Thursday, 14 July 2011

Small Nations Festival 2011: my first festival experience

I had a real blast at the Small Nations Festival 2011, which took place last weekend at Glangwenlais Farm, Cilycwm, near Llandovery. Aged 57, I was a festival virgin, on my own and terrified! My sat nav did not help by insisting there is no such place as Cilycwm...

However, once I got there, Small Nations 2011 proved mostly to be a marvellous experience. This totally subjective write-up will not even attempt to cover all the performances, but will focus on my particular favourites. The photos that follow are mine, but to give some of the flavour of the music, I'm including some videos I managed to find on YouTube (apart from the Mabon video, these are from other events).

Although naive to festivals, I knew:
festival = mud.
My new festive wellies lost their shine
seconds after I entered the camping field. 
The Small Nations Festival brings together performers and music from Wales and other small nations. Fittingly, the event kicked off early on Friday evening with a Welsh group playing music from another small nation: Klezmer Kollectiv from Cardiff. I had made extra sure to arrive in time to hear them, because klezmer is one of my favourite music genres. It's tough being the first act, but the Klezmer Kollectiv succeeded in getting a good proportion of the audience dancing and gave the festival an instant feel-good atmosphere.

Klezmer Kollektiv busking in Cardiff:

The Zingaros 
The Zingaros are from Argentina, but they specialise in gypsy music from Europe. It was impressive to hear them singing in Russian and Balkan languages. A unique twist in their performance is when they fuse the gypsy style with a typical Argentinian tango, as in this video of them playing El Choclo:

The Mordekkers

This fabulous Welsh group were an absolute joy to dance to. Their music, featuring Welsh, Breton and other Celtic tunes, is wild, haunting, and simultaneously ancient and ageless. Much of this quality comes from the Welsh pipes and shawm (?) played by the very talented Peni. I will definitely be looking out for the Mordekkers in future. 

 Sleep and the lack thereof
To my huge relief, my brand new and untried pop-up tent did indeed pop up and all I needed to do was secure it with eight pegs. Knowing the official programme was running until 2am, I was prepared for a late night. Unfortunately, some of the younger festival goers wanted an even later night, or no night at all. In a tent, even a conversation at normal volume can be disturbing, and shouting from tent to tent is definitely so. This widespread inconsiderate behaviour upset most of the older people I talked to at the festival. Given that two fields are used for tents, it might be useful in future to designate one as a "quiet" field with strict curfew so that visitors can segregate themselves into those who want some sleep and those who do not.

In addition to the two performance areas, other covered spaces were available, including the Reggae Café pictured here. This served up a non-stop menu of reggae music, which I enjoyed while feasting on an excellent wood-fired pizza.

Several food stalls provided a good variety of food to suit all tastes at fairly reasonable prices, and there was also a very good coffee shop. I spent much time browsing the several clothes stalls, which had some beautiful things available.

Little Rumba

I wish there was a video available of this band, because their sound is so distinctive. Little Rumba, from the Welsh Marches, consisting of guitar + voice, bass guitar, fiddle and saxophone, mix together a variety of styles into something quite unique. Their music ranges from lush to humorous to sardonic to nostalgic, often with words to match. The best parallel I can make is not with another band, but with the poetry of John Betjeman. Do not miss any chance you may have to see them.

Brazilian trumpeter, guitarist, percussionist and singer Tonyho Dos Santos joins with Punjabi tabla player Raj Padam and the result is a superb, predominantly Latin sound! I hope to have many other opportunities to enjoy them. Here is Bangsambra playing Chan Chan:

Other happenings 

Numerous other activities and spectacles were available at the Small Nations Festival. A number of practitioners of different healing techniques made their services available in the Healing Area at the far end of the camping field. The camping field also featured a large bonfire each evening. There was a jamming area in the main field and story-telling in the workshop tent. Workshops included yoga, tai chi, meditation, digeridoo drumming and dancing, singing, plus some craft workshops for kids. The fire dancers added drama to the main field at night. Dick Turner, founder of the Festival, took six of us on a fairly demanding walk into the hills for a couple of hours on Saturday morning

Jamie Smith's Mabon
I danced a lot at Small Nations, but I danced longest and hardest to the sounds of Mabon. This is music I adore! I've long been a fan of bands like Wolfstone from Scotland and Lúnasa from Ireland, and was thrilled when I discovered a while back that Wales has an equal contender in Mabon. The place was packed, the atmosphere electric. There was a truly spooky moment when the band were playing The Tale of Nikolai, The Dancing Bear and the heavens opened, as if crying for the poor captive bear forced to dance day after day.

Here is the more upbeat Galician Stylee recorded at the Small Nations Festival 2011 - those who know me may recognise one of the bobbing heads in the bottom left corner :)

A toast to the stewards, the true heroes of Small Nations Festival!
Throughout the festival, I had noticed how hard the stewards were working in keeping everything clean and safe. On Saturday night, I needed their help very urgently. Returning to my tent in the early hours, I found somebody fast asleep inside, in my sleeping bag. The stewards on duty responded immediately to my panicked request for assistance. It took three of them to pull the guy out. He turned out to be a gatecrasher, who became abusive and potentially violent when being escorted off the site. I cannot thank the stewards enough for their help and compassion. They took me into their own camping area, where I ended up being offered bed space in a caravan for the rest of the night so as not to have to use my sleeping bag. Not only that, the stewards insisted on packing up my stuff and moving it for me. Some of them came up to me the next day to see if I had recovered from the shock. A most unpleasant episode turned into one of the high points of the event due to these wonderful volunteers. Thank you Sándor, Angela, Jamie, Maureen and the rest of you who helped me and whose names I do not know.

Mose Fan Fan and band
Singer and guitarist Mose Fan Fan, originally from DR Congo, is one of the stars of the rumba Congolaise style. I love the Cuban influence, the syncopation, the intricate weaving of melody, the laid-backness of this music. Despite having had a very active day already, I found it impossible not to carry on dancing...

Here is a typical tune:

Drumming away
The programme was too packed for me to fully explore the workshop programme. I did attend one singing session and then a drumming and dance session on Sunday afternoon. After this finished, some of us took the drums to the main marquee, where we carried on playing until stewards told us something would be happening on stage shortly. The happening turned out to be a jamming session by various performers. Wonder of wonder, they started off by taking up some of our rhythms, and we were able to carry on playing alongside. This was yet another highlight of a brilliant event!


and us!


  1. What a wonderful commentary Krys - I'm really glad you got so much out of it. I Guess that whoever takes on marketing next year will want your permission to use it!
    Even though we did make a loss this year, the feedback has been so good that it still feels that Thelma and I are going out on a high note- a big thank you for your contribution to this.

    You might be interested in the online diary (I hate the word blog) I did a few years back:


  2. Thank you, Dick. I would be highly flattered to have any writing of mine used! It is a terrible shame about the loss. I hope this does not threaten the survival of the festival. I would hate my first experience of it to be my last one.