Helia Phoenix delves into the imagined land of Gwenno’s Cornish language record Le Kov, released on Heavenly Recordings earlier this month.
It’s rare (very, very rare) these days to honestly write a music review where you’ve listened to something completely new or different. Something you’ve genuinely never heard before. I’ve been dabbling in music writing for nearly 20 years, and this is the first time I’ve ever written about an album whose tl;dr is that it’s breathy, Celtic electronic pop with a Scandinavian edge, sung entirely in Cornish. (Go on. I dare you to find me anything that compares.)
After 2015’s Y Dydd Olaf, I sort of figured Gwenno might blast off into space upon her good lady psychedelic rocket ship and continue her musical voyage out there, but she’s surprised me, by bringing that musical sense of wonder and magic to the mundane – the mud, mines and moors of the kingdom of Kernow. But it’s a Cornwall beyond immediate dimensions: Le Kov translates as “the place of memory”. The album’s back cover documents the journey you’ll need to take to get there:
Between Land’s End and Scilly Rocks,
Sunk lies a city that the ocean mocks
A bustling metropolis,
Links reaching the furthest seas
A Cornish capital
The place of memory.
The Welsh have a word for a sort of homesickness – hiraeth – that’s similar to the Portuguese saudade: tinged with longing and nostalgia, for a homeland of the past, for a place that can only really exist in memory, or in the imagination. So as well as being the very real place that Cornwall obviously is, Le Kov exists beyond its aforementioned mud and moors, and draws attention to the plight of the kingdom of Kernow. It was the seat of King Arthur, an area that rebelled countless times against English rule, with its own native language that overlapped with the neighbouring nations of Wales and France. Today, estimates put the number of Cornish speakers at between 500 and 2000, depending on whose stats you believe. So Le Kov – this imagined place of memory – may be a future that’s not so far away for the Cornish language, or for any speakers of minority languages that are currently disappearing at a rate of one per fortnight.
The album also works on another level – speaking to all displaced peoples who have ever dreamed of returning home, however impossible that might be. By the end of 2016, the number of displaced people in the world had risen to 65.6 million – more than the population of the UK. These people may end up living for the rest of their lives away from the countries of their birth, dreaming of homelands and speaking languages that may soon no longer exist.
When Gwenno sings “A tongueless man / A tongueless man has lost”, my only thoughts were about those homelands disappearing (and the rich cultural history contained within all languages disappearing too). It made me think a lot about refugees in general, and more specifically about my own parents, who escaped Iran before the revolution, and their brothers and sisters, who left at the same time, scattered across the globe. None of them can ever go back home – the Iran they grew up in (the Iran they would call “home”) is not a place that exists anymore. I grew up as a first language Farsi speaker in Wales – communicating in a language that was imbued with nuance and poetry drawn from a land that I would never live in.
Back to Le Kov … the album plumes the heady depths of what you’d broadly call psychedelia – from the lush instrumentation of ‘Hi a Skoellyas Liv a Dhagrow’ (which would make an amazing Bond theme – think the Dusty Springfield era of pop) to the epic poppy soundscapes usually associated with Nordic or Icelandic acts. ‘Eus Keus’ is bright fizzy-fuzzy indie, the sort of thing Boards of Canada might have made if they’d been a girl group. The lyrics are also delightful and provide an insight into the joys of Cornish as a language – eus keus is apparently a well-known Cornish saying that asks, simply, absurdly,
Is there cheese?
Is there or isn’t there?
If there’s cheese, bring cheese
And if there isn’t cheese, bring what’s easy!
Other moments of note across the album include ‘Jynn-Amontya’, which is like a leisurely amble into a forest where Jane Birkin is sitting on a lily pad somewhere singing to you; and ‘Daromres y’n Howl’, where Gwenno ventures into jaunty, 90s fairground Celt-pop; but my favourite song (beyond the joys of ‘Eus Keus’) is ‘Herdhya’ (translated as ‘Pushing’), where the imagined Le Kov becomes a mental prison, perhaps warning of the dangers of putting too much stock into imaginary homelands: “Cruel rocks, wild waves … pushing back faster and faster / stuck on an island, and I’m scared / far down under the water / here lies the city for us all”. The song has beautiful arrangement under the eerie lyrics: delicately layered pads, calling to mind Tycho at his nostalgic, electronic best.
It’s a testament to the power of Le Kov that the album remains accessible and so enjoyable to listen to, despite it being in a language that barely anyone will understand. It is a nostalgic, upbeat, at times melancholic exploration of the idea of a ‘homeland’, where you may have none. A Welsh woman using Cornish as the musical lingua franca for an album can’t help but send a pointed message about the plight of languages for those who’ve been displaced. Five wheels of keus out of five makes this an album I would absolutely recommend you add to your collection, immediately. Especially the limited vinyl version, which comes in a beautiful bright colour blue.
(Also, just in case anyone reading has this sort of power, I’d really like to put Gwenno forward to write the next Bond theme, with Le Kov as my proof of concept.)