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Tomos Williams: An Absolute Riot! Risings, Race And Identity In Wales

Tomos Williams: An Absolute Riot! Risings, Race And Identity In Wales

Courtesy Matthew Thistlewood


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This project is about finding a Welsh jazz voice, a Welsh jazz perspective. Well, that’s no different to a Polish jazz voice or Finnish jazz voice. You use what you want from your own tradition, sounds and elements that you have grown up with.
—Tomos Williams
Threads. They wind their way through history, overlapping, interconnecting and sometimes weaving strange and powerful narratives that never really end, but simply grow and evolve.

In 2020, half a millennium after the first transatlantic slave ships set sail from Europe to Africa, cheering protesters in Bristol, England, dumped the statue of slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol harbor, igniting debate on Britain's imperialist past and historical whitewashing.

This hullaballoo, a ripple from the Black Lives Matter movement, unfolded against the equally rowdy backdrop of Brexit, where the very idea of Britain—with all its constituent identities—was brought into sharp focus.

The decision on whether or not to leave the European Union provoked bitter divisions in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. The specter of Scottish independence rose again. Irish nationalists saw the climate was right to push the agenda of a united Ireland. Political tensions in Northern Ireland ignited in street riots.

When it comes down to it, identity is about belonging, and what could be more important?

Questions surrounding national identity had been occupying Welsh trumpeter and composer Tomos Williams for some time. In 2019, one year before Edward Colston's statue was toppled, Williams had toured Wales with a project titled Cwmwl Tystion/Witness.

Leading an all-Welsh band comprised of pianist Huw Warren, bassist Huw Williams, drummer Mark O'Connor, harpist and electronics musician Rhodri Davies, violinist Francesca Simmons and Simon Proffitt on visuals, Williams' 70-minute, chamber jazz suite took as its central inspiration the idea of Welsh identity.

Welsh poetry and folk songs may have provided the kindling for this broiling epic, but there was a political, existential edge to William's celebration and questioning of modern Welsh identity.

"Llyfrau Gleison 1847 (Blue Books 1847)" referenced the British government's disparaging report on Welsh education, seen at the time as an attack on the Welsh language. "Paul Robeson ac Eisteddfod y Glowyr 1957" (Paul Robeson and the Miners' Eisteddfod 1957) celebrated the Afro-American singer, lawyer and civil rights activist's support for striking Welsh miners.

"Tryweryn 1965" recalled the flooding of the rural community of Capel Celyn valley to create a reservoir that would provide industries in Liverpool and The Wirral with water. This latter event sparked protests, provoked paramilitary sabotage, and spurred the movement for Welsh devolution.

A live album from that tour, Cwmwl Tystion/Witness (Tŷ Cerdd, 2021) was the first installment of a trilogy. The music occupied a quasi-chamber jazz terrain, bucolic at one pole, freely coursing at the other, with islands of spikey abstraction in between.

In 2023, Williams released Cwmwl Tystion II: Riot!, a warts-and-all examination of violent Welsh uprisings and episodes, famous and notorious, that invite a more balanced perspective on Welsh identity and nationalism.

The suite, another live recording, bristles with a free-jazz energy, fired by Williams, saxophonist Soweto Kinch and vibraphonist Orphy Robinson. But there is a lyricism at the suite's core, courtesy of singer Eädyth Crawford, whose hymnal and folk-inspired Welsh-language singing offers starkly beautiful contrast to the churn and burn around her.

The third and final part of the trilogy, Cwywl Tystion III/Empathy, is set for release mid-2024. Williams has recruited French-Vietnamese guitarist Nguyen Le and bassist Melvin Gibbs for what he describes as "an augmented power trio."

Over Zoom, Williams tied together all the threads of this ambitious project.

All About Jazz: This trilogy is a huge undertaking that has spanned almost five years. What was the genesis of the Cwmwl Tystion project?

