Category Archives: Events

David Ambrose: Storytelling and festivals

David Ambrose is both a storyteller and the director of Wales’ international storytelling festival, Beyond the Border. We meet for a coffee and a chat in the Welsh Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay.

David Ambrose is the director of Wales' international storytelling festival

David Ambrose is the director of Wales’ international storytelling festival

Middle-aged and disarming, he insists on buying me a coffee. As we settle down, a children’s orchestra strikes up from the Glanfa Stage in the foyer. Raising my voice above a lively rendition of Hark the herald, I ask him to tell me something about how Beyond the Border came into being.

Eager to oblige, he sets his flat white down and leans forward. “I first came across storytelling about 25 years ago,” he tells me. “I really didn’t know what it was but I recognised it immediately as something that had been in the background of my life since childhood.”

He was so taken with the idea of storytelling that he began promoting it for an adult audience. It grew until it could eventually be called a festival – and the first Beyond the Border was held in St. Donats in 1993.

A few years ago, support from the Welsh government and the Arts Council of Wales meant that it was added to the roster of major events in Wales. But it is not limited to a bi-annual festival – Beyond the Border also promotes storytelling events all year round (see below).

What is storytelling?

The backing track to our conversation has changed to the mellower tune of Away in a Manger. Taking a sip of coffee, I ask if he could explain what exactly constitutes storytelling as an art form.

He nods enthusiastically: “That’s a really interesting question …”

It is clearly something he has already thought about in great detail. Firstly, he tells me, it is not just reading aloud from a book and, furthermore, it is far more than simply reciting.

“Storytelling is basic human need,” he says. “It’s a need to communicate experience – and every human being indulges in it and has a need for it. By and large, we’re talking about the performance of traditional stories – but not necessarily a faithful or rigid retelling.”

And for anyone who thinks of storytelling as a cosy, comfortable pastime where the status quo never changes, they need to think again. “Stories can be quite subversive,” David insists. “It’s about creating a world where Jack can become King – the best stories involve change and transformation.”

Personal journey

I know storytelling is something that David not only promotes but also engages in. I ask why he started doing it.

Nodding thoughtfully, he tells me that he has always loved literature and once harboured dreamy notions of making a living through becoming a poet. He also has a background in performance; he ran away from university to join a theatre company and spent three years touring up and down the country.

“In many ways, I think I’ve started very late – I went into storytelling in my 40s,” he says.

And where does he find inspiration? Sometimes in books, he concedes, but the best inspiration is always listening to another storyteller. The greatest storytellers don’t just repeat stories; they create stories.

As O Come All Ye Faithful strikes up – loudly – I ask what advice would he give to an aspiring storyteller.

This time, he is very succinct. “Go to see as many storytellers as possible, cultivate your memory and – lastly – tell. Tell as much as you can. Tell a story every day.”

Further info:

The next Beyond the Border festival will be held on 4 – 6 July 2014.

Also, watch out for the monthly Saturday storytelling events on the Glanfa Stage in the Welsh Millennium Centre, storytelling in Milgi on the third Tuesday of every month and also regular sessions in Chapter Arts Centre.

Follow @BTBStorytelling on Twitter.

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Cardiff Somali poets take to the stage

National Theatre Wales’s De Gabay will connect the streets of Butetown with the global Somali diaspora over a three-day performance.

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Poets Ali Goolyad, Ahmed Yusuf and Hassan Panero have written a play about their experiences growing up in Cardiff as young Somalis

De Gabay (The Poem) will be performed over three days in the Butetown area of Cardiff, focusing on the lives of its young Somali poets and the generations that preceded them.

Beginning on Friday 1 March, audiences will be invited to move from busy streets to private living rooms to watch both intimate and large-scale performances, including two magnificent parades. Films produced by members of the community will connect the production to a wider audience across the world.

John McGrath, National Theatre Wales’s artistic director, says: “This is a hugely ambitious project that is very close to our hearts, and we want to share the experience of making it – and the joy of experiencing the finished project – with as many people as possible.”

The production is being directed by Jonathan Holmes, the director and founder of Jericho in London.

But the ideas for the performance were borne from a group of young Somali poets based in Cardiff with no prior background in theatre. Hassan Panero, Ahmed Hassan, Ali Goolyard and Ahmed Yusuf approached National Theatre Wales 19 months ago with a joint vision to write a play about their experiences of growing up in Cardiff as young Somalis.

Catrin Rogers, Media Officer for National Theatre Wales, speaks about what makes De Gabay special and the concept behind participatory performances:

Sandals to boots

I meet 25-year-old Hassan Panero to find out more about De Gabay’s lifecycle. Warm, intelligent and quietly spoken, writing has always been a hobby for Hassan. But it is only over the last 19 months that it has also become his career. I ask him to tell me more about the story behind De Gabay.

