CORNISH MUSIC 2023: THE STORY OF HOW ONE PENZANCE-BASED MAN IS ON A MISSION TO PRESERVE ALL FORMS OF RECORDED CORNISH MUSIC FROM THE OLD CHOIRS TO MODERN ELECTRONICA. WELCOME TO ‘SOUNDS LIKE CORNWALL’…
What makes music from Cornwall so, well, Cornish? Is it the fact that there’s been another language – not English, obviously – spoken in this magical land for centuries and that’s translated into a uniquely Cornish sound? Or is it that the legends and stories which pervade every nook and cranny of Cornwall have infiltrated the Duchy’s musical output over the years to such an extent that they’ve shaped its music? Or, perhaps, is it that the sheer wildness of much of Cornwall has given its musicians an untamed and unbridled sense of freedom when it comes to their compositions?
In short, it’s all and none of those things. And that’s because it’s hard to pinpoint a distinctively ‘Cornish sound’. From the male choirs, folk acts, sea shanty singers and big bands of old to the DJs, rock bands, pop stars and electric wizards of modern times, it’s hard to find a concurrent theme apart from the fact all of this music was made in the Duchy.
And perhaps that’s the point: celebrating Cornish music in 2023 is not about gathering it all together in one basket and trying to find a theme, style or sound. It’s about gathering it all together and celebrating its diversity, its history and its incredible creative output, like a Cornish music festival would do, for instance, to showcase the variety of music produced in Cornwall.
One Cornish man is doing just that. Singlehandedly, this man is gathering up all the Cornish music he can find – and by ‘Cornish music’, we mean any music created between the Tamar and Land’s End – and he’s making it available for anyone, all across the world, to access, hear and enjoy. And he’s doing it so we can all celebrate its diversity and, when credit’s due, its creative genius. He’s also doing it so it can be preserved forever, rather than falling into the musical abyss of lost history.
This man’s name is Chris Trevena. The 29-year-old is a local music enthusiast and band videographer who lives in Penzance and he is gathering up all the Cornish music, be it from records or Cornish music events, he can get his hands on and making it available on his ‘Sounds Like Cornwall’ archive (the link to the archive is: here). This man, it could be argued, is the past, present and future of the eclectic Cornish sound…
Trevena – who works at the fascinating Levant and Botallack mines on the Tin Coast that runs along the Duchy’s westernmost coastline – is becoming quite the A to Z on Cornish homegrown music. He is passionate about it and it’s his passion that led to the launch of the archive. “I was in Redruth one day a few years back,” he says, “and I saw a record called ‘1,000 Cornish Male Voices with Camborne Town Band’. This was a souvenir album on vinyl from a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London from November 1983.”
“Imagine sifting through a load of secondhand records,” he says, “and coming across that! I thought ‘I’ve lived here all my life but I really don’t know anything about this band apart from they always play Trevithick Day’. And wow, hang on, my giddy aunt, what’s the Camborne Town Band doing at the Royal Albert Hall?”
Trevena admits ‘there was a story there’. “Imagine a thousand Cornish singers jumping on a train to London to play the best venue in the country,” he remarks. “There were members of choirs from across Cornwall who joined the town band. Incredible. A bit of Cornish musical history that isn’t taught in Camborne’s schools. But it should be as it certainly brought me some immediate pride for our town.”
“That record got me hooked,” continues Trevena. “I thought ‘if this is out there then what else is going to wow me? What other music has been made in Cornwall and needs to be recorded and given a platform so that we all get to remember it so it isn’t lost to time?’.”
MAKING AN ARCHIVE
Following the Camborne Town Band record, Trevena unearthed some vinyl by the Redruth Methodist Youth Choir. Some really Cornish traditional music. And then he found a record by a choir from Polperro. “I was starting to think ‘how many records are there from Cornish choirs out there?’,” he says. “And that pretty quickly turned to wondering how many records are out there from Cornish artists, bands, choirs and acts? Who is keeping track of all this creativity over the years and how can Cornish people access this musical history?”