Tomos Williams: It was driven partly by the discovery of Wadada Leo Smith and his 4-CD set Ten Freedom Summers [Cuneiform Records, 2012). It completely blew my mind. The massive scope of it, the political side of it, but also the freedom in the music and the use of strings alongside a jazz combo. It was incredible. Sometimes you hear something, and it changes your life. Well, it was one of those moments.

Then secondly, Matana Roberts' Coin, Coin series. Wow! What a great idea. What a great journey, what a great commitment. These were two really important factors in the creation of Cwmwl Tystion as a project. I'm Welsh, I've got something to say potentially, what about a Welsh angle on history?

AAJ: The project was birthed at a very stormy time in British politics. How did the whole Brexit saga impact your thinking?

TW: At the time Brexit was going on there was a dominant narrative being presented relentlessly. There are so many histories within Britain, as well as within Wales, it almost felt like you weren't allowed to be different anymore—if you didn't associate with the dominant narrative you didn't exist anymore.

This is not a strong nationalistic thing, it's just that Wales has our own history, our own issues, and things that we need to grapple with as Welsh people before even dealing with the British Isles, which is extremely problematic. I felt it was time for a specifically Welsh musical statement.

AAJ: What inspired the title of the project?

TW: Cwmwl Tystion, 'cloud of witnesses' is derived from the Bible, but it was also used in a poem by Waldo Williams, a great Welsh poet, pacifist and nationalist, which was my inspiration in this case.

Nationalism in Wales, a bit like nationalism in Ireland, I think, is a bit different to nationalism in England, mainland Europe or from other dominant cultures; it is a minority nationalism, which is very forward thinking. It is an outward nationalism, not an internal nationalism. I try to avoid the word 'nationalism,' since it's such a minefield, but it is about understanding one's own identity.

I'm a Welsh speaker, and the peg then was Waldo William's poem written in Welsh, "Pa Beth yw Dyn? (What is Man?)" which raises existential questions. This poem directly inspired the first album and the whole project. Cornell West, the great African American philosopher also references 'cloud of witnesses,' so I was referencing that too.

AAJ: The cast of musicians has evolved with the albums. What dictated your choices?

TW: For the first album I wanted a band of Welsh musicians, and I picked people I had never played with, people I wanted to play with. Huw Warren is an amazing pianist. I wanted that inside-outside thing that he can do effortlessly.

Rhodri Davis, the harpist, is a good friend of mine. I have known him for years, but I had never played with him. He is completely free, and he has played with everybody in that field, so it was important for me to have him.

Huw V Williams, who lives in London, is also into that free thing. Then Mark O'Connor on drums, I use him all the time. He's my drummer in other projects, Burum and Khamira:: so he's always my preferred drummer.

Partly because of the influence of Wadada Leo Smith, I wanted a string instrument to compliment the harp. Francesca Simmons is a lovely violin player. She was recommended to me.

AAJ: For the tour, Simon Proffitt supplied visuals. These were not strictly narrative visuals as such. What was the idea there?

TW: I wanted the visuals as well, to make it a bit more of a project, rather than just people playing. I wanted to make it more immersive and more abstract.

AAJ: Was it your intention from the outset that this project would be a trilogy?

TW: It came later. We first toured before Covid, in 2019. It was great. It felt like something clicked. Then over Covid I thought, I need to do another one of these. How do I develop it further?'

Once I had decided on a second iteration I knew I wanted to use UK musicians, rather than just Welsh musicians. I was also keen to use musicians who weren't all white. I wanted a multi-cultural band that represented the black British tradition. Having played with Rhodri and Huw Warren it gave me the confidence to approach Orphy Robinson and Soweto Kinch.

Soweto had recently recorded Black Peril (Soweto Kinch, 2019), so I knew Soweto was very political in his music. I also wanted someone who could really burn on the sax. I also knew I wanted rap on the Cardiff movement, so I basically had a choice of one really. It was Soweto or bust.

AAJ: There is quite a different feel, musically and in some ways thematically, comparing the first two albums in the trilogy. Could you explain the evolution there?

