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Sage Todz singing into a mic
Sage Todz. Photograph: Dyma Ni!

‘It’s hitting boiling point’: why 2022 was a breakthrough year for Welsh-language music

From Cardiff drill to all-female indie: Wales has come a long way since Stereophonics and the Manics. We meet the artists making Cymru cool again

Chiara Wilkinson
Written by
Chiara Wilkinson

In the town hall of Portmeirion, Wales, 22-year-old Sage Todz is spitting out bars over reverberating bass – in a mix of English and Welsh. ‘Dani yma yma, on the way to the top of the game, are ffordd i top y byd!’

The song, ‘O Hyd’, samples ‘Yma o Hyd’, a 40-year-old folk song which is played as a patriotic anthem before Welsh sporting events. This updated drill version – which is infectiously catchy, even for non-Welsh speakers – is performed by Todz with fellow rapper Marino, and was released with the Football Association of Wales ahead of the FIFA World Cup, which gets under way this weekend.

Todz is part of a generation of young artists breathing new life into Welsh-language music. It may recall the 1990s ‘Cool Cymru’ era when Super Furry Animals, Catatonia and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci were all the rage, but this time around things feel a whole lot more exciting. ‘It’s heating up,’ says Todz, whose real name is Eretoda Ogunbanwo. ‘It genuinely feels like it’s hitting boiling point. There’s too many of us doing things at a high level to not be seen.’ 

In recent years, there’s been a noticeable shift in the popularity of Welsh-language music. According to Dilwyn Llwyd, manager at Neuadd Ogwen, a music venue in the northern town of Bethesda, Welsh-language music has historically been ‘quite isolated’. ‘Before [social media], we didn’t really have our own music media or a way of communicating it to the wider world,’ Llwyd says. ‘It was a scene within itself.’ Social media and streaming services have been instrumental in opening the door.

Take Sage Todz, who quietly put out debut single ‘Sage Mode’ in 2020: a fiery track about his experiences of racism while growing up in rural Wales. When he uploaded it to TikTok and Twitter this year, he erupted. ‘I couldn’t have really called it a career before then,’ he says. He’s now sharing bills with grime stars like D Double E and is being played on BBC Radio 4.

A few years ago, it felt like the Welsh-language music scene was just a lot of boys with guitars

But it’s not just about the accessibility of music. The artists themselves are doing genuinely exciting stuff, all while breaking down stereotypes of what Welsh-language music can be. Cerys Hafana is a 21-year-old singer, composer and purveyor of the triple harp – a Baroque instrument with that lived on in Wales after almost dying out when the more convenient pedal harp was invented. It’s now a big part of Welsh folk music. ‘A few years ago, it felt like the Welsh-language music scene was a just lot of boys with guitars, which is fine,’ says Hafana. ‘Now, there’s also so much other stuff. Any genre can be in the Welsh language.’

Hafana puts her own ethereal spin on traditional folk music, and the results often sound more like Floating Points or Björk than something you’d hear on ‘The Folk Show with Mark Radcliffe’. ‘I guess I got a bit bored,’ Hafana says. ‘There’s a lot of music for the harp, but there’s nowhere near as much as there is for the piano. Either I stopped playing the instrument, or I had to start writing my own stuff.’ 

Cerys Hafana playing guitar
Photograph: Dyma Ni!

Similarly, Sage Todz – along with artists like Marino, Mace the Great, Deyah and Juice Menace – is shaking up Welsh hip-hop, which has been around since the late 1990s. According to Ogunbanwo, Cardiff is now home to a vibrant drill scene, with weekly nights at Clwb Ifor Bach acting as one of its hubs. ‘Two or three years ago, I don’t think Wales was ready for this new, more urban sound,’ he says. ‘It existed, but now people want to hear it. They’re starting to look.’ 

Ogunbanwo is from the small village of Penygroes in north Wales, where he moved from Essex aged seven. ‘I went to an immersion school to learn Welsh,’ he says, recalling being thrown into a class where Welsh was all they were allowed to speak. ‘It was difficult growing up, not just because of language. I was the first Black kid in the history of my primary school – I didn’t know what racism was before I moved there.’ Rap was one way of processing his experiences. ‘I don’t want to just sit there angry: I want to make something productive,’ he says. ‘Welsh is a part of who I am, so it was only a matter of time before I started incorporating it into music.’ 

