Erthyglau / Features:
- December, 1983
glare at you sullenly from the publicity brochure - inscrutable, threatening.
A typical rock group, leather-jacketed, scruffy-looking, definitely not
the sort you'd want your daughter associating with.
My daughter Elinor was only nine when they passed through St. Catharines, Ontario this summer, and she got on famously with them. "They" were Ceffyl Pren, one of Wales' newest Welsh-language rock groups, who called at our house mid-way through their pioneering North American tour (living as we do only ten miles from Niagara Falls we find ourselves a frequent stopping point for itinerant Welshmen). Forget the carefully cultivated image of menace. It's all a facade, something which is obviously de rigeur for heavy rock groups in this age of punk. The truth of the matter is that four nicer guys you couldn't wish to meet.
Ceffyl Pren means Wooden Horse. The original wooden horse, you'll recall, was built by the Greeks in order to infiltrate the defences of Troy. And it so happens that infiltration is what the group's tour was all about - infiltration of the Welsh rock scene by Ceffyl Pren itself! A first step, needless to say, towards conquest.
If undertaking a 10,000 mile round trip to America and playing in a foreign tongue to rock-sated audiences seems a strange way to gain recognition in Wales, think again. As Tim Lewis, 23, the group's drummer and chief spokesman, explained, "It's a long hard road to the top in Wales, especially if, like Ceffyl Pren, you're a Welsh-language group from the anglicized south-east. The Welsh scene is very much dominated by groups from the north, and we felt we had to do something really dramatic - like being the first Welsh-language group to tour North America - to claim our fair share of media attention."
If being based in Cardiff is Strike One against Ceffyl Pren, Strike Two is the fact that only one of the four - puckish lead singer and rhythm guitarist Gareth Morlais Williams, 22, from Abergele - is a native Welsh speaker. Tim has learned the language and the other two - lead guitarist "Tosh" Stuart, 21, and bass guitarist Pete Sawyer, 20 - are very much at the beginner stage. Though the group's commitment to the language is undeniable, both in their songs and in their determination to speak Welsh whenever possible, lack of fluency is an obstacle to acceptance.
And the fatal Strike Three? Well, if the success of Ceffyl Pren's visit to the New World is anything to go by, a thumping Home Run is far more likely! They may not have filled baseball stadiums like the Rolling Stones, but they received an excellent reception wherever they played - in casinos, taverns, clubs (including an all-black club on Manhattan's Lower East Side), camps and even a lakeside bandshell. Enthused Gareth, "The response has been tremendous. Two or three encores have not been unusual, and we've even had the audience joining in on some of the simpler choruses like 'Roc ar y Radio'. Obviously Welsh rock 'n' roll is a universal language!"
Success did not come easy, however, for the tour was not problem-free. A shipment of the glossy tour brochure, "Ceffyl Pren Ar Garlam" (Wooden Horse at the Gallop) failed to reach New York in time (was the group anticipating some such disaster as it glowered at the camera?). The concert schedule, which had seemed so watertight beforehand, sprung a few awkward leaks, and some engagements were in doubt until the very last minute.
The worst problem was the grueling itinerary, which took Ceffyl Pren from New York City to Washington, up through Pennsylvania and New York state to London, Ontario and back again, all in the space of two weeks. Fortunately they were in the capable hands of their amiable tour manager, Emanuel Lantzos, a Welshman of Greek extraction from Barry. He drove while the others slept, and he himself slept during the concerts. Occasionally - very occasionally, judging by their appetites when they reached St. Catharines - they all found time to eat.
Ceffyl Pren has now been in existence for a year and a half. Its first engagement was at the 1982 National Eisteddfod in Swansea. Since then they have given concerts throughout Wales (including the 1983 Eisteddfod in Llangefni), made a number of videos and appeared several times on TV. That elusive first record is still to come, however, as is the challenge of filling the 2000-seat St. David's Centre in Cardiff for a concert in the New Year. If the determination which brought them to North America is any guide, they'll have no problem. Indeed, if we only lived in Wales, I'd buy Elinor a ticket!