TW: The first album is more existential. The second has more of a peg. Sometime during Covid I decided it would be about Welsh riots We know about the Merthyr Riot, we're taught a little about that in school, but we're not taught about the Cardiff Race Riots. Who gives you your history? If you think you are an open nation then you have got to deal with the not so good bits.

AAJ: In the Waldo Williams poem he writes: 'What is love of country? Keeping house among a cloud of witnesses.' What did you take that to mean?

TW: Basically, I think he is asking what is nationalism? I wanted the project to be about that. The cloud-of-witnesses reference relates back to the African American Biblical tradition. It has got echoes of the African American struggle, of Martin Luther King, of James Baldwin and 'Go Tell it on the Mountain' That's why I chose the Cwmwl Tystion title because there is that link, that parallel. It resonated with me.

AAJ: Eädyth Crawford sings beautifully on this album. She brings so much to the emotional depth of the music. Was it an obvious choice, or a necessary choice to have singing in Welsh on the album?

TW: Yes, it was definitely deliberate. The first album was purely instrumental. As a jazz musician I generally don't work with singers. I work with singers in a folk context, but that is more backing them.

AAJ: And yet there are Welsh folk elements on the Cwmwl Tystion albums. You did a beautiful album some years ago with a traditional harpist ...

TW: Yes, Llio Rhydderch. She's a genius. Yes, I was really proud of that album [Carn Ingli (fflach:tradd, 2012)]. Before that, and what led to that, I was playing in a band called 'fernhill,' with a great Welsh vocalist, Julie Murphy, so that's where my folk roots came from. I worked with them for years. I learnt so much about Welsh traditional music. That was really important, and over the years I have tried to incorporate much more of that into my music.

AAJ: In fact, you bring together quite a lot of different musical elements, particularly on Riot!.

TW: I wanted to use this project to do things I had never done before. I knew if I wanted Soweto to rap in English, I also knew I wanted Welsh singing in there as well. I didn't want it to be only in English. Eädyth sings all sorts of genres, and she was happy to jump in. A lot of the words she sings are lyrics from folk tunes. As the tour went on she became more confident about singing wordless melodies as well.

She wrote the words right at the beginning of the Cardiff Race Riots tune: 'I feel the heat on my skin.' She sings those two lines in Welsh and then she sings them in English. She incapsulates the movement in those two lines.

I have worked a lot with Eädyth since this. She has sung with Khamira on tour and she's going to be on the third Cwmwl Tystion tour as well.

AAJ: Was using Welsh about the musicality of the language, or was it more about saying, 'look, this is our language, we should be celebrating it'?

TW: Definitely the latter. It was about representation, presenting the Welsh language comfortably in a serious musical context that deals with Welsh history. In many ways you can't really deal with Welsh history without dealing with the language.

AAJ: How prevalent is Welsh where you live? Is it part of everyday life?

TW: I speak Welsh with my family. My kids go to Welsh school. I teach trumpet through the medium of Welsh. I could live my life in the medium of Welsh if wanted to, even though I live in Cardiff. It's not the dominant language in Cardiff but there's enough of a sub-culture here. It's not a museum piece, it's not something that's dying. It's a living language that can adapt and I want it to be central to my statements.

AAJ: Use it or lose it.

TW: Yeah, and as Cwmwl Tystion has developed it has become more my statement than the band's—it has become important to me that the Welsh language is there because it is central to who I am and how I perceive the world.

AAJ: Yes, and while it might seem esoteric to non-Welsh, including the use on this album of Welsh hymnal melodies, Welsh folk music and poetry, it is in fact what jazz has always done, borrowing from these sorts of elements, whether they be jazz musicians in in America, in Scandinavia or Azerbaijan.

TW: Absolutely, it is just an element in the tradition. This project is about finding a Welsh jazz voice, a Welsh jazz perspective. Well, that's no different to a Polish jazz voice or Finnish jazz voice. You use what you want from your own tradition, sounds and elements that you have grown up with.

