Welsh Experience

Wild Patagonia

Nature's Wonders

Action & Unusual

Made to Measure


The Rest of Argentina
 
Introducing
Argentina



Latest News
Video Gallery
 
 

Welsh Choir Takes Patagonia By Storm > This page in Welsh > Esta página en Español>

Click to enlarge

In March of this year, the governor of the Welsh province of Chubut in Argentina signed an accord with Rhodri Morgan, the First Minister of Wales, which envisaged increased cultural ties between Wales and Welsh Patagonia. Hot on the heels of this initiative, and unperturbed by the fact that the other signatory of the agreement, Welsh Cultural Secretary Alun Pugh, had lost his seat in the recent national elections, Melody Music of Cardiff put together a Welsh Male Voice Choir from choirs throughout Wales to take out to Patagonia to check the place out for themselves. They have just got home to Wales from their tour of Argentina which has universally been described as unforgettable.

Click to enlarge

The original Welsh colonists arrived on the clipper Mimosa in 1865 and, after a shaky start, established enclaves along the River Chubut some 1,500 kilometres south of Buenos Aires. Situated in a vast desert of scrub and stones, with barely a tree for 500 kilometres, they soon ran out of arable land and so followed the river west to find the fabled rich lands of the Andes. In November 1885, they first set their eyes on their “Beautiful Valley” (Cwm Hyfryd) and the Welsh town of Trevelin was established there soon after and the Welsh chain across the country firmly established. And so they lived in peace, untroubled by English landlords and cultural suppression until Chile laid claim to their valley some 20 years later. Ironically, an Englishman, Sir Thomas Hungerford Holdich, was called upon by the two almost-warring governments to adjudicate on their claims and he called for a plebiscite. The mainly Welsh and indigenous Indian community (including women, voting for the first time in South America) voted overwhelmingly to become and remain part of Argentina and the indivisible links between the Welsh and Argentina were duly cemented.

And so conveniently, on the anniversary of the Plebiscite and in time for the annual Eisteddfod in the beautiful Andean village of Trevelin, the Choir, the biggest tour group ever to visit Welsh Patagonia, arrived and began to assault the region with their choral trebuchets, ballistas and mangonels. Firstly, the Cymanfa Ganu had to be moved from the Chapel to the larger “Salon Central”, the Musical Directors, Mr Last and Mr Lowndes, had decided to play two organs simultaneously lest the sound of one was drowned out by the crowd, seating plans had to be developed by committees and rooms prepared for the families who came from all corners of the Welsh colonies to participate in the festivities. They were not disappointed. The chosen venue turned out to be too small to hold all the worshippers and some said that they saw the roof move when the congregation thundered the Amen from the hymn ‘Tydi a Roddaist’. They even ran out of the special songbooks printed especially for the occasion.

No one could remember God being praised so eloquently and forcefully in any religious festival in living memory.

The following morning, the Choir was taken deep into the Beautiful Valley, where brass bands, Scouts, firemen, Welsh Associations, moustachioed military officers, important politicians and most of the people from the surrounding countryside were assembled, waiting for the choir to kick off proceedings with the Argentine National Anthem. Their perfect delivery (after months spent learning the words) and the exuberance of their conductor, Ferndale’s own John Asquith, set the audience alight and tears of joy started to stain the dry red earth. After the speeches and political promises, the choir struck up with a tribute to their beautiful surroundings, written in Spanish by a local named Emir Pugh, and sung to the tune of the stirring Welsh hymn, ‘Cân yr Adfywiad Newydd’ (‘Daeth Iesu i'm calon i fyw’). The song was carried live on local television, all the dignitaries were swallowing hard and coughing to stem any embarrassing flow of tears and the cheering of the audience lasted, it seemed at the time, for ever.

 

By now, everyone knew the Choir had arrived and worries about filling the 800 seats in the local concert hall were beginning to be allayed. TV, newspapers and radio were full of coverage of the Choir (the local Director of Culture even said on TV that they were one of the top five choirs in the World but, when pressed, couldn’t name the other four) and the doors of the hall had to be opened an hour early to relieve the crush. Eventually, close to 1,600 people squeezed into the tiny venue and were treated to a repeat of the Spanish songs (met with the same hysteria), as well as a host of other favourites from chapel, church and West End show. Even the local choirs stepped on stage and performed beautifully, despite being vastly outnumbered by their compatriots from the Old Country. The crowning glory came when the Mayor beamingly presented a beribboned and wax-sealed copy of an official law passed by the town which accorded the choir the honorary title of Heroes of the History of Trevelin.

Nobody remembers when the concert actually finished, but all recall every detail of every minute of a night which some described as the most emotional of their lives.

