When the Heart Knows that It’s Home: The Joy Formidable and “Y Garreg Ateb”

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Formed in North Wales, based in London, The Joy Formidable have been making music since the release of their first single, “Austere,” in 2008.  Since then, three albums, three EPs, and an assortment of singles and remixes have been produced.  In one respect, The Joy Formidable evoke a mythic landscape of medieval Arthurian romance, but without the vanity of the hero’s journey.  Unlike the Elizabethan minstrel folk rock of Jethro Tull, The Joy Formidable forge the sonic scope of Rush with the lyrical grandeur of King Crimson into a rare element that could only flourish on Welsh soil.  More to the point, the songs that Rhydian Davies (bass and keyboards) and Ritzy Bryan (guitar and lead vocals) write—accompanied by Matthew Thomas (drums and percussions)—belie a more ordinary but no less evocative world of human relationships.  In the latter respect, The Joy Formidable are very much a rock n roll band, singing about the affairs of the heart, complete with epic riffs that make your spirit feel like a hitherto unknown place—a valley, a glade, a lake, a meadow—has been revealed through the chords that Bryan is playing.

When I saw The Joy Formidable perform for the first time, it was on Saturday, October 29, 2016 at the Crescent Ballroom in downtown Phoenix, Arizona.  They were opening for another band, which was inconsequential to me.  I had been waiting years to see this trio perform live, so I was there for only one thing.  I was not disappointed.  The set opened with “The Greatest Light Is the Greatest Shade,” from their first album The Big Roar (2011), which was also the source of the show’s finale, “Whirring.”  In-between was a selection from their second album Wolf’s Law (2013) and their recent release Hitch (2016).  However, at about the midway point, the band played “Y Garreg Ateb,” which was part of a monthly singles series that The Joy Formidable released during 2014, featuring songs sung in the Welsh language.  When Bryan introduced the song, she said it was about a place one goes to, a sacred space, in order to contemplate.

While it is tempting to characterize the Welsh songs as examples of musical nationalism or musical sovereignty—it’s easy to forget, particularly when one lives in America, that Wales is a colonized nation—the touching quality of the song feels more like an ode to the land as a source of dreams and solace than a rebellion against the English.  I say “feels” for the simple reason that, not being a Welsh speaker, I have no idea what the lyrics say.  Yet, as someone who comes from an Indigenous culture, the song brings to mind the harmony that one can only experience when they are reconnecting, through song, with a place, a land, where one truly belongs.  With this in mind, if “Y Garreg Ateb” is an example of anything, it is of how singing in a different language—Welsh, instead of English—completely alters one’s sense of being.  While the song is still recognizably The Joy Formidable, at the same time it conjures an utterly different side to the band.  It is the difference between going out into the world, where strangers and the unknown reside, and returning home, where family and friends live, the ones who know your true face.  Below is a video I recorded at the show.  Please enjoy:

Video and photo credit: David Martínez

‘Strange Circus’ (2005): Sion Sono and the Horror of a Normal Family

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What’s worse than murder or betrayal?  In Sion Sono’s 2005 film Strange Circus the ultimate taboo is violated, disclosing more than the demons dwelling within the heart of a middle-aged man as he preys for his daughter.  As we follow the emotional turmoil of “Mitsuko Ozawa” (Masumi Miyazaki/Rie Kuwana/Mai Takahashi) and her mother “Sayuri” (Masumi Miyazaki), who are both forced to endure the sexual torment of father and husband “Gozo Ozawa” (Hiroshi Oguchi), a poignant critique of polite society emerges, in particular for the way in which it forces victims of abuse to hide in the shadows with their suffering.

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Gozo is the principal at Mitsuko’s school, where he’s regarded as a respectable figure.  At home, though, he’s a monster who subjects his wife and daughter to his heinous sexual desires.  What results as the abuse continues is that Sayuri begins taking out her shame, anger, and jealousy on Mitsuko.  Out of this cruel chaos “Taeko” (Masumi Miyazaki) emerges, an emotionally unstable and wheelchair-bound novelist who writes erotica about “Mitsuko” and lives in a baroquely decorated house, complete with a secret room, where the truth of Mitsuko dwells.

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Because of the popularity of her work, Taeko has a number of assistants, among whom a new face has joined in her employ, “Yûji Tamiya” (Issei Ishida), who identifies himself as a “great fan” of Taeko’s work, and who eventually takes on the assignment of discovering the story behind Taeko’s handicap and the inspiration for Mitsuko.  In addition to being another chapter in Sono’s exploration of the darker aspects of the human psyche, as occurred in Suicide Club (2001), or the hidden needs of the marginalized, as seen in Noriko’s Dinner Table (2005), Strange Circus unleashes a damning criticism of the patriarchy that still pervades Japanese society, which disempowers women, and normalizes male abuses of gender inequity.  And in the case of Mitsuko there’s nothing more disturbing and traumatic than to see the face of the man who’s supposed to protect her turn into an expression of lust.

Indigenous Peoples Day 2016

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While holidays may seem trite and ineffective at promoting the values they represent—Does Christmas generate Christian values?—they nonetheless retain the capacity of drawing peoples’ attention away from the status quo of everyday life.  In fact, in the case of efforts at establishing new holidays, the public struggle for recognition may create a maelstrom of controversy and debate.  One need only think back to when Martin Luther King Jr Day was considered a subversive, un-American idea.

While Indigenous Peoples Day may not be instigating the kind of passionate reactions that MLK Day once inspired, its message is no less profound—the abolishment of Columbus Day and the heinous crime of colonization that it symbolizes.  In its place is a recognition that America is Indian Land and that America’s First Peoples are still here, complete with a celebration of our survival, our communities, and cultures.

Although it will take an Act of Congress to make Indigenous Peoples Day a federal holiday, like MLK Day or Thanksgiving, the idea behind this Day is an idea whose time has come.  As of October 10, 2016, the following cities have adopted IPD in place of Columbus Day: Berkeley (CA), Denver (CO), Minneapolis (MN), Seattle (WA), Red Wing (MN), Grand Rapids (MN), Traverse (MI), Newstead (NY), Akron (NY), St Paul (MN), Olympia (WA), Lewiston (NY), Anadarko (OK), Anchorage (AK), Portland (OR), Carborro (NC), Albuquerque (NM), San Francisco (CA), Belfast (ME), Durango (CO), Asheville (NC), Eugene (OR), Cambridge (MA), Bainbridge Island (WA), Santa Fe (NM), Yakima (WA), and Phoenix (AZ).

Below are two short videos that I recorded this past Friday, October 7 at Arizona State University, Tempe Campus, which was celebrating its inaugural Indigenous Peoples Day: