Lisa Jên, lead singer with the Welsh group 9Bach, talks to Jo Frost about the importance of language
At the heart of Wales’ long overdue moment in the spotlight are 9Bach, a six-piece about to release their second album on Real World – the label’s first Welsh act. “It’s quite a big deal to us,” says Lisa Jên, the group’s singer-songwriter. “It’s brilliant for Welsh music and language.”
9Bach is a play on numbers and words: ‘9’ being ‘Nain’ the Welsh word for grandmother and ‘Bach’ is a term of endearment. Then there’s the title of the new album, Tincian. “The reason I chose it is because it means so many things.” So depending on where you are in Wales, it can mean being stunned, as if you’ve been whacked over the head, or being steamingly drunk. But it also conveys a clanking, industrial sound, which neatly ties in with some of the themes on the album.
9Bach – ‘Wedi Torri’ (Live at Real World Studios)
Jên grew up and lives in the village of Bethesda, in Snowdonia, north Wales. Famous for its slate quarry, it plays a prominent part in Jên’s life. She describes it as being “beautiful but oppressive… When I look out of my window, that’s all I see.” The history behind the quarry is ugly as it was the location of the longest strike in British industrial history (1900-1903) – three years of terrible suffering, when many women and children starved. The track ‘Ffarwél’ is about a quarry man leaving his work place for the last time and features the Penrhyn Male Voice Choir.
A defining moment for 9Bach came in 2012 when they were invited to Australia to collaborate with the Black Arm Band on a project called Mamiath – Mother Tongue, for the Cultural Olympiad. Jên says it was life-changing, as prior to this she was adamant she wasn’t a songwriter. However, under the guiding influence of singers Lou Bennett and Shellie Morris – her “Aboriginal sisters” – she started writing: “I was literally vomiting songs, they were just coming out of me!” During this collaboration, she wrote ‘Plentyn’, based on Australia’s Stolen Generation.
The common link 9Bach have with the Black Arm Band is their indigenous languages. The striking album cover image depicts Jên with a piece of wood round her neck, symbolising the ‘Welsh Not’ – the plank of wood on a string with the letters ‘WN’ on it that children had to wear in school if they were caught speaking Welsh. “It was in the beginning of the 1900s when it was brought in,” explains Jên. “If they were caught speaking Welsh, they would have to wear this and then at the end of the day they were caned.”
“I’m definitely not actively making a political stance, but there is a slight worry about the decline in the Welsh language. The Welsh people want to be heard within the music and the language as well. I can feel people are getting fire in their hearts again for it.”