Gruff Rhys on Ara Deg 2022 "it's healthy to bring people together" 1

Gruff Rhys on Ara Deg 2022 “it’s healthy to bring people together”

Musician, composer, producer, filmmaker and author Gruff Rhys once more takes on the role of curator for the Ara Deg festival in his hometown of Bethseda, North West Wales over this August Bank Holiday weekend. In collaboration with the artist-led Neuadd Ogwen venue where the bulk of the performances will take place, the Super Furry Animals frontman gathers together a handpicked selection of artists from across Wales, and the world. The long weekend of four nights and five shows is relatively lowkey he tells me, over the phone from Cardiff, the audience size restricted to 400 to keep things manageable. ‘That’s probably enough in Bethesda,’ he jokes of the rural quarry town, with a population of under 5000.  
The way he describes Ara Deg, it sounds like a take-your-foot-off-the-pedal, relax, kick back and let it flow kind of event. No pressure. Different from the conventional festival format which, I suggest, is not unlike a buffet. 30, 45 minutes then it’s on to the next. No time to reflect, breathe. Sometimes you like a good dinner rather than a snack. ”(Ara Deg) a series of gigs, a chance to see some bands in buildings and maybe a bit less of a conveyor belt than some festivals,’ says Gruff. ‘Hopefully they can play for a while, and combat festival fatigue.’  

This is the third in-person festival, 2020’s event was inevitably virtual, which meant we bore witness to Rhys performing in a shallow stream, water running over his wellington boots as he sang, guitar plugged into an amp, leads underwater. A mildly terrifying image to those watching at home. ‘Technology’s moved on,’ he assures, insisting it a risk-free endeavour.  He will be performing this year thankfully indoors, in Capel Jeruslem. Bethesda is a town of chapels; the town itself is named after one. It also has  a rich history of culture and political activism. 2,800 striking quarry workers in Bethesda at the beginning of 20th century involved in industrial action for three years, the longest in trade union history.
‘It’s still talked about. There’s a lot of culture came out of the strike, they sent choirs all over the world to play concerts and raise money for the strikers. There was a famous poster people put in the window .’ (“Nid oes Bradwr yn y ty hwn” /“there is no traitor in this house”)
Quarry owner Lord Penrhyn treated the workers terribly, and  he also owned plantations in the Caribbean. ‘The family wealth based around some bad things. Bad vibes all round.’
The long dispute was primarily concerned with loosening the authority of the trade union, alongside pay and working conditions. Does he sense a connection between now and back then? ‘I don’t want to trivialize that era in any way, and the slate quarry is still active but hopefully we’re at a time where people are paying attention to trade unions again, Mick Lynch who is so eloquent and finally it’s great seeing people speaking sense appearing on TV…’

The Neuadd Ogwen arts centre is community run, formed by musicians and creatives of Bethesda more than 20 years ago. It sounds like the head count of musicians in the area was historically and still is higher than average, and busily constructive with it. Way back when, they cobbled together to buy a chapel to rehearse, perform and record. A fire put a stop to that temporarily; eventually the Tabernacl  committee were given an old cinema by the council and haven’t looked back.

Alongside Gruff, fellow gold standard home-grown Welsh-speaking heroes play shows at the festival. Newcomer drill rapper Sage Todz is a local lad from another traditional slate quarry village about two valleys away. ‘His tunes have exploded in Wales certainly this year. He did a track for the Welsh football team as well.’ His inclusion emphasises the strength of the current MOBO scene in Wales. Adwaith whose incredible 2022 continues with the release of second album ‘Bato Mato’ a few weeks ago and IDLES picking them to play the Glastonbury Festival, will appear.  ‘I think it’s the first time they’ve play Bethesda, they finally made it to Bethesda!’ Carwyn Ellis & Rio 18 feature as well. He doesn’t play with his band that much so we’re dead excited that he’s coming,’ says Gruff.

With Welsh Music Prize winners and shortlisted artists on the bill, and the longlist for the 2022 prize announced – which includes the Mercury nominated ‘Tresor‘ by Gwenno alongside independent grassroots artists – just this week it feels appropriate to ask what Gruff as the first recipient of the award thinks of its value.  ‘Prizes, you’ve got to take them with a pinch of salt. Music isn’t a competition. But they’re really useful culturally to highlight music. Specifically music from Wales is often overlooked when it comes to things like the Mercury Prize for example. There’s no point waiting around for them to pick up on Welsh music, for example. You might as well have a Welsh equivalent. People do pick up on records that maybe haven’t travelled previously. That’s the value of it, I think. That can only be a good thing.’

Ellis has written about the Brazilian albums and artists informing the Rio18 project in the handbook accompanying festival. The publication compliments the Swyn Sain (The sights of Sain) panel held on Sat 27 August, the illustrators, screen printers and photographers who designed and created some of Sain records most “out there” logos and designs includes never before seen band images, posters, clippings designs. Stuart Neesham, Jac Jones, Robert Eames and Garry Stuart take part in the Q&A. Sain is widely viewed as the first Welsh record label to be independent from companies outisde the country, and formed the blueprint for Welsh labels since. 

An aim of the festival is to create new musical communities and strengthen bonds, but in an natural, organic manner. Ara Deg stretches to the truly international. Soweto’s BCUC  (‘A very powerful band and really unique’) with whom Gruff recorded along with his Pang! collaborator Muzi, This Is The KitRyley WalkerSnapped Ankles, Guinean Troupe Djéliguinet, led by multi-instrumentalist, Fatoumata Kouyaté, and Bogota’s La Perla, bringing the sounds of Caribbean Colombiav all appear.
‘I think it’s healthy, at a time when it’s increasingly hard for people to get visas into the country. It’s harder for us to travel to get out of this weird island. I think it’s a healthy thing to bring people together. Bethesda is a working quarry town. It’s also beautiful and a heartland of the Welsh language as well, and interesting place for people to come. It’s nice to invite people to Bethesda.’ That longstanding sense of community and forging bonds played a substantial role in the formation of Super Furry Animals. When Gruff was growing up bands like Maffia Mr Huws played all over Wales, showing what could be achieved. ‘There was a big scene of guitar bands in the 1980s that were inspiring for me starting out as a musician. They also helped to teach young people how to play drums and things, rock schools in youth clubs. I met Daf from Supper Furries at a drum workshop put together by local bands and DJs when I was 13. That scene is responsible for the venue itself. There’s a lot of people involved and it’s good to bring people from all over to the venue.’

Live music aside, Ara Deg has a record fair, talks and London’s Soho Radio turns into Radio Ara Deg from August 26-28 10am to 6pm.  ‘Ara Deg’s central planning committee has designated the word ‘Ymgolli’ as the keyword of this year’s festival. Which means: ‘to lose one’s self’ and to inspire in a lasting way – the artists, audience and the place nourishing each other – is one of the hopes for Ara Deg as well. ‘It’s totally informal. And you don’t know what can happen. But it’s worth trying these things out!’

Ara Deg takes place 26 – 28 Aug. Those performing are:

Thu 26 Aug BCUC AdwaithSage Todz
Fri 26 Aug This Is The KitRyley Walker

Fri 26 Aug Hanan Issa – Darren Chetty – Grug Muse (afternoon)
Sat 27 Aug Gruff Rhys – Melin Melyn (afternoon)
Sat 27 Aug Carwyn Ellis & Rio 18 Troupe DjéliguinetFfrancon
Sun 28 Aug Snapped AnklesLa PerlaCosmic Dog Fog

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.