In March 2015, Welsh singer-songwriter Gareth Bonello returned to China to share his Chengdu-inspired album and touring his live show to Chongqing, Kunming and Chengdu in Southwest China. Later this year, three British musicians will follow in Gareth’s footsteps to join the third round of the British Council and PRS for Music Foundation’s Musician in Residence programme in China.
This article gives an insight into Gareth’s idiosyncratic style, and tells the story behind the tracks on his latest album, Y Bardd Anfarwol (The Immortal Bard).
Gareth Bonello: The Gentle Good
The Gentle Good is the stage-name of Welsh songwriter Gareth Bonello. Gareth draws on the language, poetry and melodies of his native country to create beautiful modern folk music in both English and Welsh.
As a performer Gareth is well-travelled and versatile, most often performing as a soloist but sometimes seen with a full band and string quartet. Gareth has performed all over the world, from car parks and bars in Austin, Texas to quayside shows in Lorient, to solo performances at the Forbidden City Concert Hall in Beijing.
In 2012, The Gentle Good was selected as one of the four UK musicians to take part in the first round of Musician in Residence China Programme jointly organised by the British Council and PRSF. He spent 6 weeks in Chengdu, Southwest China working with local musicians and looking for inspiration from Wuhou Temple, Kuaizhai Valley, Dufu Thatched Cottage, Sichuan Opera and even the Panda base. Drawing from these experiences, he composed a new album, working with the Chengdu Associated Theatre of Performing Arts, themed on the legendary life of Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai.
The album fuses Chinese and Welsh traditional music and poetry, featuring collaboration between musicians from China and the UK. The album has received widespread critical praise and was awarded the Welsh Album of the Year award at the 2014 National Eisteddfod.
Y Bardd Anfarwol (The Immortal Bard)
A track-by-track album commentary by Gareth Bonello.
1. Erddigan Chengdu (Chengdu Harmony)
Chengdu is the city in Sichuan that I stayed in for my residency. The track opens with the sounds of the a street market in Sichuan and before moving to birds in one of the parks in the middle of the city. It represents the journey of the young poet Li Bai as he leaves home in the city to the countryside. The further he goes the more distant the sounds of the city and the louder the birds sing. At the end of the track the ringing of Buddhist temple prayer bells can be heard.
2. Antiffoni (Question and Answer)
This track follows Li Bai as he travels deep into the Taitien mountains where even the ringing of the temple bells cannot be heard. He searches for a wise old man (a Taoist master) that lives alone in the mountains, but fails to find him. He concludes that the wise old man has deliberately avoided him and left him in the splendor of nature. He decides that he has been given his lesson, and that his future lies in travelling in search work as a poet.
3. Yr Wylan Fry (The Free Seabird)
Having made his decision Li Bai finds his way onto a ship and begins a period traveling along the great rivers of China. The title of this song comes from a poem by a contemporary of Li Bai’s, a poet called Du Fu, who said that the life of a traveler is like that of a seabird flying overhead; it’s easy to see going by but once gone he is gone forever. In this song Li Bai sings to his wife who he has had to leave behind, wishing that he could be with her but forced to travel in search of work.
4. Ymadael Dinas Brenin Gwyn (Departure from White King City)
This instrumental represents Li Bai’s travel along the rivers of China.
5. Marwnad Chang-Kan (The Chang-Kan Lament)
In this song we hear the voice of Li Bai’s wife as she sings to him in her loneliness. She describes how they met as children before they fell in love and married as young adults. She asks why he has left her alone and dreams that she becomes a seagull to find him. At the end of the song she describes how her heart is lost amongst the wild waves and crashing tides that Li Bai is now traveling on.
6. Meddyliau distaw’r nos (Quiet Night Thoughts)
This instrumental represents the interlude of the album, with Li Bai far from home and lonely with his wife far away from him. He sleeps in a cold room and a shaft of moonlight lights up the floor so that it looks like frost. He raises his head to look at the moon and his thoughts turn to his home.
7. Yfed gyda’r lleuad (Drinking with the moon)
Unable to sleep, Li Bai gets up and sits in an orchard drinking wine in the moonlight. He invites the moon down from the sky to share his wine, but obviously she stays where she is. Instead, he invites his shadow to drink with him and his shadow matches him cup for cup (of course!) and he ends up very drunk, dancing with his shadow. He promises to meet the moon and his shadow again one day at the end of the silver river, which is the Chinese name for the Milky Way.
8. Brwydr An Lushan (An Lushan Rebellion)
A little bit older now, Li Bai decides to pursue a career as a military adviser. He advises a prince who is supposed to be putting down the An Lushan Rebellion against the Emperor, his uncle. However, it turns out the prince has ambitions of his own and tries to take the throne from his uncle. The prince is defeated and Li Bai is punished to death. Fortunately, his sentence is later changed to exile and he is banished from China. He is taken by boat a long way to the very edge of ancient China. Luckily for Li Bai, he is pardoned before he travels beyond the border and he is allowed to return to China.
9. Edau Gwyn (Threads of White)
Li Bai is beginning to age and doesn’t quite believe it. He describes his head as a loom and time as the weaver that folds threads of white into his hair. This track is a meditation on getting old.
10. Afon Arian (Silver River)
This track tells the story of Li Bai’s death at the age of 61, on his way back along the river from exile. Late one night he decides to go out on the river in a boat with some wine. In the song Li Bai describes a waterfall descending from a great hight as if the Silver River had fallen from the sky. He is reunited with his old friends; the moon and his shadow, and begins to
drink the wine and is soon drunk. Gazing at the reflection of the moon in the water Li Bai sees the faces of his wife and all that are dear to him. This is the moment that he decides to unite with the moon and he falls into the water in an attempt to embrace the reflection, and drowns.
11. Bore Braf (Fresh Morning)
This is a traditional Sichuanese piece for the Guqin adapted for the guitar. I thought it an appropriate end to the album as it is a very old instrument that poets like Li Bai would traditionally sit and play whilst composing poetry. The title is also appropriate as it implies a new beginning, rebirth and another journey after death.
This is Zhou Yuanlin from the Chengdu Associated Theatre of Performing Arts demonstrating her mastery of the Pipa. I recorded this in Sichuan in 2011 and put it at the end of the album as a thank you to everyone that helped me to create the album and because it sounds brilliant of course!
Gareth Bonello’s China tour was part of the 2015 UK-China Year of Cultural Exchange and was supported by the British Council and Wales Government Office.