th” of theme simultaneously with each other and with the “ll” sound that follows) that’s a vague approximation of the first syllable of the longest place name in Europe – Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (translation: “Saint Mary's Church in the hollow of the white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and the Church of St. Tysilio of the red cave”) – the 58-letter town name that can only be abbreviated on maps (as LlanfairPG), and was coined  to attract commercial attention in the 19th Century.  If you want to hear the name pronounced correctly, try this link: http://llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.co.uk/say.php#what.

Like so many things that have been self-consciously made up to forge a distinct Welsh identity, the revived 12th Century poetry and singing competition-cum-festival of professional bards, the Eisteddfod (pronounced eye-STED-fud), has become a source of national pride in the 20th Century, and like a Welsh “American Idol” has kicked up some prodigious talent, in the last decade proclaiming Bryn Terfel one of the inductees into the Gorsedd (“throne”) of Bards for services to Welsh Culture, among dozens of other bright lights.  What I find really wonderful is that the Gorsedd is a complete fabrication of the 18th Century fraud, forger, trickster and laudanum-addicted Welsh culture promoter Edward Williams, who styled himself Iolo Morganwg (YO-lo MORE-gann-IG), and by dint of his genius and charisma convinced the Welsh “scholars of his own time that it was a totally authentic institution,” as the National Museum Wales website puts it.

And I learned much of the above from Welsh-born and bred musician, singer, storyteller, artist and skeptic Christine Cooper, the most arresting performer in last week’s intimate Eisteddfod, which is well-produced these days by the Folk Music Society of New York in a Catskills resort.  This Eisteddfod is not a competition, but rather a festival of song and dance (eisteddfod essentially means “session,” a term we know from the Irish Celtic musical tradition meaning “musical jam,” but which translates roughly from the Welsh as “be seated”), and features traditional and revivalist musicians of many cultures.  Cooper played and sang Welsh and English songs and tunes, blues guitarist Andy Cohen received an award for services to American traditional music, ballads and sea chanteys of the British Isles and their American declensions were performed by some of the folk scene’s favorite sons and daughters of all ages, including my old friend Heather Wood, and we heard Breton French and Serbian singing, as well as an all-male family trio performing in Georgian, language of the former Soviet state in the Caucasus.  (I fell in love with the Georgian all-male polyphonic choirs when I was standing in a fourth Century stone church listening to the state television chorus singing Mass and folksongs, in part, because they reminded me of the massive Welsh choirs I’d heard years before.  Try the majestic Rustavi Choir’s versions of “Odoia” or “Chakrulo” on youtube to get a hint of what my friend describes as “a human bagpipe” of drones and continuous full tones in which some singers are pushing out and some singers are pulling in air so you never hear the breaths.  It will blow your head off!)

But Cooper, one of the Eisteddfod’s youngest performers, was definitely the weekend’s standout, squeezing in four short appearances over a scant 24 hours, on frailing banjo and long bowed fiddle tones, using live electronic looping as accompaniment to her unadorned, evocative head voice.  Cooper performed songs like “Two Sisters,” with its refrain “I’ll be true to my love/if my love will be true to me” from her 2009 release, Colli’r Eos, which you can find on myspace.com/ChristineCooperMusic, and “Y fwynlan o serch” from her new five-song EP, These Dreams Like Trees Are Dark And Twisting, which you can find from this link on her website, http://www.christinecooper.info, if you click on the “listen” link in the middle of the music page, or if you go straight to http://christinecooper.bandcamp.com.

For her final workshop of the weekend, “Magical Mystery Tour,” Cooper joined Andy Cohen and ballad singer Caroline Paton to tell stories of the supernatural and the scary weird.  Once again, Cooper’s performance was impossible to top.  Her final piece began when she set her fiddle to loop a couple of droning notes, over which she told the story of a beautiful girl whose beloved mother died, whose adored father remarried, and whose stepmother brought with her a young son, and intense jealousy of the little girl.  Well in this dark tale, the wicked stepmother chops off the little girl’s head with an axe, then cooks her remains into a stew and feeds the stew to her husband, the girl’s father.   The weeping stepbrother then gathers up the bones, puts them in a treasured box, and buries the box under a tree.  And that’s when the story gets really interesting.  The girl’s spirit comes back as a beautiful songbird, alights on the tree, and begins singing over and over “My stepmother killed me / my dear father ate me / my baby brother who I love / sits below and I sing above. . . .”  Singing this quatrain to a shoemaker and a watchmaker and a mill owner wins the bird lovely leather shoes, a gold pocket watch and chain, and a millstone, with which she avenges the little girl’s death.  As Cooper spoke and sang, weaving magic and mystery until she’d fashioned the whole cloth to its conclusion, I was transported back to an imagined 12th Century Eisteddfod, where Cooper, making her bardic bones on the back of this performance, would definitely win first prize, and a preferred seat at the King’s table. 
 2011 Leslie Berman     

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