The hymnal influences are just one part of the Welsh tradition that I wanted represented, particularly in this instance in Riot! because it's a Hebrew melody adapted to Welsh hymnal singing. It ties in with the "Tredegar Riots 1911," which were potentially anti-semitic. Music doesn't belong to one people or any one nation, it crosses boundaries and borders.

So even though I'm flagging up this as a Welsh project, there are so many traditions in the music from across the globe. It actually opens it up and places it globally.

AAJ: You've talked about Wadada Leo Smith and Matana Roberts as influences, and in the liner notes of the album you also mention Don Cherry's Organic Music Society and John Zorn's Masada. Is there a common denominator to their music that links them for you?

TW: Yeah, just the experience of hearing music that really touches you. It speaks to me in that way of being specific but internationalist and global, providing meaning to free music. There is real gravitas. I think Dave Douglas is also quite central to the stuff I've ended up doing, he has so many different projects—it was the stuff I was listening to as I was composing.

AAJ: There is a free-jazz bullishness in places of the Riot! suite, but there is also pronounced lyricism, soulfulness and tenderness—pockets of real calm; did the compositional arc suggest itself to you at the outset or was the process more complex?

TW: I wouldn't say complex. It was much more simple, in a way. I knew the riots I wanted, and I knew I wanted to finish with "Mahmood Mattan 1952" as a ballad-type tribute. And then it is about contrasts within the music.

I see myself more as a navigator in a way rather than a composer. I was very dependent on the fire and creativity of the players involved, but then you hand-pick players who you know are going to deliver in that sense. As a navigator or composer, I create the moods, what's needed when.

AAJ: You mentioned that the Merthyr Rising is taught in Welsh schools. Do you think jazz might better connect with people if it habitually addressed socio-political events? And do you think it has a duty to do so?

TW: That's a great question. Yes and no. It does have a duty from certain perspectives, but also music is there to be enjoyed. If you just want to play a bossa nova then crack on and play a bossa nova—who am I to judge that?

Had I called these guys and said 'come to Wales, we're going to play a blues, a bossa and a ballad' I don't think it would have happened. It is the idea that what you are getting involved in is something bigger, if you want.

There is no necessity for anyone to play music that means something, but you acquire experience and where I am in my life at the moment, I thought, 'well, if no one else is going to do this I should do this.' But it is important that jazz has the ability to express things that matter through the music.

AAJ: Let's talk about the segment "What is Living?" With its bluesy soul it is a reminder of Wales' ties to the abolitionist movement. What was the backdrop to this part of the suite?

TW: It's from a very interesting Welsh folk tune, "Si Hwi Hwi," because it's written from the point of view of a black slave mother, giving away her daughter to a slave master. But it was written in Welsh by a white Welsh abolitionist who went to America. It's a really interesting convergence of threads of histories. I knew the song and I wanted it in the suite, especially with Eädyth singing it. And it lends itself to a blues reading.

On the record it is a slow blues but in our live performances I was hearing it much more like a [Charles] Mingus, Workshop-type thing. It would go into double time, and it was a bit more fiery some nights. But on the night we recorded it that didn't happen. It was the last night of the tour, maybe we were tired, and it ended up as a slow blues. I thought, 'well, if that's what it is that's what it is.'

AAJ: In Jen Wilson's book Freedom Music: Wales, Emancipation & Jazz 1850-1950 (University of Wales Press, 2019), she writes at length about the Welsh links to the abolitionist movement, both in America as part of the Underground Railroad and activists at home in Wales. But she also writes candidly about Wales' role in the slave trade, its export of metal to Africa, its transportation of slaves to the Caribbean and its import of rum and sugar etc.

It strikes me that this two-pronged Welsh narrative around slavery—heroes and villains, to put it in simplistic terms—mirrors in some ways the complex and contrasting narratives of your own Riot! with its celebrated worker's risings and its darker, rarely spoken about race riots. Why was it important for you to confront these more uncomfortable aspects of Welsh history?

