Thursday, July 12, 2007

A Llangollen field-day

During the day, I enjoyed dividing my time between the choral competition in the Eisteddfod tent and wandering around the field, watching some of the offstage performances being given by dance and music groups, usually warming up for their competitive appearances or just relaxing and having a good time. It was marvellous to see a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks perform a ceremonial dance, with a couple huge alpenhorn style instruments and percussionist accompanying. Then they involved scores of visiting school children in learning the basic steps of the first section of the dance with the help of an interpretor. There was a spirited performance from a group of Turkish Kurds, accompanied by a wild shawn-like instrument and a melodious drummer - a very tight-knit group of young people sparking with pride. There were three Banghra groups, all immaculately and vividly dressed, and radiating friendliness. One group was British and the other two Indian. They all had to be diverted to the back of the pavilion at a later hour, because the noise of their drumming in the area used for dancing displays outdoors was too close for comfort to the main pavilion, and the noise intruded upon the choirs. One piece of percussion per group was no problem, but half a dozen or more, was too much. You can't do Bangra quietly !
There was an amazing French a capella singing group of middle aged fellers on the S4C stage, back of the pavilion, accompanied only by the sound of one of their members seated and drumming on the stage in his lumberjack boots. The accent took me by surprise at first, and I thought they were a group of Wallonian miners, from their 'aged' denim attire, but no, they were Canadian. There was also a superb American Blue Grass band, the real thing, and an African dance workshop, again drawing scores of schoolkids. There were so many children there in school uniform. The Eisteddfod is evidently a major summer excursion for North Walian schools, whether they are there to compete or not. It is a great educational experience, no matter what age you are.
I bumped into a very busy Gwyn Williams the artistic director, whom I'd met last month at a meeting of FCCB grant recipients meeting down the Bay in Cardiff. He told me that the Eisteddfod site could only take 9,000 people at a time. It looked full enough to me. I guess the real throughput is much higher - people drift in and out during the course of a long day, as I did in fact.
Rather than join the long queues for lunch I went into Llangollen and was served fish and chips in a takeaway in as much time as it took to cook the fresh fish. I made my way over to St Collen's neat churchyard, and sat at the foot of the churchyard cross in the sun, just making a brief appearance in the midst of an overcast day. Just as I finished, a lady 'churchwatcher' turned up and opened the building to visitors, so I was able to look around and inspect the wonderful fifteenth century mediaeval roof, with large angels on every beam end, gracing the nave.
It's probably twenty five years since I last saw the roof. What most interested me on this occasion was not its religious symbolism or the evident artistry, but the high quality of the conservation work that has been done on it in the years since I last saw it. (Well I would, wouldn't I? with one of Cardiff's on-going major conservation sites as my workplace.)
My generation, back in the seventies, exuded moral indignation about squandering money on preserving all this old stuff when the church needed money for mission. In retrospect, I'm glad I had no real say in it. So many people have had reason to come and look as I did, and wonder, place themselves in the bigger human timsecale of life. Many others too have worked together, and made a little community across the religious-secular divide around their shared pride in this small piece of spiritual and cultural history. Especially in this age of mass produced ephemeral and throwaway things, we need to work at transmitting to those who come after us evidence of what unites simple craftsmen working with their hands in every age can achieve that is lastingly beautful. Seeing the stone carver at work on a new statue of Our Lady of Tintern during our parish pilgrimage last month made me think of this too.
We bought tickets for the evening's open concert, given by a selection of Eisteddfod performers - choirs, dancers and musicians, starting with a parade of representatives from all the countries taking part, more than two dozen, filling the stage. The final four of the folk instrumentalist competition was played live as part of the concert. A twelve year old soloist from Hong Kong performing on a Chinese zither with the skill and expression of a great virtuoso got first place, deservedly, but my favourite was actually the Bishop Anstey High School for Girls steel pan ensemble, from Trinidiad & Tobago. They'd accompanied the schools choir earlier in the day, and were superbly tuneful and tight in their performance.
There was also a spectacular and youthful folk dance group from Russia and another fine Trinidadian dance group with an amazing drummer to conclude the evening. Rather strangely, their second and final dance was done to recorded music, and whilst it was spectacular, the switch from live music made the whole thing anti-climactic. Such an odd production choice. I wonder why?

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