The following day, it was payback time. Argentina wanted to show these honoured visitors what it had to offer and so the group was escorted into the nearby Los Alerces National Park, home to majestic 3,000 year old cypress trees, crashing glaciers, vast cold southern hemisphere rain forests, towering Andean peaks and rivers and lakes where the water is so pure that the region is about to become a UNESCO biosphere reserve. Condors bid them a courteous welcome and eyed one or two potential meal opportunities (the average age of the group was well over 60) and many overawed visitors expressed the view that this is what Wales must have been like before Longshanks cut down all the trees and they sold all the water to Birmingham. Meanwhile, in Trevelin, the Welsh Society, under the captaincy of local farmer Lewis Thomas, was putting all types of animals to the sword to feed the hungry travellers on their return from the National Park. They were greeted in an aircraft hangar lent by the local police for the day by a feast of Arthurian proportions. If there’s one thing they’re not short of in Welsh Patagonia, it’s sheep and it seemed that most of them were being roasted in the sunshine by the swarms of gauchos entrusted with the task of giving the Choir a meal to remember. Many sheep, cows, chickens, sausages, bottles of wine and Calon Lâns later, they waddled back into their hotels and readied themselves for yet another reception, this time thrown by the sister Welsh community in the Welsh Chapel in the nearby town of Esquel.

Someone said the next day that he had met someone that morning who had actually remembered what time they had gone to bed. But nobody believed him.

No one wanted to see them go, but they had to cross the country to visit the original Welsh colonies in the whale- and penguin-infested east. Part of the route shadowed the track used by the settlers when undertaking the arduous 600 km (400 mile) crossing of the desert. Their wagon trains had to deal with flood, famine and marauding Indians and only those made of the sternest stuff survived the perilous crossing. At one point on the journey, now known as Rocky Trip, the terrain forced the settlers to leave the relative safety of the banks of the river and climb on to a plateau before they were able to rejoin the river some kilometres later. The only place of descent was so steep that they had to hitch horses and oxen to the backs of the wagons to prevent gravity from propelling them and their belongings into rocky canyons below. Standing on the plateau, the view was (except for the buses in which the Choir had arrived) exactly as it had been for the settlers more than a hundred years before. Images of scattered remnants of bottles, wagon wheels, cheap tin trays and a lonely cross marking a long-forgotten grave summoned up those basic emotions which all the Welsh possess, as well as a deep admiration for the way these brave people overcame such hardship. Those hardy souls would definitely have appreciated the minute’s silence and subsequent tearful rendering of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau which echoed in their honour around the canyons on that sunny afternoon.

Then dawned the morning after on Puerto Madryn, the site of the original landings in 1865 and now a prosperous seaside resort living off the irrepressible desire of mankind to see nature at its best. The area is home to swarms of whales, orcas, penguins (named by early Welsh sailors – pen (head) + gwyn (white)), seals and the largest and wobbliest animal on earth, the elephant seal. It is here where the killer whale, the orca, teaches its young to swim up the beach and gobble up unsuspecting seal pups. Puerto Madryn is a different world of chic hotels, smart restaurants, endless coffee shops, clean beaches and bars that never close. And all at Argentinean prices, which you would be hard-pushed to beat anywhere in the World. And the hotel was only a block away from the watering hole which became the favourite of those other Welsh tourists who came in their droves in June of last year for the rugby international between Wales and Argentina. Many a sorrow had been drowned there then and many new headaches were well under way now.

Down to the state capital of Rawson for a (sell out, of course) concert for the Governor in the posh new Cultural Centre. The whole thing was broadcast live on television and some Choir members were subsequently disappointed that folk in the street didn’t greet them with the same frilly bombs which greeted Tom Jones when he visited Argentina a few weeks before. Fittingly, and with a mischievous glint in his eye, the Governor presented the choir with a framed sculpture of a woolly Patagonian sheep. Some unkind onlookers commented that it would be lucky to makes its way back to Wales unmolested.

Then on to a national monument in Argentina – the Moriah Chapel in Trelew. Founded by Abraham Mathews, its walls and pews have witnessed the happy and dark times of the Colony for more than 120 years. In its churchyard are buried not only Abraham himself, but more than 20 of his shipmates who arrived on the Mimosa. While wandering the graveyard and reading the inscriptions still legible on the stones, clear images form in one’s mind of the settlers and their families, the plagues and the floods and the heartbreak in losing so many young ones at such tender ages. And these emotions spilled over in the Chapel, where over 100 of our group sat: some reading the Bible, some keeping their own counsel, but all in reverential awe of the place. It didn’t take long for the hymns to start. The Chapel had an elderly lady organist on hand and its octogenarian Chief Deacon stepped forward, shoulders tallboy-stiff and square, to conduct the group in song and lead them in prayer over and over again. Arglwydd Mawr!

A difficult act to follow, but we went on to Gaiman, the still-beating Welsh heart of the Colony in the east, for happy reunions with family and friends in Capel Bethel and cream teas. And, true to tradition, nobody managed to eat a whole one! Gaiman is more Welsh than Wooden and Love Spoons,  English Holiday Home Owners, Trawsfynydd, Capel Celyn and caravans between Aberystwyth and Aberteifi put together: stop an indigenous person (Tehuelche Indian) on the street and you’ll get a friendly rejoinder in an accent more reminiscent of Yr Wyddfa than Y Wladfa; stop to buy a packet of fags (still advertised here) and you’ll be offered bara brith, paned o de (with tea leaves and a strainer)and the fruitiest selection of Hufen Iâ this side of Tenby; all the cars have Welsh Dragon stickers (many of them to prevent an important piece of the vehicle from falling off) and there are no English landlords. The vegetable shops proudly display the garlic, potatoes, pumpkins and other results of Welsh inventiveness and ingenuity in using the waters of the river to irrigate the farms in this rich valley.

