January can be a bleak time of year here – cold, grey and drenched by the dreaded Cornish mizzle. But in the harbour town of Falmouth, a wet Sunday night in midwinter is no excuse not to party.
At the Cornish Bank, the town’s buzzy new music venue, the monthly Klub Nos Lowen is in full swing and the place is packed to capacity. Inside, it’s a sonic swirl of pipes, fiddle, clarinet, bouzouki and trombone. Cornish band Skillywidden are holding court on stage, while on the dancefloor people link hands and twirl around the room in a snaking, conga-like reel known as a serpent dance. Some are clearly old pros; others are evidently novices, tripping over their feet as they struggle to follow the steps. Not that it matters: everyone’s clearly having a blast.
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Nos Lowen means “happy night” in Cornish. Though rooted in Cornish folk dance, it’s a surprisingly recent invention: the brainchild of musicians Neil Davey and Hilary Coleman, veterans of local bands Sowena, Dalla and now Skillywidden. The idea, Coleman explains, was inspired by Breton Fest Noz (festival nights), which they came across while touring in the early 2000s. Their version is a kind of madcap Cornish ceilidh, combining old forms like the circle, couple, processional and serpent dance with strikingly modern takes on traditional tunes.
“Our raison d’etre has always been to raise awareness of Cornish music,” she says. “Most people think it’s just the Helston Furry, or Padstow May Day, or – heaven forbid – sea shanties. But there’s this rich, diverse body of Cornish songs out there that people don’t realise exist. We wanted to change that.”
After periodic one-offs in pubs and village halls, Klub Nos Lowen is now a monthly fixture at the Cornish Bank. “It’s one of our most popular nights by far,” says venue founder Rufus Maurice. “The best thing is that it doesn’t feel like a group of people pretending to do some traditional thing. It’s such a lovely, warm community event, and attracts different ages, genders and backgrounds. At the first one we did, 350 people turned up and everyone ended up dancing down the street. That’s when I knew we were on to something.”
Nos Lowen’s popularity is part of a growing resurgence of Cornish culture, from the revival of Kernewek, Cornwall’s native language, to the films of Bafta-winning Cornish director Mark Jenkin, the community art projects of Golden Tree or the crossover success of Cornish-speaking Welsh producer Gwenno. Tellingly, in the 2021 census, 99,754 people gave their nationality as Cornish, or Cornish and British – a 52% rise since 2011.
‘A living, dynamic thing’ … Klub Nos Lowen. Photograph: Danny North/The …….