Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - August 9, 2013

Gymanfa Ganu

The pews were marked "Soprano," "Alto," "Tenor" and "Bass." Since Katie is an alto in a couple of Kansas State University choirs, I told her I was sticking with her in the alto section. My ability to follow music is pretty limited, so I wanted to be with someone who knew what she was doing. Husband Art sat behind us in the tenor section - the only person to sit in that pew.

We were at the Union Congregational Church in Three Lakes, Wis. to take part in the Gymanfa Ganu (pronounced gih-MAHN-vuh GAH-nee) - a Welsh festival of sacred songs. The traditional singing of hymns in four-part harmony in Wales can be traced back to about the 12th century.

Art and I had attended a previous Gymanfa Ganu in the church in the 1990s when we first started taking our family to the North Woods for our summer vacations. We liked it back then, but had missed subsequent festivals, so we thought it would be fun to go again. A good reason to expose Katie to the music is that Art and I both have some Welsh in our backgrounds. Art's great-grandfather Tom Vaughan and my great-great-grandmother Eliza Davis were born in Wales. We've been there several times, first to check out where they came from and later just to experience the beautiful green hills. Art even bought a Welsh-English dictionary some years ago so he knows some words and how to pronounce them.

Katie was not that excited to attend because she thought we were just going to listen. But when she realized we were there to participate, she brightened up. She loves singing, and relished the opportunity to use her voice.

The conductor, Rev. Joseph Corbin of Reedsburg, Wis., reminded us a bit of Santa Claus with his full white beard and plaid vest of red and green - the Welsh national colors. He greeted us enthusiastically and then began leading us through the program with his rich baritone voice honed by a degree in music. The songs had unfamiliar Welsh names like "Bryn Califaria," "Crug-y-bar," "Blodwen," and "Colon Lan, " but much of the music was familiar.

Corbin didn't have us sing through the hymns one right after the other. He chose among the verses, sometimes telling the women to sing certain verses and the men others. At other times, he'd ask us to repeat verses or to slow down or to sing louder or to sing a cappella ... without the organ or piano accompaniment.

We sang some songs in English and some in Welsh, although I doubt we did a great job on the latter. While Welsh uses letters drawn from the English alphabet, many are not pronounced in the same way. "Ff" is sounded like an English "f," but a single "f" is used for the English "v" sound. There is no "v" in Welsh. "Ll" has no equivalent sound in English. "W" is spoken as in English, unless there is a consonant on both sides and then it becomes a vowel, sounded like the "oo" in the word "cool." Fortunately, we were not being graded!

Gymanfa Ganu festivals are held at various locations around the U.S. where there were sizeable numbers of Welsh settlers. In Wisconsin, they are assisted by the Welsh Gymanfa Ganu Association of Wisconsin.

That association also supports the work of the Great Plains Welsh Heritage Project, based in Wymore, Neb., an area that reminded Welsh immigrants of their homeland with its rolling hills and the nearby Blue River. The mission of the project is "to discover, preserve, interpret and celebrate the history and contributions of Welsh pioneers on the North American prairies, to further public understanding and appreciation of America's ethnic and cultural diversity."

For us, there is a touch of irony in discovering Wymore, population 1,400, is the site of the project. It is located about an hour and a half from our home in Manhattan, Kan. and during the many years of our travel to and from Wisconsin, we have regularly chosen a route that skirts the village.

When our Gymanfa Ganu was over, we spoke briefly with Rev. Corbin and his wife Kim for Katie wanted to know how she could obtain a copy of the hymnal. Then we left, amazed by the sheer beauty of how our voices had blended together. It was almost as if the music came from deep within us. Katie said she was surprised by how well all of us could sight-read and sing along in four-part harmony. And although we could only approximate the Welsh, Katie and I had enjoyed the sound of it - I, because I love different languages, and Katie, because it reminded her of the "Elvish" language J.R.R. Tolkien used in "Lord of the Rings."

But I have a hunch our enjoyment also arose from another place. Because the Welsh spoke almost accent-free English and dressed as their English neighbors, emigrants from that land blended into America effortlessly. And so, there is next to nothing in our culture that reminds us that significant numbers of Welsh settled in America the way that St. Patrick's Day brings to mind the Irish immigrants or Oktoberfest makes us think of our German roots. But the Gymanfa Ganu is one such reminder that Tom Vaughan and Eliza Davis were also part of America's patchwork.

Left: Rev. Joe Corbin led us in singing a Welsh hymn; right: the Welsh, Irish and Scots are all descendants of the same Celtic peoples. Tom McKale drew on that connection, performing a selection on the bagpipes while dressed in traditional Scottish attire.

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