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The Lead Review

The Time Is Kernow: Gwenno’s Le Kov
Danijela Bočev , March 1st, 2018 08:26

Gwenno’s second album is a sonic dream, a political protest cleansed of any cynical resignation, inviting and bubbling with possibilities.

Each language holds the roots of a culture, contains an entire conceptual universe. And, of the 7,000-ish languages spoken in the world today, almost half are likely to disappear this century - a language (not a dialect, a whole language) falls into extinction every fortnight.

Welsh artist Gwenno Saunders, daughter of a Cornish poet, speaks fluent Welsh, English and Cornish – a language now spoken by fewer than 1,000 people – and understands what is lost when a language dies. This album shows that she also understands the power of music to sustain a culture, an entire conceptual universe. Very little music has ever been recorded in Cornish, and Le Kov is adding to that slim tradition - the album is sung entirely in this ancient Brythonic language. ‘Le Kov’ translates as ‘place of memory’, and that’s what Gwenno has created here – she uses music to galvanise this esoteric language, one being pushed to extinction, and makes it as convincing and compelling as any other. Perhaps the greatest triumph here is that the record is completely accessible and immersive, there’s no suggestion that anyone is excluded, there is no sense of a language barrier – even if you don’t understand a word of it. (You can check the translations, though, and discover that the inclusiveness is explicit. “Far down under the water / Here lies the city for us all,” she sings on ‘Herdhya’. “It doesn’t matter who you are / Or if you’ve come from afar.’’)

‘Hi a Skoellyas Liv a Dhagrow’ (She Shed A Flood Of Tears), is a soaring opener with magnificent strings; it evokes Portishead’s best NYC live moments and heralds an elegantly crafted and musically accomplished follow-up to Gwenno’s debut, Y Dydd Olaf. It also reveals her playful intertextuality: the song shares its name with one of the tracks from Aphex Twin’s 2001 album Drukqs. “I imagined Richard D James coming across this long lost Cornish 70s folk rock song on vinyl in a charity shop in the city of Le Kov,” she explains. “And then stealing the title.’’

The playfulness runs deep. ‘Jynn-amontya’ is a stunning love song to a computer, with hints of ambivalence about our modern symbiosis with technology. ‘Eus Keus?’ (which translates literally to ‘Is there cheese?’ – one of the oldest traditional sayings in the Cornish language, apparently) is a fierce call to launch ourselves into the stratosphere, to transcend the mundane. ‘Daromres y'n Howl’ (Traffic In The Sun) is like a groovy sub-aquatic Cate Le Bon jam drenched in the charming and disorienting spirit of early psych experimentalists The United States Of America, with dissonant sonic layers and bewitching hushes to complement the onomatopoeic traffic noise. And it has a guest rap from Gruff Rhys. ‘Tir Ha Mor’ (Land And Sea) is a kaleidoscope of gorgeous melodies under the firm command of propulsive rhythms: a crystalline sonic portrayal of memory as inner geography (in Chris Marker’s sense).

Gwenno has established herself as a high priestess of 21st-century psychedelia. She keeps the spirit and heavenly calmness of Trish Keenan’s contralto alive, and the phenomenal drumming of Broadcast, with its crisp and complex structures, is brilliantly evoked here too, but loosened and put to the fore. The record has a live, organic feel, all interwoven with freeflowing synth-lines and blips. It sounds timeless.

The myriad influences and homages (Gwenno cites Serge Gainsbourg, White Noise and Cornish folk singer Brenda Wootton as well as Broadcast) are balanced by a visionary creative energy that bursts with new ideas. Le Kov looks back into history only to find some forgotten moment that leads us forward, a point where nostalgia for lost futures crosses over into the next step: a constructive utopia, a re-imagining of our future. Dreaming, when progressive forces begin to fail us, is a practical necessity. Soon enough, not being utopian will be considered naive.

Le Kov is also a sort of linguistic hauntology project, a monument and a pleasurable dissent. It defies cultural devastation under a government who are withdrawing funding from the arts and who have cut all funding for the Cornish language, despite protests . In a time when cultural identities are being bludgeoned into an amorphous monolith, too often defined only in contrast to an equally nebulous otherness, Le Kov invites us to reclaim our diversities, revitalise our imaginations. Past, present and future intersect.

As Oscar Wilde put it: “A map of the world that does not include utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which humanity is always landing. And when humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail.” Le Kov is a luminous dream, a place shimmering just beneath the Celtic Sea, tempting us to imagine greater and greater things – like any true utopia should.

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