Timeless and timely, Gareth Bonello of The Gentle Good is taking the tradition of Welsh folk music to speak of the people’s struggles in a globalized world.
“‘Suffer the Small Birds’ is encouraging the people in power to listen to the small birds but also encouraging the small birds to sing so they actually have something to listen to,” he says.
It’s a misquote from Shakespeare, ‘the eagle does not suffer the little birds to sing.’ Winton Churchill rephrased the quote after WWII, “when the Allies were deciding who was going to run which bits. There was a lot of debate about what to do with the Balkans. Churchill used that quote to basically say, “it doesn’t matter, they’ll do what we tell them,” and then obviously that just sowed the seeds for conflict in the future in what is now the former Yugoslavia.”
“It just struck me that that kind of attitude of the larger powers, “they’ll do that we tell them,” that actually has sown a lot of the seeds for lots of the conflicts and lost of the problems over the world and actually if there was a bit more leeway given to the smaller voices that would, in my opinion, help improve situations,” he says.
Another song on the album, “Bound for Lampedusa,” is about migrants and refugees fleeing Libya in a poorly-made boat and trying to reach that island or trying to reach somewhere in Europe to claim asylum. That’s a horrible situation… thousands of people have drowned over the past few years, and mainly it’s because of the inaction of European Union for political reasons not being willing to rescue people from the seas because they felt that that would encourage more people to migrate,” he says
Gareth Bonello’s music is a bridge between Welsh and English, between the traditional and the current, between ideology and pragmatism, between east and west, and between worlds of thought. His music is tenderly melting down the division.
Bonello’s approach to music bypasses what he calls the ‘pop culture filter.’ He was initially drawn to UK folk music that wasn’t designed to appeal to a global audience: English folk songs at first, because it was accessible, then traditional Welsh folk.
“I wanted to be influenced by traditional Welsh music and to create new, contemporary Welsh folk music that came from that source,” he says. “I think I’ve always understood the value of different cultures and how they can become integrated into another culture”
He writes and performs songs in both Welsh and in English. “Welsh language is my first language and you always have a strong connection to that,” he says. “Growing up in Cardiff, you’re very aware of it… because it is mostly an English city. The Welsh you speak is mostly at home or with friends or at school. People constantly challenge you in South East Wales: ‘Why waste money on it?’ ‘Why bother with it?’ So you have to get used to justifying it.
As a volunteer, he offers guitar lessons at the Oasis Centre, an organization that assists refugees and asylum seekers. As a musician, he’s made a charity EP to raise money for the Centre. His teaching experience has been mutually rewarding.
“It’s not necessarily about the guitar playing,” he says. “I think a lot of the people who come to the Oasis Centre can’t access a lot of things. They’re not allowed to work quite often. So it’s providing them an outlet for some frustration or providing them with a different perspective on things.
“It is remarkable even in a small hour session people can really loosen up,” he says. “There was one fellow whose hand wasn’t strong enough to hold the chord shapes because he’d been in so many fights that he’d broken most of his fingers and couldn’t hold the shapes properly but he still found a way to and we looked at different ways to hold a guitar and so he could get some notes out.”
Bonello is currently conducting a research-based Ph.D through y Coleg Cymraeg and the University of South Wales on the shared history between Wales and the Khasi people of North East India through music. It’s a unique relationship between the two cultures. In the 1840’s Welsh Methodist missionaries went to Khasi Hills, India and began a written culture in the Khasi language.
“[It’s] part of a bigger project looking at the whole thing in a post-colonial way. I’m looking at… how minority cultures use music as a form of expressing their identity and how that can change,” he says. “Basically, you have two marginalized cultures… all interacting. The other half of the Ph.D is producing creative work in response with musicians from Khasia.”
This is not the first time he has done such a cultural exchange. His previous album Y Bardd Anfarwol was produced in South China during a residency commissioned by the British Arts Council with the Chengdu Associated Theatre of Performing Arts. The album features a fusion of Welsh folk and Chinese instrumentation.
In a way, this latest album was a response to the last one, which he says was more escapism. “I’m trying to encourage more dialog with the album,” he says. “It’s important that we come up with mature, sensible discussions about it rather than just political discussions that benefit certain people above others.”