He speaks eagerly: “So basically it was National Theatre of Wales, they do participatory performances. We said, ‘We would like to write a play’, so they said, ‘Write one and bring it to the office’, so we did, and they loved it”.

The charitable foundation Calouste Gulbenkian awarded National Theatre Wales funding of £175,000 to develop the production over a two-year process. Now, with only three months to go until the performance, the excitement has not waned and Hassan speaks passionately about its themes.

De Gabay’s about the stories that come, that develop, in-between, from the sea to the land, and from sandals to boots,” he says. “Expressing it through theatre, others will tune into your frequency and feel that you are on the same wavelength and you feel that you’re finally not on your own.”

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Poetry has always been a hobby for 25-year-old Hassan Panero

Oral tradition

The Somali language has a long, rich tradition of oral poetry. The subject matters of the poems are endless, ranging from love to loss, sorrow to joy, victory to defeat and hardship to revolution. Hassan explains to me that the very nature of Somali poetry is multi-dimensional.

“Without downgrading poetry in other countries, it would have one angle, whereas Somali poetry would have 50 angles,” he says. “People will think it’s a love story – but really, it’s a revolutionary story. There’s hidden messages within the poetry”.

The layered depth of Somali poetry is linked to the oral culture. It wasn’t until 1972 that Somali was given an official written form, using the Roman alphabet.

Poetry may be something the De Gabay script writers are familiar with, but Hassan points out that sharing their personal poems was not easy at first. “We’re all friends and family and we’ve grown up together and it was like, ‘I didn’t know that person wrote poetry’, until we all opened up and showed each other and we encouraged each other,” he says.

Culture remix

De Gabay has become a tool for exploring and expressing the sometimes uncomfortable cultural space occupied by many young Somalis. Hassan tries to explain: “Us being young Somalis in the history of Wales, we feel like we’re in-betweeners. When we go back to our country, we’re foreigners and when we’re here, we’re foreigners”.

I ask how important their cultural backgrounds were in writing De Gabay – and Hassan replies that culture is the anchor of the performance.

“It’s what needs to be understood, by us first and foremost,” he explains. “Because we are not in sync with our culture – we’ve got a different culture to the Somalis in Somalia, and our culture is a mix of Welsh culture and Somali. So it’s expressing that – it’s like a remix of two songs”.

Building bridges

As well as being a cultural exploration, De Gabay also maps the relationships between the young and old, bridging the different generations.

Writing the play has been a participatory activity, engaging all the different age groups and segments of the community. “We conducted workshops, assemblies, idea exchanges – it’s a hands-on project, focusing on the present,” Hassan emphasises.

All of De Gabay’s writers felt that the good history of the Somali diaspora was unheard of unless people searched for it.

Hassan leans forward, looking earnest. “And what we decided to do, we could talk about the old stuff, but we think it’s more important to emphasise the new stuff because that needs to be documented, so instead of bringing out a revision, let’s bring out something new.”

Cardiff’s Somali community from past to present:

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Book release: Patagonia travel memoir

Imogen Herrard’s journeys in Patagonia led her to discover the descendants of Welsh settlers and veiled indigenous people groups

Beyond the Pampas, an autobiographical account of a European’s journeys around Patagonia, has been released this week by Seren.

Its German author, Imogen Herrard, spent a year in Aberystwyth where she became intrigued about the descendants of the Welsh settlers in Patagonia. She has since travelled there several times in the last ten years.

The book also charts her discovery of the indigenous peoples of the region who have suffered greatly under past Argentinian authorities and still face hardships today.

Mick Felton, manager of Seren, says: “It’s also a personal journey going on because Herrard had a difficult childhood with her parents and has been looking for a new family since then. Meeting the communities in Argentina helped her to put her own issues in perspective.”

Imogen Herrard is launching her new book in Chapter Arts Centre on Friday 30 November at 7pm. The event is free of charge.

Beyond the Pampas is available to buy from the Seren website for £9.99 

Further info

Welsh settlers in Patagonia:

The first group of settlers were a group of about 150 people from all over Wales. They sailed from Liverpool to Patagonia and arrived in New Bay (Port Madryn) on 28 July 1865. Over the next few years, groups of Welsh immigrants from Wales and North America made the journey to Patagonia. By 1876, the population numbered 690.

Migration continued over the period 1880-1887. Economic depression and insecurity in the Welsh coal mining industry caused another influx of emigrations in the period 1904-1912.

Today, the ties between Wales and Patagonia remain strong. More than 50,000 Patagonians claim Welsh descent, mainly clustered around the towns of Gaiman, Trelew and Trevelin. The number of Welsh speakers is rising.

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