A London Welsh Chapel Battles for Survival

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Capel Jewin, one of the 12 remaining Welsh chapels in and around London

Amid the brutalist architecture of the Barbican Estate sits a forgotten jewel in the crown of London’s religious history. Capel Jewin (Jewin Chapel) was established in around 1774 to serve the burgeoning community of one of London’s oldest ethnic minorities: the Welsh. On a chilly Sunday evening, their modern successors have gathered here for a euphoric Christmas concert.

Like its tower block neighbours, Jewin’s current building dates from the post-war period, after Second World War air-raids destroyed the previous incarnation in 1940. The chapel is no stranger to major challenges, not least the dwindling attendance of recent years. Built to accommodate the hundreds who were still members when it reopened its doors in 1960, the scale of the church dwarfs the modern-day congregations. For this special event, however, the pews are full once again.

The concert combined the old and the new, showcasing world-renowned Welsh opera singers Rebecca Evans and Gwyn Hughes Jones alongside the likes of up-and-coming alt-folk band Plu. With the concert now in its third year, the chapel’s minister, the Reverend Richard Brunt, says that “the London Welsh community has really taken the concert to heart. It was an inspiring evening. Without wanting to single out one artist, Gwyn came faithfully to Jewin when he was studying at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and you can see how much those days meant to him.”

In 2013, Huw Edwards, the BBC newsreader and regular Jewin attendee, and others, led a campaign to raise awareness of the chapel’s plight and attract new members after the “terribly defeatist decision” was taken to close the chapel. “Since then, we have increased our membership to around 65 and our goal is 100,” Edwards says. “It is a very modest goal when you realise that the London Welsh Centre has thousands of members, but membership of a Nonconformist Welsh chapel is not fashionable.”

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Huw Edwards addresses the audience at the Christmas concert

Edwards believes the chapel’s future is part of a wider dilemma of the London Welsh community’s future identity. “The community’s social gatherings have to be based on more than rugby viewings at the London Welsh Centre. There still needs to be leadership in this area and more work needs to be done to promote a sense of city-wide Welshness.”

Despite the growth in membership, they don’t always attend on Sundays, says long-time secretary Llinos Morris, who moved to London from Aberystwyth in 1961. “For special events like the concert and the carols service, we get very good attendances. They come when the minister is here too, but often not when we’ve got visiting ministers, and that’s when it gets embarrassing for us.”

Brunt shares his ministerial duties between the seven Welsh Presbyterian chapels in Greater London, an example of the collaboration which modern circumstances require. “We work together well as Christian churches in London. One suggestion would be that they all come together as one, but personally, I think that it’s important to have the different Welsh Christian centres across London. They are communities in themselves and they have their own distinct identities.”

The minister is a kindly man, who is, perhaps surprisingly, not Welsh. Originally from Somerset, Brunt was drawn to the Welsh cause when studying at university in Aberystwyth. He conducts his services in a mixture of English and Welsh, which he continues to learn. He often travels across London on Sundays to deliver services in Welsh chapel outposts, such as Ealing, Leytonstone, Cockfosters and Sutton.

Brunt’s enthusiasm is unwavering, but he is realistic about the challenges they face. “As with all the Welsh chapels, in Wales as well as in London, we have a very faithful core who have worked hard through the years, but they’re getting older. There’s been no decline in the dedication of those who work in the chapels. The challenge is that times have changed, and there’s not the same commitment Sunday by Sunday, for various reasons.”

Edwards is clearly frustrated by some elements of the chapel. “It has been a big struggle to get people to accept even the smallest changes and face the reality of what’s needed to turn things around. It’s a very conservative organisation with in-built resistance to change.”

There are some signs of the chapel moving with the times. The advertisement on the door for ‘Hatching Dragons: The UK’s first bilingual Mandarin-English day nursery’, which is based in the vestry, points to the need for Jewin to harness alternative revenue streams. “We’ve never had anything like this before. At the moment, it’s a matter of finding a balance,” Morris says, not sounding convinced just yet. “They’re alright though, I suppose.”

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Jewin’s grand interior

It would be easy to look back to the pre-war heydays when Jewin Chapel was packed out every Sunday and boasted as many as 1,100 members. Brunt is looking forward, though. “We need to build on the connections that are made and strengthen the sense of being a Christian community that people want to be a part of, because people find it a strength and a Christian comfort.”

“Organised religion is dying in the United Kingdom, and the challenge for us is to make Jewin and other Welsh chapels relevant in the 21st century,” says Edwards. “They can continue to provide Welsh-language services but they must also be centres of music and speech and offer facilities for social gatherings. Otherwise they have no future at all. It is a vision worth fighting for.”

Published in December 2016

An Interview with London’s Latin American Music Guru

 

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When Morrissey and Johnny Marr first agreed to start a band in 1982, they could hardly have imagined that The Smiths would go on to become one of the most successful and influential artists of all time. Particularly surprising to the young Mancunians might have been the cult following their music developed in Latin America, which recently spawned a band from the continent which pays homage to them in a unique way.