As it is, she'll have to wait until their next visit, which is in the cards for the not-too-distant future - just as soon as they've disposed of that side-trip to Australia that Tim was talking about...
Pren - a hard rocking modern band that keeps the ancient Welsh language
Most British rock bands find breaking into the North American market a difficult and intimidating proposition But for Ceffyl Pren, a Welsh band that can boast number one records, successful videos, and regularly sold-out concerts, the task would appear even more complicated.
The complication lies primarily in the language. And it is not simply a question of difficult-to-understand accents. For Ceffyl Pren, a hard rocking outfit from Cardiff, performs in Welsh.
The idea of a modern band choosing to perform and record in the ancient Welsh language may seem odd to many people, but Wales has a thriving Welsh language rock scene, with its own national charts and several very good bands.
('Ceffyl Pren is, one of the undisputed stars of the Welsh language rock community. Their songs such as "Roc ar y Radio" ("Rock on the Radio") dominate the Welsh language charts; they are regulars on local radio and television (both Welsh and English language services), and have a large, active fan club. In fact Ceffyl Pren's fans are renowned for their loyalty and enthusiasm, following the band around the country, copying their style of dress, and eagerly anticipating their every project.
In its three years of existence, Ceffyl Pren has racked up some impressive professional credits. For example, they have played at St. David's Hall in Cardiff; the first time Wales' most prestigious venue had booked a Welsh rock band. And lead singer Garth Morlais was involved with "Dwylo Dros y Mor" ("Hands Across the Ocean"), the Welsh Band Aid recording. In addition, the group is in line to record the official Welsh World Cup song, should Wales qualify for Mexico.
From the beginning, when Morlais and Lewis formed Ceffyl Pren, the group has been very much a "do-it-yourself" venture. As Tim Lewis explains, "From the start Gareth and I sat down and worked out a plan. We decided what we wanted the group to achieve and how we would go about achieving it. Then we set about making our plan work. We put a lot of emphasis on the marketing end and on making people aware of who and what we were. We presented ourselves as a complete package, handling everything, including promotion, ourselves. This was going against the Welsh rock establishment in some instances but it worked. And once we got started, we let the music speak for itself."
that the songs would be in Welsh was one of the first decisions Lewis
and Morlais made. But as Morlais explains, it really was not a difficult
decision to make.
Lewis also believes strongly in the Welsh language. "Welsh culture is not just a thing of the past," he explains. "The language is alive and vital today and it is only natural that it should be used for rock. It has to reach the young, and rock music is the best way."
Ceffyl Pren, and groups like them, have proven that Welsh rock music is viable. Their success in Wales is ample evidence. But Lewis believes that the music can have greater appeal.
Reaching a wider audience is the next logical step in Ceffyl Pren's progress. Having gone almost as far as they can in their homeland the group would like to reach other parts of the world, especially North America.
In fact, Ceffyl Pren have already visited North America twice (once in 1983, and a brief U.S. Canada tour this summer). And they would like to come back "in force" as soon as next year, if they can get some good bookings or adequate sponsorship.
Lewis admits that getting dates in North America is somewhat complicated because of the language; although, as he comments, it shouldn't be. "We've shown that language is, not a problem," he explains. "The music crosses all barriers. For example, we sell a lot of records to Welsh kids who can't speak the Welsh language. We are simply a rock band, and once we get on stage, we can entertain and win over any audience."
is currently investigating possibilities for Ceffyl Pren's next North
American tour and would like to hear from any individual or organization
interested in booking the group. (Interested parties can reach Tim Lewis
at Ceffyl Pren (address).
Judging by their impressive credits and, of course, the music itself, Ceffyl Pren should have little trouble winning North American fans.
In the meantime however, Ceffyl Pren is preparing to embark on a Welsh tour. Then the group hopes to take a few weeks off. For Ceffyl Pren, this will be the first real holiday in three years; a brief rest before they set out to conquer new worlds.
* Ceffyl Pren was the first Welsh language rock band to tour North America ('83 and '85) and the first to tour the Far East (Hong Kong and Bangkok in '87).
**Once the band landed on a crowded school playing field in a helicopter to publicise the first of two headline appearances at Cardiff's St David's Hall.