SPEAKING IN CODE “It’s a language and culture that could die out in a few generations if it’s not tended to,” says Welshman Gruff Rhys. “So consequently we have to overcompensate.”
In his new film Separado!, Gruff Rhys is riding around São Paulo when his Brazilian driver asks the shaggy-haired musician where he is from. When Rhys then has to use his hand to illustrate where his homeland of Wales is in relation to England (much like Michiganders use the thumb), we are reminded that the traveler is always a foreigner somewhere — we just don't always see ourselves as curiosities.
Shining a light elsewhere as a means of personal illumination is one of the themes of Separado!, Rhys's first voyage into acting and directing, which screened at this year's SXSW film festival (the film is co-directed by Rhys's longtime visual collaborator Dylan Goch). Part documentary and part surrealist music video ("In South America there is an opportunity to indulge in magical realist fantasies," says Rhys), the film is another of his many adventures — aside from leading the Super Furry Animals — and is also the most unintentionally revealing window yet into the musical graffiti artist's modus operandi.
Rhys grew up in a fervently proud Welsh-speaking household and entered Wales's music scene as a member of Ffa Coffi Pawb in the early '90s before forming ultra-eclectic rock band Super Furry Animals in the middle of the decade. Although Super Furry record predominantly in English, in 2000 they released their only LP sung completely in Welsh, Mwng, at the height of the Welsh indie revival that also introduced the equally brilliant Gorky's Zygotic Mynci. Rhys's solo debut from 2005, Yr Atal Genhedlaeth, was also sung completely in his mother tongue.
For anyone who hasn't heard it spoken — or better yet, sung — Welsh is a strange and beautiful language filled with musical, backwards-sounding conflations of consonants and vowels. "It's a language and culture that could die out in a few generations if it's not tended to. So consequently we have to overcompensate," says the 40- year-old from a hotel room in Dallas. Welsh-language records may seem a novelty, but watching the spacey troubadour on Separado! as he encounters Welsh-speaking villagers and perplexes them with his primitive/repetitive, compulsively melodic, experimental folk songs (such as the time-bending chant-along "Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru" from 2007's Candylion), we can see quickly that, if anything, the English language is a put-on for Rhys.
"It's quite fulfilling performing in that environment," Rhys says. "The majority of the villagers were Welsh speakers and maybe their experience with Welsh music was naturally things like hymns and quite traditional music. I feel that they are kind of rejecting Welsh music in favor of Anglo-American pop culture. It is really interesting to play songs for them in the Welsh language that are quite unfamiliar."
Made over the course of five restless years, Separado! chronicles Rhys's travels in Brazil and Argentina as he investigates actively Welsh-speaking pockets of South America (the vestiges of former colonies that left Wales to escape language and cultural persecution from the English in the 1800s) and attempts to locate a long-lost relative, the Patagonian singer René Griffiths. Griffiths emigrated back to Wales for a time when Rhys was a child and became an overnight sensation on Welsh TV in 1974 with his unmistakably strange Argentinean cowboy songs sung in note-perfect Welsh.