The Big Experiment
The Big Experiment/Arbrawf Mawr all-age ‘folk school’ ran from 2008 to 2017 as Trac Cymru’s flagship annual event. A hundred folkies from all over Wales would come to spend a whole weekend playing, singing and dancing. They could improve their technique with top tutors, experiment with unfamiliar instruments, songs and dance styles, and make new friends at the same time. The weekends were cram-packed with music, dance and song, with nearly 30 hours of tuition and activities including mixed-instrument groups, songs, clogging, tasters and sessions.
The location varied from Anglesey to Pembrokeshire, to Carmarthen. Welsh-speaking or not, all were equally welcome. Our resident simultaneous translator, Martin Davies, helped learners and non-Welsh-speakers access all areas and there was a special welcome for Welsh learners’ groups, some of which came especially to enjoy a bilingual weekend where they could practise their language skills with Welsh speakers.
Over the years the tutor roster reads like a who’s who of Welsh folk – Stephen Rees, Arfon Gwilym, Siân James, Oli Wilson-Dickson, Patrick Rimes, Robin Huw Bowen, Pat Smith, Guto Dafis, Huw Williams, Bethan Nia, Tudur Phillips, Beth Williams-Jones, Sioned Webb, Robert Evans, Mair Tomos Ifans, Angharad Jenkins, Gwilym Bowen Rhys, Stacey Blythe and many more. To begin with, we invited top names from beyond Wales as guest tutors: Brian McNeill (Battlefield Band) from Scotland, Brian Finnegan (Flook) from Ireland, Karen Tweed and Alistair Anderson from England. In later years we focused on the talent and repertoire of Wales as the course grew from 33 participants to over a hundred.
The days were packed. Morning classes were a course in playing, singing or clogging. There were ensemble classes for instruments at foundation, intermediate and advanced level. Singers had their own course in folk song, usually with tradition bearer Arfon Gwilym. Step-dancers of intermediate to advanced level learned from Calan’s golden-clogged Bethan Rhiannon, and absolute beginners and ‘refreshers’ had a separate group, often with Huw Williams or Tudur Phillips.
Afternoons included a range of ‘freestanding’ workshops, designed to ensure that no-one missed out, whatever their morning choice. These were open to the public and the timetable would typically include workshops such as
• Welsh Summer Carols with Arfon
• ClogFit! with Tudur Phillips
• Fiddle technique special
• Folk dance
• Welsh narrative songs
• Rhythm patterns for your tunes
• Harp workshop
• Clogging for all – have a go!
• Have a go on a Crwth
Evenings featured concerts, twmpathau (dancing), song sessions, slow and fast instrumental sessions, and folky films.
There were bursary places for young people and a special morning group for children aged 7-10. As a spin off, we created Gwerin Gwallgo to enable all the teenage participants to have a folk weekend of their own, and then Gwerin Iau for the youngest children.
Through the Big Experiment, we met Gwen Mairi, who went on to join our 10 Mewn Bws project which led to recording opportunities as a Welsh folk harpist as well as tutoring the Youth Folk Ensemble of Wales. We met singer and flautist Huw Evans who also joined 10 Mewn Bws, and Jess Ward who has since released two albums of harp and songs. Tune clubs sprang up in Machynlleth and Llantwit Major run by Big Experiment regulars and some of Wales’ leading contemporary folk musicians such as Vri‘s Aneirin Jones and Jordan Price Williams learned and developed alongside more experienced hands at these memorable weekends.