The Red River Singers are a community choir singing a mix of Cornish songs, including the well-known pub songs, carols, folksongs and quite a few in ‘Kernewek’.
To find out more, we met up with Hilary Coleman, who has been running the choir since 2012 and works hard to promote the traditional music of Cornwall.
What does singing in Cornish mean to you?
I’ve always loved the sound of the Cornish language. There are some lovely flowing words with long vowels that are great to sing. It is also really special to sing about the place we love. How wonderful that we have our own language – let’s use it! The songs really connect you to the local area. For example, the ‘bre’ in the song ‘Bre Gammbronn’ (Camborne Hill) means ‘hill’, just like in ‘Carn Brea’.
Tell us about the creative process of discovering a Cornish language song and then working on the music and lyrics.
We get our songs from all over the place, some newly written and some from old manuscripts. There are often many layers to the arranging of them and some resulted from collaborations between members of my traditional Cornish band Dalla which included my husband, Neil. Take the song ‘Para Hern’ (Curing Pilchards) for example. The words are by John Boson in 1710, who was a Cornish language writer and very involved in the fishing industry. The original poem was around 15 verses long, so, as Dalla, we worked to shorten it to six. Neil then adapted the words to fit to an old Cornish tune and we developed the ‘riffs’ which form the harmony parts, resulting in ‘Para Hern’ as we know and love it today.
‘Kerra Kernow’ (Beloved Cornwall) is another favourite. Brenda Wootton, who was known as ‘Cornwall’s First Lady of Song’ in the 70s and 80s, originally sang it. She worked with Richard Gendall (who was a prolific song writer in Cornish, English, French and German), to release many albums including ‘Boy Jan … Cornishman’ (1980) which included Kerra Kernow. Ian Marshall took the song in 2012 and arranged it into a four-part harmony for a choir. It’s one we get asked to sing in the pub a lot – many people think it should replace ‘Trelawny’ as the Cornish National Anthem!
Would you say singing is a good way to learn the language?
Yes, it’s brilliant. Only a few of the choir members are fluent speakers, and I only know the basics. We tend to learn the songs by chanting them to the rhythm of the song first, before adding in the melody. It’s quite an easy language to learn, as the words are pronounced phonetically.
To get involved or find out more, contact Hilary Coleman via the Red River Singers Facebook page.