When Gareth Bonello and Ben McManus, two musicians from the small but culturally rich nation of Wales, sat down last August to chat on Zoom, the COVID-19 pandemic was four months in, and they were already frustrated. Little did they know that the dearth of live gigs and session work would drag on into another summer.
I had asked them to speak not only about what they were doing to keep their music fresh during the pandemic, but how their connections to our Center and to other musicians across Wales and the world affected their practice. They punctuated their discussion with three musical offerings.
Gareth, aka The Gentle Good, grew up in a Welsh-speaking family in the capital of Cardiff and began performing Welsh folk songs in the early 2000s. He was one of a delegation of singer-songwriters chosen to perform and discuss their music at the 2009 Wales Smithsonian Cymru program of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
Ben grew up in the coal mining valleys of South Wales but developed a fascination (bordering on obsession, as he’ll admit) for Appalachian old-time music. He was able to pursue his long-standing dream of learning this music from the source during a year-long stint as an intern in our Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections in 2016. During weekends and any other time he could steal away from archival duties, he visited the hills of West Virginia and North Carolina, meeting some of his idols and their successors.
In this conversation, Gareth shared his impressions of the Festival, how his participation cemented old and formed new connections to fellow Welsh folk musicians, and how listening to musicians from the other major music program, which featured Latino traditions, moved him to tears.
Ben recounted his internship experience, remembering the power of listening to historic performances of some of his favorite old-time musicians as he was learning to digitize reel-to-reel tapes to make them more accessible to the world. This led to a general discussion of the nature of working with archival material versus interaction with other live musicians.
They also discussed what they have done during the pandemic, but they didn’t dwell on the topic for long. The conversation took a sidetrack to a remote portion of India where Gareth spent time researching Khasi music and learning from musicians in Meghalaya for his PhD dissertation. And then it veered back to the Appalachia, where Ben had contributed remotely to a public radio project exploring cultural connections between the mountainous regions of Wales and West Virginia.
The resulting recording, which we offer here in its entirety, is a powerful testimony to the way musicians draw inspiration from each other across time and space—whether as close as the neighborhood pub or half a world away, recorded at a recent Folklife Festival or found in centuries-old manuscripts. Both these folk musicians, like many others, are also researchers and educators, working to make their musical encounters from around the globe and their own home country more accessible to others far and wide.
I recently caught up with Gareth and Ben to see how they and fellow musicians have fared during the intervening months. They indicated both hope and despair. On one hand, both have found ways to share music online and have had time to work on new albums. Ben finished an album, called Old Goginan, that brings together influences from Appalachian and Welsh traditional music and adds interesting new spins.
“I’m including some original banjo tunes I’ve written which have been inspired by the countryside of Mid-Wales,” he wrote. “Most relevant of all in relation to the Smithsonian, there’s a tune I recorded straight to seven-inch record at the Songbyrd Cafe in D.C. back in 2016 in an old Voice-O-Graph booth, which was also mastered by [Folklife archivist] Dave Walker in his office at the Rinzler Archives. It sounds really old and scratchy which is great.”
Ben also completed his master’s degree at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth during the pandemic, and Gareth his PhD from Cardiff University. They still work from and are confined mostly to home, although now that warm weather has arrived, Ben plans outdoor meetups with musician friends on the beautiful beach near his home.
Both consider themselves lucky to engage in work they can do from home, and that their jobs keep them connected to archival collections and other musicians. Many Welsh musicians who previously made their living from their music have had to take on other jobs to make ends meet; Gareth reports that the viola player who used to play in his quartet now drives a supermarket delivery van.
While the pandemic has allowed for much introspective soul-searching and connecting through time and space, it has also reinforced the need for physical connections.
“For me it has been a case of a continual longing for session playing, as I usually went to a few traditional sessions per month—old-time, Irish, Welsh,” Ben wrote. “It has made me realize how important the physical meetups of the music communities are for traditional players and how much it has affected people’s happiness through socializing.”
Gareth fears that many musicians, having lost that vital live connection, are giving up on their music: “I think a lot of musicians may never come back to the gigging and creative life after all this, especially as it was never easy even before the pandemic.”
Although pubs are beginning to reopen, larger music venues remain shuttered until further notice. Gareth and Ben look forward to returning to the live performances that feed their creativity.
“Ultimately,” Gareth says, “I hope that after the pandemic, the arts community can come together to support those individuals, groups, and creative organizations that have had a difficult time to keep creating and to bring art to their communities once more.”
Discover examples of Gareth and Ben’s other pandemic projects through the links below.
- CoDI one2one, pairing Welsh composers with members of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (hear Gareth’s composition)
- Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, sponsored by the National Library of Wales, connecting musicians to archival resources to inspire new compositions (hear Gareth’s and Ben’s contributions—a 1916 speech by Welsh politician David Lloyd George inspired the latter and the quote in the title of this article)
- Inside Appalachia, a West Virginia Public Radio podcast exploring the region’s connection to Wales (watch Ben’s performance)
Betty Belanus is a folklorist, curator, and education specialist at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She curated the Wales Smithsonian Cymru at the 2009 Smithsonian Folklife Festival and hopes to visit Wales again when possible.