SXSW: Gruff Rhys in the American Interior 


Hello, Indianapolis. A quick check-in before heading over to the Paramount Theatre for the Lou Reed tribute. Also: Harvey Sid Fisher is apparently taking the stage in the Omni lobby; call it a pleasant, absurd surprise. You know his astrology songs, right?

I want to talk about Gruff Rhys today, whom I've run into at a couple places during SXSW: last night at St. David's Episcopal Church, a great setting for singer-songwriters that's just off of the Sixth Street madness; and this afternoon at the Alamo Ritz, where he presented his outstanding documentary American Interiors. It's about his so-called Investigative Concert Tour, which followed the path of John Evans, a Welshman who crossed the pond in 1792 in order to find a lost Welsh-speaking Native American tribe.

The claim's not quite as crazy as it sounds: while historical and archeological proof is hard to come by, some believe that a Welsh Prince, Madoc, sailed to America in 1170. And if we accept that fact, it's not at all farfetched that Madoc's descendants could have continued to speak some version of Welsh well after Columbus's arrival.

Rhys, whom you may know from his work with the Super Furry Animals, first learned about Evans when a Welsh cultural center asked him to write a song for a play based on Evans's life. The song was cut but Rhys was intrigued, and he set up a tour with stops at bars, libraries, museums and other appropriate venues, where he presented a Powerpoint slideshow about Evans, complete with props, including a felt puppet of Evans, created with the help of a historian because no visual record exists of Evans.

A charming and very soft-spoken presence on screen and stage, Rhys sets up meetings with historians and other relevant experts along the way, notably members of the members of the Mandan tribe, who live today in North Dakota.

A little bit more history: Evans arrived in Baltimore, then made his way west along the Ohio River before being imprisoned by the Spanish in St. Louis. Somehow, he was not only freed from captivity (who were eventually convinced he was not an American spy but a genuine eccentric on a quest), but made second in command on a Spanish expedition of the Missouri River, at that time almost totally uncharted. He was given the job of not only mapping the river, but capturing any British creeping over the Canadian border - and making his way to the Pacific and catching a unicorn while he was at it.

And so as Rhys continued on Davis's path, he ended up meeting with the last two speakers of the Mandan language - the last living fluent speaker and his protege. And here's where Rhys brings out the convergences and synchronicities in the story: Just as the Mandan people are attempting to preserve their language despite the almost total adoption of the language of their occupiers, so do the Welsh try to assert their independence by speaking Welsh whenever possible (including during several interviews in the partly subtitled documentary).

I won't try to give a complete plot synopsis, but I'll say that Rhys's project is a whole lot more successful in its humble way than the kind of ambitious European-in-US TV series or book that we've seen attempted by guys like Stephen Fry and Bernard-Henri Levy. But that may be highfalutin an interpretation. On another level, it's just fun to watch Rhys learn more about a near-forgotten historic figure whose work aided Lewis and Clark on their way down the Missouri River years later - and to see a Muppet-like felt incarnation of said figure accompany Rhys on his own exploration of the States.

But wait, did I mention the music? The doc wouldn't work half as well without its soundtrack by Rhys. There's nothing like gently uncanny Welsh folk to open one's mind to the primal mysteries of the universe, to the paths history declined to take in this dimension - but who's to say about the others?


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Scott Shoger

Scott Shoger

Scott Shoger staggered up to NUVO's door one summer afternoon, a little drunk, poor and crazy-haired, muttering about future Mayor Ballard. He was taken in, hosed down, given NUVO-emblazoned clothes to wear and allowed to work in exchange for food and bylines. Refusing to leave the premises, he was hired on as... more

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