||Folkwales Online Magazine December 2011||
Gwerincymru — o Gymru o’r byd
by Mick Tems
There’s a spectacular view from industrial photographer and instrument maker Gerhard Kress’s Pontypridd home, looking down across Tâf Vale towards the steep and beautiful hills of the Rhondda Valleys. The house is a welcoming haven to this fluent English-speaking German, his family, his workshop - and especially his crwth.
The ancient crwth is one of Wales’ most mysterious and alluring instruments – and, costs having rocketed so much, one of the most expensive. Prices range from £1,000 to a heart-stopping £2,500.
Gerhard, who was born in Frankfurt-Am-Main, lived in Bristol for 20 years. “I used to go to sessions in Bristol,” he said. “There was one bodhran player who was really quite dreadful. She used to bash the thing, and you shouldn’t do that. It put me off percussion for quite a while.
“But I have a lot of friends in Bristol who are instrument makers, especially violin makers, and they seemed to be having fun, just pottering around.
“A lot of my cousins in Germany are working in wood, skilled carpenters. I never had those skills, but I thought about having a workshop, with tools and machinery. I thought I would have a go at making a bodhran, something that was in my reach. It took me a long time until I made a bodhran that wasn’t too dreadful, and then people became interested in those instruments.
“I enjoyed doing it, and I have spent the past 15 years making and promoting my instruments.”
While living in Bristol, Gerhard had friends in Merthyr Vale - hurdy-gurdy maker Chris Allen and his wife Sabina Allen-Kormylo - and he travelled to Cardiff several times.
“On one of those excursions I went to the National History Museum at St Fagans, and I came across a crwth,” said Gerhard. “I didn’t know what it was - I thought it was some weird instrument or something. I play fiddle, and I was instantly attracted to it. I fell in love with the crwth, and I knew I had to have one.”
Gerhard moved to Pontypridd about six years ago, workshop and all. He has every size of percussion instrument, from the tiniest bodhran to vast Japanese shaman drums. “The carriage cost me more,” he says.
It was in Pontypridd that he met a crwth maker. Gerhard couldn’t afford his prices –- but the crwth maker did introduce him to Bob Evans, expert crwth player and one-half of Bragod, where he partners singer Mary Anne Roberts. Bob, who lives in Cardiff, let him have a go on his instrument.
But even Gerhard would not have expected to be at St Chartier festival in Berry, France, and come home with his most treasured possession: “I’ve been going for the last 15 years to St Chartier as a maker of instruments. It’s wonderful, and it doesn’t have any retailers, only makers - they come to St Chartier from Portugal, Spain, Bulgaria, Ireland, Scandinavia, and two makers - myself included - from Wales. It doesn’t matter if I make any money, it’s just a fabulous festival – you should go!
“Two years ago, I was looking around the makers’ stalls when I saw this crwth. The stall-holder, who was Spanish, was displaying the crwth for his Portuguese friend, who was trying to sell it.
“This friend, who was a music historian and whose name was Alfonso Garcia-Oliva, had actually come to Wales and had carefully measured the crwth on show in St Fagans Museum, then gone back to Portugal and created the instrument.
“Alfonso wasn’t interested in making more crwths – he was just interested, from a music historian’s point of view, in creating an instrument. I was really lucky - in Cardiff the crwth retails at £1,000, but he let me have it for a quarter of that price.
“I couldn’t believe it - this German maker talking to a Portuguese historian in a field in France, and walking away with a crwth designed in Wales! We discussed going for crwth lessons, and I said that I knew of this player in Cardiff. He absolutely floored me when he said: “Would that be Bob Evans?”
“I haven’t actually shown it to Bob yet, but I have shown it to Gillian Stevens, Dylan Fowler’s wife. She gave me one lesson on it, and she helped me to set it up - the strings are very expensive!”
How does Gerhard speak such perfect English? He says: “Years before, I did apprenticeship as an industrial photographer. I worked for a year in Iran – foreigners who work for Iranian companies tend to live in a ghetto, but I was lucky. I was working for a small company, and I lived with an Iranian family who had sons my age. I loved my year in Iran, but then the Iranian revolution happened.
“I was glad to see the Shah destroyed, because he was was just an American stooge. But the revolution was hijacked by all the religious fanatics – so the ordinary Iranians gained nothing.”
Gerhard came back from Iran, and decided to get a job. “My English was not good at the time, so I went to England to learn the language,” he said.
He landed an unpaid job at a German Information Centre in Birmingham, and basically, just stayed and stayed, in Bognor Regis, Cornwall and then in Bristol. He married Sally, who was from Cardiff, and Sally and he had their son, 13-year-old Jocelyn, born in Bristol: “That makes my family German, Welsh and English, and some Polish too – from a little village near Kracow.”
Apart from a few of Gerhard’s photographic exhibitions, this instrument maker has another string to his bow. Gerhard has written five children’s stories of about 1,200 words each, but he would like them to be translated into Welsh. Any offers?