Sadly, the measly 6 days the Choir had allowed for its trip didn’t allow us to tarry in Gaiman, nor did it allow us to schedule a concert in Trelew, the unofficial capital of Welsh Patagonia. But the local Welsh clans weren’t going to allow the absence of a concert to come between us and so they threw the party of parties to welcome the Choir “Home”. The Cymdeithas Dewi Sant Hall in Trelew was full to the rafters with all the Welsh great and good from the east and they were intent on showing us just how Patagonians can party. They laid on an exhibition of Argentinean culture, complete with dancers, musicians, singers, instrumentalists and, of course, meat and wine. They told us that the police had closed the street outside (one of the main arteries of the city) to make room to barbecue all the sheep, and those locals who didn’t have the foresight to buy a ticket prior to them selling out two weeks before at least had the compensation of sniffing the glorious aromas as they craned their necks to hear the festivities. Not to be outdone, of course, the Choir responded with all the great choral favourites and a sort of Patagonian version of duelling banjos ensued: we did ‘Oes Gafr Eto?’ and they responded with an ‘Escondido’; we did ‘Calon Lân’ in Spanish and they did ‘Cwm Rhondda’ in Welsh. Nobody remembered leaving, but we all awoke safely the next morning in our hotel in Puerto Madryn.

And the last day of their trip dawned (every minute of which had been organised, by the way, by Esquel-based travel specialists www.welshpatagonia.com) with tears falling from grey skies. Fitting weather for the group to see the beaches on which the pilgrims landed and the caves in which they dwelt in that harsh winter of 1865. The bleakness of the day made it all sink in just how hard it had been and how heroic had been their actions in making such a silk purse that the Welsh colony has become from the sow’s ear it was then. However, shirts had to be ironed, hair permed and combed over and faces scrubbed for the big night of their farewell concert and Noson Lawen. The venue chosen was the delightful Italian Theatre in the centre of the town. The Musical Director made his plans for a short rehearsal to fine tune some of the pieces; the Choir Marshall visited the venue and made preparations for the roll-on/roll-off ceremony at the beginning and end of the concert; choristers were told what to do with their hands during the performances of their co-stars for the night and those in the know made plans for a swift evacuation in the event of an audience revolt when the Choir innocently completed its rendition of a tribute to Trevelin, the arch-rival community in the West. But the best laid plans......nobody had told us that we couldn’t go into the theatre until a more important cultural event - the Patagonian first night of Spiderman 3 - had been completed and all the popcorn swept up. Nor that we had to be out before the late night feature, the name of which a combination of prudishness and modesty prevents me from revealing.  Luckily, popcorn had been banned for our performance and we were able to negotiate enough extra minutes for a couple of stirring encores. The rendition of En Los Andes Del Sur was met with an explosion of approval, rather than by rotten tomatoes, as some had predicted, the audience appreciation of the efforts of the Choir in learning the words far exceeding any impact of local petty jealousies, and the final sell out concert finished on the highest of highs. There wasn’t a seat to be had anywhere; all standing room had been taken and they were still queuing down the street. Later at the Noson Lawen, the newly elected chairwoman of the Puerto Madryn Welsh Society confided in me that this had been the biggest night for them in memory and they saw it as an auspicious omen that they had, on that very night, signed up their first new member for 10 years. Nobody remembered who the last signed-up member was and now, with a bright future beckoning, nobody cared.

And when I’m old and my hair turns grey and they put me in a chair,
I’ll tell my great-grandchildren that their Datcu was there.
And they’ll ask to hear the story of Trevelin on that day
When our hearts were proudly swollen coz the Choir had come to stay.  (With apologies to Max Boyce)

Abraham Matthews Monument
Click to enlarge
Local Welsh Children
Click to enlarge
Proud Families at the Plebiscite
Click to enlarge
Mayor and Vice Governor

Click to enlarge

John Asquith
Click to enlarge
Triumphant Ending
Click to enlarge
Local Dancer Trevelin
Click to enlarge
Choir with Local Choirs
Click to enlarge
Local Choirs
Click to enlarge
Trevelin Concert
Click to enlarge
Los Alerces National Park
Click to enlarge
Original Landing Sites
Click to enlarge
Rawson Cultural Centre
Click to enlarge
Moriah Chapel
Click to enlarge
Local Welsh Association
Click to enlarge
Contemplation in Moriah
Click to enlarge
Slaughter of The Lambs
 

 
english/
spanish/
cymraeg

Esquel - Chubut - Patagonia - Argentina - Email: info@welshpatagonia.com