Myths, Music & Storytelling Magic in Wales: Beyond the Border Festival 2016

My first festival of the summer was Beyond the Border Wales International Storytelling Festival, which took place from 1-3 July 2016 in the grounds of Atlantic College and the medieval St. Donat’s Castle near Llantwit Major, in the Vale of Glamorgan. It’s a fairly small but well-established biannual festival, attracting between 2000 and 3000 visitors and many of the festival goers have been regulars for years, if not decades.

BTB programme

This year’s themes included Stories from the Celtic World, Myths of Gender/Gender in Myth, Myth and Music of India and Greece as well as Blacksmith Tales and Legends. For such a compact festival it had a whopping 9 festival areas, some in tents, some outdoors and one larger indoor venue at St. Donat’s Arts centre (which was sort of the festival hub for artists and attendees and had wifi and a café with sea views).

As it was my first storytelling festival, I had no idea who the big names were and what styles of stories I would enjoy most, so I tried a whole variety. Unlike at music festivals, where you can listen to partial sets of different bands and still get something out of it, I quickly learned that here it was best to catch the whole story from beginning to end.

Various people had recommended Ben Haggarty to me, a very accomplished storyteller who did an impressive performance of ‘The Blacksmith at The Bridge of Bones’ on Friday night. His style was a little too theatrical for me, but he seemed immensely popular and his performance was quite mesmerising and entertaining, here is a taster.

Right afterwards I caught a beautifully inventive story called ‘UniVerse’ by Irish-born and London-based storyteller Clare Murphy whose sense of humour I loved straight away (and made me a bit homesick for Ireland) and whose wonderfully original style had the audience spellbound. Read her blog post on what storytelling is and definitely check out some of her videos online (I dare you not to giggle!).

BTB Blue Garden

I started the Saturday with a yoga session in the Blue Garden led by Diana O’Reilly, with the morning sun shining down on us, which was a blessing in itself, as was the wonderful location overlooking the sea and the calm, welcoming atmosphere at the class.

As my volunteer shift happened to be in the Pavilion, I caught Jo Blake Cave and Laura Pocket (on double bass) with a reimagined version of her post-apocalyptic magical story ‘The Girl Who Became a Boy’. This was followed by travelling back in time to 14th century Venice by top Italian storyteller Paola Balbi.

I also greatly enjoyed listening to the Welsh-Indian band Tŷhai before it was time for some bilingual tales (partly in Welsh) by Dau Dafod (Jez Danks & Dafydd Davies Hughes). After grabbing a yummy veggie meal from The Parsnipship I decided to give ‘Beowulf’ a try, which was expertly and very humorously told by Jesper La Cour Andersen and Troels Kirk Ejsing. The Danes had the audience really engaged in the story (‘rowing’ a boat, being guests at a Viking party etc.) and it ended up being my favourite show of the festival, so much fun!

Later that night it was time for some music again and a very special collaboration by Mumbai singer Tauseef Akhtar and Welsh singer-songwriter Gwyneth Glyn. Ghazalaw is one of those projects which gets the balance exactly right by merging the music and song of two cultures in a very beautiful way including tabla, fiddle, harmonium, kora, harp and guitar. Their first album is fantastic and they also played some new songs for us.

BTB kids area

After another yoga morning session, which always helps to put me in a poised and happy mood for the day, I caught the first part of another brilliant Clare Murphy show, this time with Tim Ralphs and the (to a bunny person like myself) very enticing title ‘Tales of the Rabbit God’. Luckily my next volunteer shift was at the Pavilion again, so I managed to listen to Native American storyteller Dovie Thomason whose story was called ‘Buffalo Gals Won’t You Come Out Tonight?’. It was fantastic to learn so much about storytelling traditions of different parts of the world all in one weekend in rural Wales.

The finale of the festival on Sunday night was a wonderful parade with everyone and their handmade lanterns and costumes moving from the festival grounds to the Big Top led by the Rajasthan Heritage Brass Band. After the closing ceremony and the burning of a giant fire sculpture (created by Goffee) in a field overlooking the sea, it was time for the last act of the festival, a (mostly) Eastern-European dance party with The Turbans, which was the perfect end to a vibrant, story and music-filled weekend in Wales.

BTB fire sculpture

So if you like your festivals small and friendly where you get woken up by sheep bleating in the field next door, both old and young will have a good time and you can learn a thing or two in a relaxed atmosphere, do put Beyond the Border in your summer calendar. The nearby small town of Llantwit Major (hourly bus from near the festival grounds or a half hour walk away) is also worth exploring for an afternoon and has some very cosy cafes.

P.S. As a linguist, I’d like to give a special mention the the amazing sign language interpreters at the festival! I’ve never been at an event where they seemed more engaged and passionate than here at BTB. Find out more about sign language interpreters here.

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