TW: Like you've just said, the reality of being Welsh is complex, as it is for any nation. As an underdog, minority nation it is very easy to romanticize our own histories and be the guy who gives it to The Man. But on the global stage we were part of the dominant, white culture. So, it is very important to deal with that, and to recognize it.

You can celebrate events like Merthyr Rising and the Tonypandy Riots, standing up for workers' rights and against Churchill and the British State, but if you want to glorify that, then equally you have to deal with the other side of the coin, which is the potential anti-semitism of the Tredegar Riots and the Cardiff Race Riots, where communities who had been here for centuries were attacked for being non-Welsh. You have to deal with that.

The Mahmood Mattan murder trial and execution was absolute police corruption. You cannot glorify some aspects of history and not confront other less comfortable aspects of it. It's that reckoning. It's about putting it out there and letting people know about this stuff.

AAJ: Movements of the Riot! suite like the "Tredegar Riots 1911" and the "Cardiff Race Riots 1919" are reminders that Welsh cities over a century ago were home to people from Yemen and Somalia, from China, India, African Americans, former slaves from America or from the Caribbean, as well as sizeable Jewish communities.

The main Welsh cities were multicultural ones, and it is easy to forget that multiculturalism is nothing new in Wales. Are the darker events you address in Riot! cautionary tales, in a way?

TW: I don't think they are cautionary tales. It is just the understanding that multi-culturalism is nothing new. You know, all this 'stop the boats'—we are not going to be flooded by people from other countries. Multiculturalism is completely natural. It is inherent in this country. The Somali community in Cardiff is the oldest Somali community in Britain. We are all part of the fabric. It is part of Welsh identity and part of British identity.

Yes, maybe you could say cautionary in the sense that we need to continuously self-critique so that you don't see people who don't look like you as 'other' and that you don't have to believe what you are being presented by the media all the time. Multi-culturalism has always been here. It won't flood the dominant culture; it just becomes part of it.

AAJ: The suite ends with "Mahmood Mattan 1952," a Somalian, married to a Welsh woman in Cardiff, who was wrongly accused of murder and then executed. His story is terribly sad. Have you read Nadifa Mohamed's book The Fortune Men [Viking, 2021] about the framing of Mattan?

TW: Yes, I have. I had wanted to write something about Mahmood Mattan's story for quite a while, to draw attention to racial injustice in Wales. George Floyd had happened in the US, and I remember Rodney King back in 1991, and you think 'this is just awful!' But it also happened in Cardiff. It happened in the '50s, but it's not that long ago either.

Then The Fortune Men came out and all of a sudden, the case got a lot of attention. It's a brilliant book, and again, there is that depiction of Cardiff as a very multicultural city in the '50s. That kind of depiction of Cardiff is not that prevalent.

And if you want to look at it in simple terms the white cops, the white Welsh are the bad guys in this narrative. It is important to acknowledge that. It was a travesty.

"Mahmood Mattan" is about flagging up events of our history that we don't necessarily know about because they don't reflect well on the majority.

There have been recent cases in Wales of potential police racism and corruption too, and you could argue that they don't get that much attention today. So, it is very pertinent as well. The book The Fortune Men was a coincidental parallel but it's a great book and it's great that it's out there.

AAJ: It would make a powerful film.

TM: It would. I loved the Fortune Men so much I read Nadifa Mohamed's other books. They called the Somalis who came to Wales 'The Fortune Men' because they came to Wales to find their fortune. It's a phenomenal history, but as a white Welsh guy you're not told anything about that. It's fascinating and quite powerful. Yeah, that story would make a great film.

AAJ: The histories that inspired Riot!, although the context is Welsh, they are really human rights, or human rights abuse stories. In that sense this project speaks universally.

TW: Yeah. I hope so. I'm very glad you feel that because it's a Welsh narrative of internationalist themes. These are global issues. If it speaks to wider unifying stories then that's all the better.


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