WELSH FESTIVAL COMES TO BAY AREA

* What: Festival of Wales 2001

* WHEN: Today through Sunday. Events include:

TODAY: Celtic Musical Evening, 7 p.m. Villa Montalvo, 15400 Montalvo Road, Saratoga

THURSDAY: Opening ceremony, grand ballroom, San Jose Fairmont hotel, 170 S. Market St., San Jose

FRIDAY: Grand banquet, San Jose Fairmont Hotel

SATURDAY: Llanelli Male Voice Choir, 7 p.m. San Jose Civic Auditorium, 145 W. San Carlos Ave., San Jose, 408-961-5858

SUNDAY: Gymanfa Ganu (hymn sing-along), San Jose Civic Auditorium

* How much: Free to $55

* Call: 408-961-5858, 831-479-0331, www.walesfest2001.org

The Scottish have their highland flings, the Chinese set off their New Year firecrackers and the Welsh have their Gymanfa Ganu.

The Festival of Wales 2001, a five-day celebration of Welsh culture that normally rotates primarily between the Midwest (Minneapolis) and Canada, lands this year in San Jose. It launches tonight with a Celtic Musical Evening, a concert of Irish and Welsh singing, dance and three-tiered harp playing at Villa Montalvo in Saratoga.

Besides the California locale, this year’s festival is noteworthy for its 70th Welsh National Gymanfa Ganu (pronounced Guh-MAHN-vuh GAH-nee), or hymn-singing. The event is part of the opening ceremony Thursday at the San Jose Fairmont Hotel’s Grand Ballroom.

Local history traces an ongoing strain of Welsh culture that dates back to the mid-19th century, when workers came to toil away in the gold fields and the Mount Diablo coal mines. Before it became the trinket thoroughfare for tourists seeking Chinatown souvenirs, San Francisco’s Grant Avenue was DuPont Street and site of the first Welsh church west of the Rockies.

Estimates of today’s Bay Area Welsh population would have to be extracted from the two million-plus national figures. According to Idris Evans, president of the 400-member Welsh American Society of Northern California and a Welshman who has lived in Lafayette for the past 32 years, they live mainly in Contra Costa County.

For those interested in modern Wales as opposed to its history, Evans recommends Friday’s Grand Banquet, which will be attended by the first minister of the National Assembly of Wales. The next day, the award-winning Llanelli Male Voice Choir headlines the Grand Concert at the 3,000-seat San Jose Civic Auditorium. To round off the immersion in authenticity, Sunday morning brings a Welsh-English church service in the San Jose Fairmont’s Grand Ballroom, followed by a people’s version of Gymanfa Ganu.

Traditionally minded explorers can wander through a Celtic marketplace or have a listen at the Eisteddfod, a musical and literary competition. Because the festival coincides with San Jose’s block party Tapestry in Talent festival, which attracts more than 250,000 visitors, a Welsh World Pavilion has been set up showcasing cooking, arts and crafts and entertainers.

Although the Gymanfu Ganu is the featured presentation, a wealth of seminars covers intriguing topics that would appeal to anyone with an interest in local history, music, world literature or medieval history. The 10 a.m. Friday session “Gone But Not Forgotten: Coal Mining Communities of Contra Costa County” returns to the days of the Mount Diablo Coal fields, now part of Black Diamond Mines, when the county dominated as the state’s leading coal-mining area and was home to a significant Welsh population.

The new locale, big-name attendance and even the inclusion of a rock band in the line-up a festival first are part of Wales’ intention to build modern approaches on older traditions. In other words, says Evans, it’s a way “to show (the world) what modern Wales is doing.”

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