Although Welsh fiddling dates back to the 17th century, it is still an undiscovered style. Even in Wales, Welsh fiddling is overshadowed by the more ancient vocal and harp traditions. But thanks to the efforts of musicians like the KilBride brothers, the secret music of Wales is becoming more widely known. The KilBride Brothers are a trio based in Cardiff in South Wales. Daniel, the eldest, plays guitar, and his younger brothers Bernard and Gerard both play fiddle. Their first CD, entitled KilBride, was released in 1997 on the Welsh label Flach Tradd. In November 1998, I visited the KilBride brothers in Cardiff. After a delicious lunch at Gerard's house we headed to a local pub to talk about their music over a pint or three of local ale.
The KilBride brothers grew up in a musical family. "Our folks had a band and they played local folk clubs," explains Bernard. "They were part of the folk revival of the '60s and in South Wales they were the big movers and shakers. They would go around England collecting all sorts of weird tunes. A lot of the material that is now considered native to South Wales came from them."
When they were growing up their house was full of guitars, mandolins, concertinas, hammer dulcimers and penny whistles. Even more, their house was full of musicians. The brothers described it as a "drop-in center for all of the local folkies, hippies and assorted weirdos. There were all night sessions and just music playing constantly." With musicians to inspire them and lots of instruments to practice on, the boys were soon having a go at the assorted pianos and ocarinas.
One day their father brought home the instrument that two of his sons were later to play. Gerard begins the tale. "The story is that one day our father went out to do the shopping and he came back with a fiddle instead. There must have been a lot of shopping to do in those days. Our mother was not very impressed and he drove us kids to distraction trying to learn how to play the thing." Bernard continues, "We were living in a caravan at the time. The living room had a fold-down double bed and we slept in the back in bunk beds. When it was time for him to practice we were sent to the back, Mum was sent to the kitchen, and he would sit on the bed and go screech, screech, screech for hours at a time."
Before long the brothers were appearing on stage. "I was made to be a Morris man when I was a kid," says Daniel. "Our father is half Irish and half Scottish but he lived in Sussex and grew up as an Englishman. There was Morris dancing in the village he grew up in and he always said, 'My eldest boy is going to grow up and do the Morris.' So I did the Morris." Bernard and Gerard soon followed their brother into the world of Morris dancing. Gerard says, "He taught all of us to dance. Most other kids would have soccer uniforms. We had Morris bells and sticks with rattling bottle tops and Fairport Convention badges. We were like a folk circus."
Although the brothers played in pick-up ceilidh bands for weddings and still played at various sessions and jams, they didn't really consider themselves a band. They did have a one year residency at a pub pretending to be an Irish band, but it wasn't until they were asked to make a CD for Flach Tradd that they began to think of themselves as a group. The CD has been well received and they have been getting invitations to play at festivals all across the United Kingdom and Europe. They are looking forward to traveling. As Gerard explains, "Musicians were always the most traveled members of society. It was the same three hundred years ago as it is today. If they were any good they would go from one village to the next playing a wedding or whatever." And one of the advantages of travel is the opportunity to expand your repertoire. "If you meet another musician and his tunes are any good, you can steal them. Of course that's been going on forever. A good tune is like a virus. It's going to spread itself around." Bernard continues, "We pick up most of our tunes in sessions so we don't always have the proper titles for them." And Daniel finishes, "We can never remember them correctly, so as a matter of course we always play our own versions of them."
But there has been some grumbling amongst the purists. "The further north you go the less likely we are to be accepted as Welsh," says Gerard. "But we just play the music we want to and try not to be bothered by it. Some people say we can't play Welsh music because we don't speak Welsh. We just say tell people like that, 'Well, we can play it better than you.'" Daniel elaborates on the difference between North and South Wales: "Of course we grew up in South Wales which is primarily English-speaking. And we live in Cardiff which is a port town. There are are also Chinese, Ethiopian and Yemenite communities here. Sailors from all over the world have been coming here for years. You have to be open to dealing with strangers or you really can't survive here. The towns up north are more isolated and they don't trust strangers very much." And as for the accusation of sounding Irish? "Since before the Roman times the Irish have been coming here. As raiders in the early days and traders in the last few hundred years. Of course there is going to be a strong Irish influence in Cardiff."
Daniel continues, "It's funny, but a lot of the non-harp tunes in the current revival were reintroduced into the tradition by our parents. Our Mum used to go to the library and sneak out an old Welsh music book under her coat -- it's the only copy in the world and Xerox a page or two a day. She helped to expand the repertoire by the most clandestine methods. But we don't see ourselves as musical missionaries. We are not trying to preserve a tradition. We are just playing the music we like. It's the music we grew up with."
[For the full text of this article, as well as the tune "Dawns Forys" as played by the KilBride Brothers, purchase the Spring 1999 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Michael Simmons is co-editor of The Fretboard Journal (www.fretboardjournal.com) and the author of Taylor Guitars: 30 Years of a New American Classic.]