American Interior by Gruff Rhys, book review

Rhys follows in the footsteps of an ancestor in search of a lost tribe

James Attlee
Thursday 15 May 2014 15:15 BST

Those familiar with Gruff Rhys's musical career will know that he has never been a man content with the direct route. Super Furry Animals pioneered a wildly eclectic and uniquely Welsh brand of psychedelia during the 1990s while a recent album by electronica outfit Neon Neon was based on the life of leftist Italian icon Giangiacomo Feltrinelli and developed into an "immersive theatrical experience" with the National Theatre of Wales.

American Interior, a book but also an app, a concert tour and a documentary film, takes such multi-platform experimentation to a new level. The story Rhys wants to tell concerns the claim that North America was "discovered" by Madog, a Welsh seafarer of Viking blood, three centuries before Columbus, and that evidence of his presence was preserved in the existence of a fair-skinned Welsh-speaking tribe in the remote fastness of the Canadian borderlands. It would be a mistake to dismiss this as mere whimsy; down the years the legend has played a real part in geopolitics, both as justification for British colonial ambition and as rocket-fuel for the growth of radical, republican Welsh nationalism in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Rhys is particularly qualified to investigate: his ancestor John Evans, an orphaned farm labourer from West Wales, set out in search of the lost tribe of "Madogwys" in the 1790s, inspired by the rhetoric of rabble-rousing nationalist and forger of historical documents Iolo Morganwg.

Along the way he changed his name and religion several times, swore allegiance to the Spanish crown, repelled British traders, was the first European to navigate and chart the Missouri River and eventually found and was welcomed by a people very different to those of legend. What substance did he find behind the travellers' tales that had drawn him there in the first place?

"Facts are fluids that occasionally overspill the vessel of truth," Rhys explains. "They leave a particular stain on the carpet that can take generations to fade away and if the carpet is woven from the absorbent wool of the Welsh imagination, they may never disappear entirely."

Evans' 21st century descendant follows his trail in a tour bus once used by Bob Marley, playing gigs at significant sites along his route, accompanied by a felt manikin avatar of his ancestor that a voodoo priestess in New Orleans identifies as a fetish.

He is touched by the reception he receives, both from concertgoers eager to rediscover their own history and from Evans' original hosts, the Mandan nation. The Welsh and the Mandan have much in common, they discover. Both have experienced attempts by colonial powers to eradicate their language, drown their lands under reservoirs, enlist them in foreign wars; both venerate story telling, myth and music.

Evans died in New Orleans in 1799 at the age of 29, a broken and disappointed man. What Rhys demonstrates in this charming and entertainingly written book is how a life that ends in apparent failure can nevertheless leave traces that shape the modern world.

James Attlee is Writer on the Train for First Great Western

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