Mexrrissey, a band comprised of several leading Mexican musicians, were initially put together for the 2015 edition of La Linea, the London Latin music festival, by Andy Wood, the festival’s director. They are determined not to be labelled as a tribute band or a covers band, however. The band use Mexican and general Latin American rhythms and instrumentation to reinvent some of the Smiths and Morrissey’s best work, with Spanish lyrics. “It’s as if the songs have grown up, changed their name and moved to another country,” Wood says.

Wood, 56, has been a significant figure in London’s cultural landscape for over three decades. He founded Como No, the renowned Latin American events promoter in 1986, and has directed La Linea since it began in 2001. Despite the obvious passion that Andy exhibits when discussing projects past and present, he came to this field almost by accident.

Having grown up in rural Herefordshire, and studied Drama and American Studies at the University of Hull, Andy began volunteering with the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign in the mid-1980s. He was given the chance to set up a UK tour for a Nicaraguan theatre company, before being offered a band from Cuba. “This was at the dawn of what then became world music, and I realised at that time that although I’d trained more in theatre, I’d always been much more interested in music.”

Andy’s sudden immersion in the music of Latin America from this point onwards meant that much of British popular culture passed him by, including The Smiths. “I’d always loved music. I could do the NME crossword in five minutes. But then I kind of fell out of love with British music in the post-punk era.”

Strangely enough, Andy came to Morrissey through his conversations with Mexican musicians and managers. Morrissey once said that “nothing the world holds could match the love waiting for me in Mexico City”. He is particularly popular among Mexican Americans, and Andy cites the parallels between Morrissey as a second-generation Irish Catholic in Manchester, and second and third-generation Mexicans in the United States, as one of the keys to this. “In some ways, it’s outsider music, and that’s helped develop a real bond and affinity.”

Mexrrissey released an album, ‘No Manchester’, in March 2016, which has “done okay” according to Andy, but their main focus is on their live performances. Each show is different, with on-stage improvisation characteristic of Latin American music tradition. “They’re all such great musicians that they can just take a song in any way.”

Shows on their recent UK tour featured a version of ‘Panic (Hang the DJ)’ with Morrissey beheading Donald Trump (in animated form) on the screen behind the band. Recent political events certainly added another dimension to the shows, and Camilo Lara, the band leader’s defiant statement that “right now is a great time to be Mexican”, elicits one of the biggest cheers of the night.

Morrissey himself has been supportive of the project, Andy says. “I think he recognises that it’s not a Mexican band sending him up. The whole thing from the band’s side is done with a lot of love for the man and the music.” Andy does recognise that they set out with some goals that were unrealistic. “We were angling to support him on one of his shows in the States, but of course that’s never going to happen because you’re never going to have a support band which comes on and sings your repertoire.”

Andy describes himself as a “puppet master”, managing all the facets of event promotion, such as renting venues, hiring artists, overseeing publicity, hotels and transport, and arranging ticket agents. Sourcing artists from thousands of miles away does present additional logistical needs, such as acquiring visas and arranging long-haul flights. The desire of artists to perform in the UK often overrides any difficulties, however. “At the moment, I’m trying to get this Puerto Rican rap and reggaetón artist into Glastonbury. This is someone who plays to stadiums in Latin America, but he’s prepared to be in a small field in Somerset, probably in the middle of the night in front of not many people, just so he can say he’s been there. It’s a significant countercultural thing to do.”

The events which Andy helps to organise have the support of many politicians, who recognise the Latin American community as part of the tapestry of London. The Mayor of London, for example, provides a foreword every year to ‘Vamos’, an in print and online guide to Latin London which Como No produce each summer.

Warm words aren’t always matched by financial support, however. Arts Council subsidy amounts only to about 3% of Como No’s annual turnover, but the extent of the expat Latin American community in London, and the appetite for world music, make it financially viable. Outside the capital, things are very different. “It just doesn’t add up to go outside of London and play to a few hundred people without some form of subsidy and that subsidy is declining more and more.”

The community is widely recognised as one of the most hard-working and least dependent on social services and financial support. It isn’t always the most naturally cohesive community, though. “Brazilians don’t necessarily get along with Argentineans,” Andy says. “There’s a language divide there, and those are the two most populated countries in South America. It’s only when you’re in this country that there might be some sort of shared pan-Latin identity.”

This year’s La Linea festival will take place at venues around London throughout April. Acts on the bill range from Totó la Momposina, a traditional artist from Colombia’s Caribbean coast, to Grammy Award-winning Mexican singer/songwriter Julieta Venegas. “It’s our usual mixture of old, new, borrowed and blue. We’re trying to have something for all of the different Latin American communities, whilst showcasing other music which has this Latin tinge to it.”

Andy’s enthusiasm for his work is infectious, and his philosophy is summed up by a short motto on the Como No website: “Lo hacemos porque podemos y nadie más lo hace”. “We do it because we can and nobody else will.”

Published February 2017