As the 2023 festival season approaches its end, the irrepressible Julia Deli is still front and centre, in north Wales for Ara Deg: three days of leftfield music co-programmed by the Bethesda venue Neuadd Ogwen and local boy Gruff Rhys.
We’re between worlds again in north Wales’ Bethesda for festival Ara Deg, three and a half miles from the sea and climbing the slopes of Snowdonia’s northernmost mountains: behind, the reflective light of the coast, while in front moody clouds cover the heads of the peaks in an otherwise dazzlingly blue sky. It’s a setting as fascinating, changeable and full of ‘wow’ moments as Ara Deg Festival itself.
Ara Deg 2023 kicks off with Italian experimentalism
Gruff Rhys grew up in the town and says, of his success, “I wouldn’t be in this position if it wasn’t for our youth club, with a drum machine in the corner.” Ara Deg finds him giving back in ample armfuls, coordinating with Neuadd Ogwen’s Dilwyn Llwyd to bring a full palette of extraordinary musicians to Bethesda’s historic hall and theatre.
The last few years have seen stellar artists, talks and films find their way here – most remarkably by sea, in the case of Quinquis, who perform on Thursday night. Emilie Tiersen travelled from the island of Ushant as part of a tour with her husband Yann Tiersen, on their yacht named after Saint Ninnog, part of their commitment to low-impact living. Singing in Breton, Tiersen’s electronic minimalism creates an atmospheric airiness, her songs always coming to a melodic and emotional resolution.
Following Quinquis, Italian experimental artists Permanent Draft, aka Fanny Chiarello and Valentina Magaletti, mix vocal techniques and effects with jazz instrumentalism and samples of dialogue, with sweet, ambient oddness and enveloping soundscapes resulting. Here with This Is The Kit at last year’s Ara Deg, Rozi Plain has been performing with (at least!) three bands this year, and reckons she’ll have played 160 gigs by the years’ end. Writing intimate, lushly-layered songs with her light touch, there’s both whimsy and knowingness in the mood she invokes.
Bethesda is on the River Ogwen, and its tributaries criss-cross the streets, so the sound of running water provides a sonic backdrop throughout the town. Take one of the many paths that snake between terraces to the uplands and their hidden waterfalls, the woodlands are filled with whinberry bushes and native yellow jasmine like the Ancient Forests, and the views are stunning at every turn. Above us, Llyn Ogwen, deep, still and cold-looking, is a reputed site for the Lady Of The Lake – sword, samite and all.
Friday: reinventing the triple harp & Yann Tiersen
Back in Neuadd Ogwen for Gwen Sion’s CatHead, opening Friday’s bill, we find her deep ambience woven from keyboards, field recordings and handmade instruments – lyres made from twisted branches, bowed tubular bells, slices of tree with pickups attached – creating prehistoric undertones descriptive of sites and dolmen local to her home in nearby Rachub. She’s being mentored by Brian Eno, using art and film in her fragile, nature-inspired work.
The triple harp sounds so at home on the stage here as Machynlleth’s Cerys Hafana brings archival Welsh tunes to a new light: take Comet 1858, a seven-page epic poem by Benjamin Jenkins, condensed into a rousing, contemporary tune. Hafana’s own complex compositions and the early Hen Garol Haf are united by unique timings and flourishes that have become her signature.
There’s a painterly quality to Yann Tiersen’s music, found in the soundtracks to Amelie and Goodbye Lenin, which builds a very positive and sunlit world. Citing punk and classical music as early influences, he’s drawn energy and fluidity from those sources, and we imagine pristine expanses of nature, with maybe a sense of his ocean journeys.
Saturday: record fairs and wild musical walks with Gruff Rhys
Saturday at Neuadd Ogwen, and a record fair’s in progress, aptly timed for the showing of The Lost Record: a filmic diatribe against the blending-out of culture and society, by Ian F Svenonius and Alexandra Cabral. Its retro-futuristic look (Cabral studied art and is a photographer and director) and writer Svenonius’ uncompromising leftist philosophy make a hypnotic and compelling case along with their score. In the following talk, titled Against The Written Word, Svenonius continued these themes in a discussion about his book, underlining the “subversive nature of language, to free or enslave”.
