Did you enjoy the live recording of The Breath for the last instalment of the #GETTOKNOW series? If you didn’t you can catch up here.
This week we are shining a spotlight on Gwenno, the up and coming star who sings solely in Cornish – however, don’t be fooled into thinking she is a novelty act, this group creates full colour, catchy, pop sensations! Matt Hacke looks a little closer and gives us a rundown.
By conservative estimates, a few hundred people speak Cornish. This is more than you might expect. For one, less than 600,000 people live on Britain’s southwestern tip. What’s more, the language was considered ‘dead’ in the 1800s. Whilst the revival is well underway, Cornish is still considered a ‘critically endangered language’ by UNESCO. To ensure its future, it’s key to get artists and culture carriers on board.
To this effect, Gwenno Saunders’ recent all-Cornish language album Le Kov is incredibly significant. Born to a Cornish father and Welsh mother, Gwenno’s solo work is preoccupied with Celtic culture and language. This interest is as much visual as it is linguistic. Reading the lyrics from Le Kov in translation, Saunders’ writing returns repeatedly to vivid images of Cornish coasts and legendary sunken cities. This fascination with myth and recollection makes perfect sense. Le Kov roughly translates as ‘a place of memory.’
Ultimately, however, Gwenno’s approach is not nostalgic. The linguistic and thematic conceits are contrasted in instrumentation. Le Kov is a shimmering collection of synth-heavy psychedelia – light years away from the Cornish folk revival of the 1960s. For Gwenno, this modernism is a key part of the project. Prior to the release of the album, she explained to the BBC that she aims to prove the relevance of minority languages, rather than merely remember them. She concluded: “I’m not interested in sentimentality at all – I’m interested in the exploration of your cultural heritage being really forward thinking.”
Cornish language teaching is not easy to access in mainstream education. However, the success of Le Kov has been linked to record numbers of people taking Cornish language exams in the past two years. The hope is that Cornish will be used in everyday discussion, a remarkable goal for a language that was once believed to be extinct. The task now is for other artists to take up the torch.
What stands out in Gwenno’s work is a refusal to make minority language performance an act of remembrance. Her resolutely contemporary song-writing demonstrates the importance of minority languages in making sense of the present as well as the past. Witness this curious rebirth at Womad this year.
Check out the full line-up here.