WELSH PATAGONIA &
In May 1865, a twelve-year-old clipper ship sailed from Liverpool, bound for Patagonia Argentina, eight thousand miles away. She had not been designed to carry passengers and was well past her sailing prime. On board were 162 Welshmen, women and children from all over Wales whose traditions and language were continually being threatened in their own country and whose poverty and desire to live freely drove them to seek new lands. What conflicting and powerful emotions those first Welsh pioneers must have felt when they arrived in a seemingly barren landscape where conviction and toil were their only tools.
The fact that they survived and prospered and that their descendants survive there and beyond, to this day, is a tribute to their determination and courage. They survived a tempestuous 8000 mile sea journey, floods, failed harvests, deaths, barren desserts and bankruptcy, constantly threatened by starvation and failure.
But they weren't totally alone in their struggle. The Welsh and the indigenous Tehuelche native indian tribes managed to co exist peacefully. The Tehuelche trained them to ride wild horses and showed them how to use the boleadores. By mastering these techniques, the Welsh could hunt guanaco and rhea in order to ensure a sufficient supply of food. When visiting the Welsh, the Tehuelche would offer the skins of wild animals and ostrich feathers in exchange for bread, flour, sugar, tobacco, and yerba tea. They also made bedclothes, petticoats and children's costumes for the Welsh settlers.
The Tehuelche were very fond of the settlers' bread and they would often go from house to house to ask them to exchange bread for meat. Their cultures and languages also influenced each other with Tehuelche descendants learning Welsh and taking part in local events and Eisteddfodau while the Welsh took on the ways and culture of the prairie and also helped the Teheulche with rearing livestock and farming the land. With only one violent incident in 142 years it is one of the best records of European-Indian co-operation in the New World.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid would also have traded and socialized regularly with the Welsh Patagonians when they fled to South America and settled in Cholila near the Andes. Rightly or wrongly it was Sheriff Edward Humphreys, a Welsh Argentine who was friendly with the two fugitives (and enamored of Etta Place, Sundance's girlfriend) that tipped them off that the Pinkerton Agency and a local governor were on their way to capture and execute them thereby giving them time to make their escape into the Andes and away.
One hundred and forty two years after the first Welsh pioneers landed, the MC Mabon group arrived in Patagonia to record Jonez Williamz, the first commercial Welsh language album to be recorded there. A great place to be and a great place to record an album.
Although there are links with family and friends in Patagonia as there are for many Welsh people, this was all our first visit after years of hearing about and being inspired by the place. It was also quite a refreshing change for the first language Welsh speakers in the group that the lingua franca was either Welsh or Spanish and for probably the first time we found ourselves translating others from English into Welsh so that the Welsh and Spanish/Castellano speaking Argentines would understand. It gets complicated!
We recorded as a group but worked with local musicians and instruments to bring in various sounds like Patagonian pan pipes, a guitar made out of an armadillo and whatever and whoever else happened to be around that fancied contributing. We went there with no real preconception of what music people liked or played and found that, as in most places, taste varied and ranged from metal to rap to traditional and beyond.
I asked a Patagonian friend of mine Walter Brooks who I had met and worked with in Wales five years earlier to do some Spanish Welsh rapping on the album because he happened to be back in Patagonia at the time. When Greg Haver (who came with us to produce the album) sat down with him in the taverna one night and asked him where he lived, expecting him to say Esquel or Puerto Madryn or Buenos Aires, he was a bit taken aback when Walter said Canton, Cardiff and found out he lived a few streets away from him in the Welsh capital. That’s the kind of modern connection that exists.
Everything isn't perfect of course. The midday sun is hot hot hot-four hour long siestas are necessary during the day when most shops close before midday and don't re-open again till late afternoon-frustrating when you need batteries or milk but a fine lesson in adjusting, adapting and doing things differently. Wild dogs are another thing that takes getting used to; they run riot in towns and cities-half wild and snarling, roaming around in packs with no owners or bye-laws keeping them in check. We wrote and recorded one track on the album in tribute to them and called it 'Perros locos'.
In Argentina and Patagonia especially the spirit of the plain still seems alive and the sense of freedom that the Welsh pioneers must have felt is still palpable .In a modern sense this means no cctv's, no speed cameras, clean air, the open road, some of the best wines in the world (with ice), huge stunning steaks, yerba-mate and of course the traditional Welsh tea and cakes, and the welcome and hospitality both of the Argentinean Welsh themselves as well as the country in general.
South America isn't the only place the Welsh have emigrated to obviously. Emigration to North America, Canada, New Zealand and Australia has been going on for longer and in far larger numbers. But South America probably posed the biggest challenge and tested the resolve the most. The story of those pioneering Welsh settlers who arrived in Patagonia in the second half of the 19th century is the story of a remarkable people searching, essentially, for freedom.
Their adventurous spirit tamed the land, befriended the native indians and established their settlements across the Chubut region of Argentina, from the eastern south Atlantic coast westwards across the great plain to the high reaches of the Andes. Some went beyond to Chile, Bolivia and Brazil. The town of Trelew over a hundred and forty years ago would have been barren dessert, now it's a 90,000 peopled Argentine Welsh mini city established and named after the formidable Welsh settlement leader Lewis Jones.
The dream that they dreamt lives on, the cultural and economic links are as strong if not stronger than ever. The Welsh Assembly Government is now encouraging more investment and interlinks between Wales and Patagonia. In 2001 Rhodri Morgan, the First Minister of Wales and the first official representative from the Welsh government to visit Patagonia signed a joint declaration of co-operation with the Governor of Chubut giving a commitment to work together to help strengthen the revival of the Welsh language in Patagonia and to promote opportunities for collaboration between Wales and Chubut in tourism, heritage, economic development and export promotion.
Jonez Williamz Rhyddhawyd / Released 2007/2008, Copa