Over 60 of us set off on ‘a short musical walk in the Wilds’ around Bethesda: starting off in single file through the high street, crossing the Ogwen and finding ourselves perched on huge, mossy boulders having a bardic experience! It’s here that Martin Dawes, local poet and former Young People’s Laureate for Wales, spins three tales for us, of the river beside us and the lives of the quarrymen, accompanied by double bass. As we walk on, we are sown the presumed spot where the sleeve for Meic Stevens’ Gog was photographed, and then on to Bethesda’s first primary school, later the site of the aforementioned drum machine and an early rehearsal space for Gruff Rhys’ pre-Super Furry Animals band Ffa Coffi Pawb.
The old Penrhyn Quarry has a peaceful feeling today, but between 1900 and 1903, the longest industrial strike in British history took place, with workers eventually starved out despite townswomen travelling around Britain to raise funds and awareness. Sat strumming on the quarry’s slate wall as we round the corner, Gruff’s poignant song guides us back to the present and back to town.
At the FIC pub, Aberdyfi’s Catrin O’Neill (also of Allan Yn Y Fan) sings with a clear folk voice; Hap A Damwain, from Colwyn Bay, blend rich vocals with quirky experimental pop and leftfield instrumentalism; and Ffenest’s George Amor and Ben Ellis supply mellow, jazz-tinged chords and close harmonies. Gruff Rhys’ evening session with The Seismic Retrofits trials some new tunes among established favourites, and we’re blissful in the warmth and good humour of their sound and ethos.
Having engaged us with visuals and wordsmithery earlier in the day, Svenonius and Cabral’s Escape-ism now drive the ideology home, the former play-acting the rock god to the latter’s ice-cool bass and syndrum. Shaking up our sensibilities, they later share why it’s so necessary.
Ian: “Under the present enforced neoliberalism – an enemy to subcultures – we’re meant to have the same values, emotions, conventions and desires. We’re against this monoculture. The digital paradigm invites everyone to be part of the conversation; access to music is free, and ubiquitous, but that means it’s lost most of its magical power. Rock stars used to be valued for having social opinions, not seeking the fantasy carrot dangled before them by the digital elite.”
Alexandra: “Spotify and the like undervalue musicians: as we can’t make money from our art form, many chase the dollar that can be made from advertising and product placement on TV shows, which starts to inform their creative process. There’s no shame, it’s hard to resist it – what else are musicians supposed to do to survive?”
Ian: “It can get depressing, but at the root, most people do crave something original. Curators pick ‘art’ for everybody, for the corporate festivals, whereas rock’n’roll used to be democratic, run by the people.”
Alexandra: “We used to have critical thinking… I remember my dad reading the paper when I was young, agreeing with some of the commentaries, and disagreeing with others. Now we’re supposed to choose an allegiance and agree with everything that’s said.”
The punk ethos is still alive and roaring – Svenonius is writing a chapter for Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo’s upcoming book on art, and Cabral has other film projects up her sleeve to challenge the accepted normalcy.
Formed in 1994, San Francisco’s Deerhoof has always been ahead of the game with their punk/noise/art sound and anti-capitalist stance. Announcing his hometown is Bethesda in the USA, exuberant drummer Greg Saunier thrashes out beats, guitarists John Dietrich and Ed Rodrigues make a colossal sound, and Satomi Matsuzaki’s honeyed vocals are at triumphant odds to the infectious, powerful blast.
Ara Deg 2023 wrap-up: a Welsh festival with cross-border appeal
As the festival wrapped up with DJ Graham Erickson’s set, it was time to reflect on the fun we’d had and what the weekend had meant to us all. For Paul from Liverpool, it’s his first time at Ara Deg, joining his more seasoned friends. “Super good vibes, an amazing time. I’ve done two months of self-study in Welsh, and it’s good being able to use it here – 80% of the town is first-language Welsh-speaking. I’ve met great people at the festival and round the town. I can’t wait to come back!”
Throughout the weekend, Dilwyn Llwyd has been hands-on virtually everywhere you look, problem-solving and giving appreciation as well as running Radio Ara Deg. A Bala native, he plays in Yucatan, ran festivals in an amphitheatre near Caernarfon, and got involved in the Tabernacl project which rescued Neuadd Ogwen 10 years ago.
“There must be something about our venue that makes people drive from cities an hour away in England to see artists here year-round,” he says, “and something that makes the artists want to come too.”’ And the concept keeps growing, keeps expanding our mindsets, keeps it all very real: comforting in its traditional values, radical in its aspirations.
The outer world reflects the inner again, as we leave that changeable landscape, the monumental skies, and the stoic Pesdan positivity that runs through the heart and blood of Ara Deg and its many makers.
Ara Deg, various venues, Bethesda, Thurs 24-Sun 26 Aug
words JULIA DELI photos SION GLYN