So how many records from Cornish acts are out there? That’s the answer that Trevena is trying to find. “There are new songs being made every day so of course I’ll never get there,” he admits. “But, yes, after the third record, I decided to start the ‘Sounds Like Cornwall’ archive. It’s an archive that can’t be pigeonholed.”
“If I asked you ‘what is the music of Cornwall?’ then you may say ‘anything between Celtic folk, brass and choir music and sea shanty acts right up to some of the best contemporary works being created today’,” notes Trevena. “That would be a good answer but far from the only answer. There’s just such a wide range of sounds from Cornwall. There’s such a diversity of sound produced here. Especially in the experimental areas of music.”
WHAT’S IN THE ARCHIVE?
Okay, explaining what’s in the best Cornish music archive could take a long time so it’s best to just peruse it yourself: here. It’s worth noting, though, that ‘Sounds Like Cornwall’ is not the only Cornish music archive out there as the Cornish National Music Archive is also worth a gander. But it is unique in its approach to encompassing all Cornish music and it is, for the moment, anyway, run by just one person.
In short, there’s a YouTube archive on ‘Sounds Like Cornwall’ where Trevena has uploaded an incredible amount of records that are all free to enjoy. The YouTube archive includes anything from Celtic jams, male voice choirs and live folk gigs to bedroom dance music, live punk concerts and even some lesser-known Jethro tapes. Within the video descriptions, Trevena is planning to link relevant articles to encourage viewers and listeners to learn more about the artists and their creations.
And then there’s an interactive map also on ‘Sounds Like Cornwall’ that shows where in the Duchy many of the records have been recorded. There are also live music videos, archive catalogues and, well, much more besides. Trevena is a man who is serious about making this archive both comprehensive and easily accessible to all, however computer illiterate you may be.
“Currently,” says Trevena, “the bulk of the music in the archive was made more than 50 years ago. But I’m also building up more modern music as I go and I want all of this to show that you can make brilliant music and stay in Cornwall. If you do, you’re supporting a centuries-long tradition of creating music in Cornwall.”
“I am looking right now at the best ways of getting the archive out there and promoting it,” continues Trevena. “Thank you to Proper Cornwall, in fact, for giving me this opportunity. I want as many people as possible to explore the archive, listen to the music there and then form a sense of pride about what has happened and what continues to happen on the musical stage in Cornwall.”
Trevena says that there have been some heart-warming responses to the archive already. “Shortly after I upload new music to the archive,” he says, “I get messages from around Cornwall. One person told me that it was the first time they had ever heard their great-grandad’s voice and it was on a particular recording I had added to the archive. That’s a trip. Makes it all worthwhile.”
TAKING IT TO THE MASSES
On St Piran’s Day 2022, Trevena says he set up a stall at Falmouth’s Princess Pavilion and Gyllyngdune Gardens. “I set up a stall on which I had put together a presentation on Cornish records and this allowed me to chat to people about local music. This was a promotional stall for the archive. So many people spotted a 1987 album called ‘Dance To The Happy Sound of Bill White at the Crumar Organ’ that I had on display. A couple came up and said that they had met at a Bill White concert where he was just playing the organ. They later got married. It transpired that Bill White and his music held a really special place in their marriage. They were so pleased to see his record.”
Trevena says the archive is for ‘the Cornish community’. He oversees it on a voluntary basis, with all his digitising, interviewing and recording works done simply out of the goodness of his heart, thanks to his passion for Cornwall. He says the archive is for ‘those people who say they have got this melody in their head and they know someone local did it’. He also says he would one day like to stage an exhibition of Cornwall music, perhaps with ‘a listening booth where you can just sit down and listen to Cornwall’s music’.
“Cornwall is a land of saints,” says Trevena, “and that is an easy way to find folklore in music. There are mythical references to draw from everywhere, from giants to the Lost Land of Lyonesse between Land’s End and the Isles of Scilly. These myths are weaved into Cornish music.”
“You should head to the ‘Sounds Like Cornwall’ archive and check it out,” concludes Trevena. “It’s available to everyone and anyone with an interest in Cornwall and its history.” Music to our ears…
Interview by Matt Fleming