FOCUS Wales 2019 Essentials : Martin Daws : Bardd
Bethesda based spoken word artist Martin Daws is working on a new collaborative project, Bardd, which brings his skills into alignment with the beatboxing and live looping of Mr Phormula and the creative flair of two North Walian musicians, Henry Horrell (Keyboard/Guitar/Harp/Violin) and Neil Yates (Trumpet/Bass).
Video fragments of the collective's first live performance at Pontio, Bangor, last summer demonstrate the connection between the performers, a palpable excitement in the audience and an experimental, absorbing sound that chimes in its sense of space and originality with early trip hop. Something important is stirring with Bardd.
Finding out where the project was headed seemed essential, finding the right time and place to speak less so, and the result was I met Martin Daws on a dark early evening in a pub on the edge of Llandudno, a humdrum setting intensified by the irregular rhythms of heavy rain on the cold black windows and a jukebox playing only the blandest of mid-80s pop. Fortunately the listlessness of the surroundings was cast aside immediately as Daws enthused about the origins, purpose and potential of Bardd.
Affable and grounded in conversation, he started with a chance beginning, smiling as he recalled,
"I had a solo spoken word gig at Focus Wales in 2017, and I was travelling on after it to London for a book launch ('Wales Bird', celebrating the centenary of Dylan Thomas), a project I’d worked on collaboratively with a number of people, one of whom was Ed Holden (Mr Phormula)."
"I got the train to London with Ed, and we stopped off in Wrexham for the gig – and I just said, ‘Why don’t you get up and jam it with me'. It was only a half hour set – but as we’d work together on Wales Bird, even touring America, we had a good working relationship."
"He accompanied my tunes - I use a thumb piano – it went really well. There was a small crowd but we had very, very positive feedback. Ed has a studio – he said on the way back, 'We should record that.' It has just gone from there."
From that spontaneous spark of creativity a broader concept slowly emerged, as Daws detailed,
"From the initial idea of Ed’s we recorded eight of my compositions, and he accompanied them with his rhythm tracks; he is a sophisticated beatbox producer, he can create sounds you have no idea are out of his mouth."
"I liked those initial recordings – it was all quite dubby and spacey – but I felt we needed more ‘music’, and more music than Ed and I could make with our shared hip hop backgrounds. Our own concepts are sample based – I play 4 bar loops on the kalimba."
"I wanted a wider horizon. So we brought in Henry and Neil."
"I first collaborated with Henry Horrell about twelve years ago – he had a band at university in Bangor and he asked me to MC and we did a couple of gigs, then I saw him again as he was in Llechi, playing acoustic guitar and fiddle. That was an easy choice."
"Neil I know from a love of jazz – we have a mutual friend the pianist Huw Warren, and I first met him when I was working with acoustic musicians a decade ago. Neil is a fantastic trumpeter – but he brought his bass too and has given an Afro-disco feel to parts of what we do."
"It is a very exciting project we know we are still just at the beginning of. We also know we are greater than the sum of the parts!"
The first time I saw Martin Daws perform was his reading of a high impact poem, Love Letter to Bethesda, that formed one of the keystones of the ensemble Llechi show at Pontio in 2016.
A champion of his adopted home town and its economically bruised history, he delivered his words then with such fervour that they are still imprinted in my memory, and it was no surprise to find that, for him, Bardd is not just a creative project, but a political one,
"A year after the Brexit vote, with the rise of the alt. right and Donald Trump, and all the other things we are seeing with politics, I had a political awakening; not that I was apolitical before, but I think I had been complacent."
"A lot of the things I believe in - I am positive about immigration, positive about multiculturalism, most of my strongest cultural influences are from the African diaspora and the culture of London, the music of the black communities was huge in my life - these things are just very important to me."
"But I thought racism in Britain was going to die with my parents’ generation. To see things I hold dear attacked, and events like the murder of Jo Cox for having a public opinion – I felt I had to do something."
"Especially with Brexit I felt the alt. right had all the power words. I wanted to make an album with power words for people who share my beliefs – about inclusivity, about progression, social justice - so they could listen and counteract the attacks (mentally)."
Early in the first Pontio performance, Daws incanted a line “assert and reclaim language” that links to this idea, I asked about its meaning and he explained,
"Yes – that is the whole thing, the idea in my head. Just before that phrase I say 'Our commonalities are so much greater than our differences, but our differences are our greatest strength.' There’s a tension in that, something to think about, something to make people feel strong."
It's not Daws' first musical foray - he was a DJ for ten years before finding his deeper rhythms in spoken word performance, and has used the kalimba (a thumb piano) in his live sets for a decade,
"I was inspired by a woman called Zena Edwards who plays kalimba, sings and recites poetry – I saw her and thought ‘I like that’. It’s a really accessible instrument, it’s from South Africa – for me it plays the role of harp that a bard or troubadour would have used."
Like another former Young People's Laureate for Wales, Sophie McKeand, he clearly enjoys pushing at the edges of what people see as poetry,
And in a tense, fragmented world sees a specific role for a poet,
"I am a spoken word artist, but I am also a hip hop MC and I do storytelling and I am a musician – it’s all part of the same family; it’s just about expression and the forms are different styles. It still comes from a tradition – that of using language to pull people together with stories that have resonance."
"I think it is about pursuing your own ‘truth’ – a term out of fashion in pluralist age – but if you can find your individual truth and share it, people can get a more universal truth from it. You mine your own personal experiences and understanding of them in the hope other people will get a greater understanding of their own life from it; building a bridge from individual to group."
"People use poetry at moments of importance – on gravestones, weddings, and congratulations – there’s a ceremonial function and also it is important to speak the unspoken."
"I want to create change - a positive one! (laughing) - to make people think, to reconsider and to give them a positive sense of who they are and the strength to achieve what they need to. I’d like to remind people of the importance of community and that the really important things, after food and shelter, aren’t material. Capitalism doesn’t work for the essentials – utilities, health. We live in such a consumerist society and its values we are what we are given, promoted by marketing – I hope we are coming to the end of that."
"The poet has the role to be a voice from the margins, explore the edges. If we are saying what everyone else is saying there is no point. Call it 'poet', or 'artist' – we have to say the stuff other people are too scared of saying, not to be self-interested, but to use our imaginations to explore new ideas."
As the rain drove harder against the glass, the night outside found deeper darkness and Whitney Houston plaintively sang out her need to feel the heat with somebody from a scuffed speaker to the almost empty pub, we finished the interview by talking about where Bardd might be headed next,
"The musical conversation is still getting better. I have worked on my musicianship; it is a good focus for me to work hard. I have also started writing songs – not just arranging existing spoken word pieces as a band; we had Arts Council of Wales support for that stage and it was vital, but we are moving on now."
"At FOCUS Wales this year we will present a strong half hour – we are well rehearsed now. They will hear us singing, new bilingual work – including me rapping in Welsh and Ed rapping in English - and there will be dancing, we want people to dance."
He laughed as he finished the thought,
"The sets start out with thought provoking stuff, and create a good atmosphere, then we move into the dancing."
With that he said his goodbyes, and left to make his way home, no doubt intent on playing his creative part in a better future, bringing together people, words and rhythm - in unconscious agreement with Emma Goldman, who once said, "If I can't dance, it's not my revolution."
BARDD I Set 1: Pontio 30.6.18