For all-female post-punk trio Adwaith, meanwhile, music was a way of making the Welsh language ‘more fun’. ‘Growing up, Welsh just felt like another regimented subject in school, like maths or geography,’ says Hollie Singer, on guitar and vocals. ‘You were forced to speak Welsh, so it was almost an act of rebellion to not speak it. It was seen as an uncool thing.’ Singer’s first experience of live music was going to a Welsh-language gig at The Parrot, which was the only music venue in her hometown of Carmarthen, in the south west. ‘It completely changed my appreciation of the language,’ she says. ‘We wanted to get involved.’ 

Singer formed Adwaith in 2015 with bandmates Gwenllian Anthony (bass, keys, mandolin) and Heledd Owen (drums), all in their early twenties. Their sound is part Echo and the Bunnymen, part Wet Leg, with snappy lyrics about everything from lipstick to infatuation. It’s fair to say things are heating up for them. In the past six months, they’ve released their second album ‘Bato Mato’, become the first group to win the Welsh Music Prize for two years running and performed at Glastonbury on the BBC Introducing stage. ‘We were picked by Idles to play after their secret set – it was packed,’ says Singer. ‘A super overwhelming experience.’

Young people here can identify much more with Wales and Welshness than Britishness now

Despite all the hype, Adwaith found themselves trying to convince the London-centric UK music industry that Welsh-language music was ‘marketable or whatever’. ‘It’s exhausting,’ says Singer. Now they’ve decided to ‘bypass’ the UK market altogether, with the idea that they’ll get to the rest of the world quicker. Their booking agent is European and they’re signed to a Welsh label, Libertino Records.

Ogunbanwo, on the other hand, says using Welsh in his music probably helped him to stand out in a saturated market. ‘It was strategic, but I don’t want to be considered a fad or that guy who’s just pulling out random tricks,’ he says.

But it would be a mistake to say that Welsh-language music is just a novelty: it’s the product of genuine increase in speakers. Welsh was the fastest-rising language on Duolingo in the UK last year. And according to the Welsh Government’s most recent Annual Population Survey, 29.7 percent of people aged three or older were able to speak the language in the year ending June 30 2022. That’s around 900,000 people – an increase of 14,000 since 2021.

The Welsh language was introduced as a compulsory part of the curriculum in Welsh and English-medium schools in 1999. Earlier this year, the Welsh Government announced plans to reach one million Welsh speakers by 2050. All teaching staff, as well as young people aged between 18 and 25, will be offered free Welsh lessons. In the grand scheme of things, it’s pretty incredible that the language is still surviving – let alone that it’s on the rise – given there have been literally centuries of attempts to suppress it following Henry VIII’s Act of Union in 1536.

But there’s another big reason why this generation is embracing the Welsh language with open arms: for many in Wales, language is a way of asserting their national pride in a post-Brexit Britain. And what with the political instability of the past few years (indeed, just consider the past few months), the idea of an independent Wales has become more and more appealing. ‘I think a lot of younger people want to be Welsh more than British now,’ says Singer. ‘They can identify with Wales and Welshness more than Britishness. I think it’s going to be the generation that pushes independence.’ 

Gwenllian Anthony from Adwaith
Photograph: Dyma Ni!Gwenllian Anthony from Adwaith

So it’s fair to say that this new generation of Welsh-language artists is low-key political: for many, music is a form of soft power and a show of cultural identity. ‘Music is a really strong tool for change, it’s subversive, it gets to people without them realising,’ says Llwyd. There’s a patriotic shift taking place elsewhere, too. Wales’ national sports teams may officially changing their name to Cymru after the World Cup, with the Football Association of Wales (FAW) apparently already discussing the change with UEFA.

Politics, patriotism and red dragons aside, one of the main achievements of Welsh-speaking musicians is their success in promoting the language – showing it can be more than just road signs and another class in school. They’ve shown it’s something to be proud of, too. And while ‘Cool Cymru’ 1.0 gave birth to mostly male-fronted bands, with the majority of the songs from the era actually being sung in English (think Stereophonics and Manic Street Preachers), most of the excitement surrounding the scene today is down to just how varied it is. 

Artists like Sage Todz, Adwaith and Cerys Hafana are redefining what Welsh-language music can be, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether you can or can’t understand what they’re saying. ‘A lot of people who don’t understand the language can still understand the motivations and emotions behind the music,’ says Neal Thomson, co-founder of FOCUS Wales, an annual Welsh music festival in Wrexham.

As Todz put it in that song, ‘O Hyd’, released in support of the football team: ‘We are here! On the way to the top of the game, on the way to the top of the world.’ His words could just easily apply to all of the great music coming out of the country too.

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