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Gruff Rhys
Pang! Gethin Morgan , September 20th, 2019 08:56

Gruff Rhys brings in South African DJ and producer Muzi to liven up his Welsh americana resulting in a pang(!) of upbeat, internationalist positivity, finds Gethin Morgan

Gruff Rhys has always been an artist with an international mind. Despite allowing his own inherent Welshness to shine throughout a music career now spanning over thirty years, there has always been a sense that Gruff prefers to apply his mother tongue outwardly, as opposed to the trend of many Welsh-language musicians to – understandably – focus inwardly, towards an audience who understand the lyrics.

Perhaps his multicultural mind-set was born from the childhood memory of being enamoured by Rene Griffiths, an Argentinian ‘gaucho’ singer-songwriter from Patagonia who sung in Welsh on television in the 70s, inspiring Gruff’s 2010 documentary Separado!

And it was during his South American travels that he discovered Brazilian TV repairman, Tony Da Gatorra, an eccentric musician who Gruff teamed up with to record mind-bending psychedelic album, The Terror of Cosmic Loneliness, without a single shared language. The old adage that music is its own tongue has never been more relevant.

Last year he found himself in Johannesburg, alongside Damon Albarn, Mr Jukes and a catalogue of collaborators who came together with Africa Express to record tracks for their culture-crossing 2019 album Egoli. It was in this cultural and musical melting pot where the Welshman struck a connection with South African producer and DJ, Muzi.

It’s that relationship which sees his unexpected sixth solo studio album, Pang!, come to life just a year on from Babelsberg, and may prove to be the body of work which comes to represent Gruff’s border-blending mentality best. Initially recording a set of simple Welsh-language songs with fellow Welshman and brass player Gavin Fitzjohn, iconic American drummer Kliph Scurlock (The Flaming Lips) and Guinean musician N’famady on the balafon (a kind of West African xylophone), he then brought Muzi in to essentially remix the entire album.

Some tracks, like ‘Eli Haul’ (Sunscreen), remain stripped back. Others get transformed, such as pounding electronic number ‘Ôl Bys/Nodau Clust’ (Fingerprint/Earmarks), sounding not unlike Gruff’s former collaborator Gorillaz. The end result is a joyful fusion of styles across a zippy half hour pop album. African pop meets Welsh Americana.

The lyrical content of Pang! represents the daily anxieties of a man constantly aware of his social and political surroundings. Whether it’s the navigation of false information or the terror of digital surveillance, the album feels like a glossary of those issues which pop into your mind throughout the day, only to be brushed under the carpet and forgotten about until the next terrifying example of climate change or freakishly accurate Instagram ad.

The poetry of Gruff’s lyricism is second to none. His ability to flit from language to language between projects, expressing himself with elegance and eloquence in either, is not only an enviable talent but a unique one.

On Pang! the enjoyment to be gained from those lyrics may be an Easter egg for Welsh speakers (it’s worth a Google but while meaning translates, poetry doesn’t), but the dominating force is the rhythmic energy of the record. The joyful nature of Afro-pop, with the delightful strokes of the balafon, cover up the anxieties below in a whirlwind of head-bopping, dance-inducing melody – much like you imagine a positive, optimistic daily outlook may help him cover up the anxieties of modern life. Gruff describes it as “a short sharp album, a pang of positivity that jolted me personally out of the omni-present political gloom and out of my musical coma.”

And in a world which needs that pang of positivity – a world which coincidentally seems to be intent on burning bridges, building walls and dividing itself – an album which represents optimism, cross-culturalism and the erasing of borders in favour of creativity and collaboration, is a breath of fresh air. Gruff Rhys is truly an internationalist. Maintaining a tight grip on his own heritage but remaining open-minded and inquisitive about the heritage of others, his example is one to be followed and what better way to share experiences, customs and cultures then through the language-less medium of music?