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Gymanfa Ganu!

by: photo by DAVID STROUP, The Gymanfa Ganu 2006 organizers at Bryn Seion church.

You may not be able to pronounce it, but chances are you'll like the sound of it.

Bryn Seion church is holding its 71st annual Gymanfa Ganu this weekend - a gathering for the Welsh, the Welsh-at-heart and anyone who loves good choral music and community togetherness, held at a church that is itself an unassuming piece of local history south of Oregon City.

But if you come, be prepared to sing. 'It's a participatory event,' Janet Figini said. 'When you come to the Gymanfa Ganu, you sing!'

That's a bit daunting when it comes to the language of the Welsh, or the Cymry, as they call themselves; the tongue's pronunciation and spelling is sufficiently different from any other language that one regular at the church uses it to lend an air of otherworldliness to a series of fantasy novels he's written.

'When people come out, hearing they're going to sing in Welsh maybe scares them a little bit,' Figini said. Fortunately, they offer pronunciation guides, as well as what Figini called 'the universal Welsh pronunciation of 'la, la, la!''

Roots music

The tradition of the Gymanfa Ganu goes back a long way - as does the church, and some of the people who attend it.

Betty Pierce immigrated from Wales in the 1940s, and she remembers the singing traditions in the old country. 'What we would do - after chapel on Sunday - is we would meet and learn one hymn, and practice that hymn, and then all of the chapels would get toether and sing that one hymn.'

They would walk around the streets of the town singing, 'and then we would go back to the chapel for tea. I remember doing that as a kid - and I have pictures of my mom doing it. And we would carry a banner for our chapel - because we were chapel,' she emphasized.

Fellow immigrant John Cadle explains the distinction: 'It's one of the first thing they would ask you in Wales - are you 'church' or 'chapel?''

'Church' meaning 'Church of England' - 'chapel' meaning the smaller local denominations.

Pierce, Cadle, Figini and the others - fantasy author Bill Burt, longtime member Carolyn Roberts - gathered at the church on a rainy day last week after making plans for the upcoming festival. They inspected the building itself and the old tea house - or Ty Te - next door. They've begun to show their age; the simple white church, built on a foundation of large rocks from the area, celebrated its centennial in 1984.

The tea house is a worn, one-room structure lined with mementos and photographs and dominated by a beautiful antique stove that's nearly as old as the church itself. Bryn Seion is now a nondenominational Christian church, serving a congregation that's united as much by love of music and interest in Celtic culture as anything else.

Pierce moved to America in 1947, to get married, and later traveled across the country to Oregon.

'When I came to Oregon in 1963 - I found out about the church in '65, from the Welsh society in Portland. I came out to the church for the first Gymanfa Ganu I attended, and I've been coming to the church for 40-something years.'

Cadle left Great Britain after deciding that there was little keeping him there.

'I came out of the Army in the '50s,' he said - not the U.S. Army, 'we're talking abut the real Army!

'They gave us a ticket to get to London - after that you're on your own. They even took my boots and overcoat away!' With few prospects, he headed for the new world - Canada.

'Canada wasn't much better than England,' he said. 'I could get a place to live, but there was no work there. The lumberjacks would come down from the woods and take all the jobs.'

He found work in a factory, repairing electrical armatures, working under a German boss with Prussian-speaking Polish co-workers and living with Ukrainians.'

Tiring of the snow in Canada, he headed for Los Angeles, where he found work for about 17 years, and then made his way back north - a few years in San Francisco and finally Oregon.

And, like a lot of Welshmen who find their way to the area, he found Bryn Seion.

Joined by music

Bryn Seion - Welsh for Mount Zion - owes its existence to the Welshmen who immigrated to the area in the 1800s. Cadle explains it was sailors and other settlers who came to the area; a Welshman donated the land for the church - just south of Beavercreek - and it opened in 1884 with a congregation of immigrants.

'They worked in the slate mines and coal mines back east,' Cadle said. 'And when they ran out, the people who had come here said 'come here - because it looks so much like Wales!'

It was originally a Congregational church, founded by and for Welsh expatriots; today it's non-denominational, and its supporters - the Gymanfa Ganu organizers - are a mixed group

'Not everyone who attends is of Welsh ancestry,' Bill Burt said. 'But most of the people who show up have an interest in Celtic culture - Cornish, Scottish, Welsh or Irish.'

Burt is the author of the 'King of the Trees' series - young-adult fantasy novels that use the Welsh language. Cadle pointed out that it wasn't that long ago that Welsh wasn't spoken openly; students were forbidden to speak it in school. 'If they caught you speaking Welsh they hung a big sign around your neck,' he said.

Now, Burt said, there's a revival of interest. 'I would like to be a part of that with my books,' he said. 'I use it to give a sense of the otherworldly.'

There's a national annual Gymanfa Ganu as well as local festivals like the one at Bryn Seion, but 'Ironically, Gymanfa Ganus are dying out in Wales,' Burt said. 'They're still going strong in the U.S., but [in Wales] soccer is the national religion.'

'There's one big church in Cardiff that's a bingo hall now,' Cadle said.

In Beavercreek, however, the sounds of traditional Welsh four-part harmony still ring out every summer at the annual festival. Each year the small, tidy building fills to capacity, with more people gathering outside. Figini said it's hard to describe the feelings that are stirred up by the voices of that many people harmonizing as they sing the old hymns in English and Welsh.

'The people are very enthusiastic about it,' she said. 'When you have all those people singing, you feel free to join in - and you sing as loud as you can. No one singing is going to hear you, because they hear everyone all at once.'