GOMER — The Welsh have a word for it. “Hiraeth.” It doesn’t translate directly into the English, but as commonly used it is understood to denote homesickness, a longing for the lost or departed, or an earnest desire to return to the Wales of the past. For many Welsh, the best medicine for this particular brand of melancholy is song. So when the Weslsh get together, their natural inclination is to raise their voice in song, and the richer the harmonies, the better.
The Gymanfa Ganu (properly pronounced “Ga-mahn-fa Ga-nee”) is perhaps the grandest manifestation of this Welsh fondness for vocal music. A festival of sacred hymns sung in four-part harmony, Gymanfa Ganus are held throughout Wales and in communities around the world where Welsh expatriates have settled over the years.
According to The Wales-Ohio project, an online archive hosted by the National Library of Wales, Gomer, Ohio, is one of these communities. The archive notes that Gomer was originally settled by three Welsh pioneers — Thomas Watkins, James Nicholas and David Roberts — in 1833. More Welsh immigrants followed, and by 1836 it is estimated that 15 Welsh families had settled in the area.
Today, the Gomer Congregational Church celebrates the community’s Welsh heritage with a traditional Gymanfa Ganu that has been held every year since 1917. This year’s event will take place Sunday, Oct. 2, at 7 p.m.
Eighty-eight-year-old Ross Thomas, who joined the Gomer congregation at the age of 14, has participated in many a Gymanfa Ganu over the years, both as a singer and even as a director.
“I’ve been at it for a while,” he says. “I’ve directed a couple of them. I did one last year, and two or three years before when they had a little trouble getting somebody to do it. I love to sing. That’s where it comes from. It’s just something that I enjoy.”
This year, Jay Gomer Williams III of Clifton, New York, will serve as director of the Gomer festival. Although an attorney by trade, Williams has long been active in promoting broader awareness of Welsh culture. He has authored two books on Welsh Americans and has served as a member of the National Gymanfa Ganu steering committee of the St. David’s Society of Utica. As a conductor he has traveled nationwide and this, in fact, will be his second appearance at the Gomer festival.
“The gentleman we have coming in this year was with us two years ago and he let us know that he’d like to come back some time,” says Dan Brown, who serves as choir director and chairman of the music committee at the church.
Working with the congregation’s organist, Martha Britt, and pianist Joyce Larimore, the director’s job is to select a program of 16 to 20 hymns that will be sung in sets of three or four songs.
“Once we find a director,” Brown continues, “the next step is for our organist and piano player to sit down and compile a list of music that we’ve used either in past years or songs that we’ve used during our Sunday church services. Once they get that list put together then they get in touch with the director and they find out if he has any additions, subtractions, suggestions. Then we finalize the program.”
Thomas and Brown both admit that the “Welshness” of the event has eroded a bit over the years.
“When I was a kid and I first started going to church down there, half of their service was in Welsh,” says Thomas, who is himself one-quarter Welsh. “Lots and lots of folks spoke Welsh back then. But you marry somebody from another area and it just kind of thins out. There’s nobody that speaks Welsh down there any more.”
For this year’s Gymanfa Ganu, Thomas promises that he will honor tradition and deliver his ever-popular rendition of the Welsh National Anthem, “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau,” or “Land of My Fathers.” And no Welsh event would be complete without attendees joining in to sing the hymn “Cwm Rhondda,” or “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.”
Beyond that, says Brown, the amount of Welsh content is left to the director’s discretion.
“A lot depends on the directors themselves,” he says. “Depending on the director, I know that in past years we’ve done multiple verses in Welsh. One year we took the time to try to teach some people who weren’t Welsh the Welsh pronunciations. But yes, the actual amount of Welsh language during the evening has kind of gone down as people have gotten older. I was at a Gymanfa last month over in Venedocia. I think we did one or two verses the entire evening in Welsh.”
Whether sung in Welsh or in English, however, Thomas and Brown agree that the power of 100 or more people singing hymns of praise in four-part harmony is undeniable.
“Joyous sounds,” says Thomas. “That’s what it’s all about. For me it’s hard to express. But you’re going to come out of there feeling good.”
Reach Dayton Fandray at firstname.lastname@example.org.