Eager to hear elderly men with snow-white hair and beer bellies sing about the plight of their coal-stained homeland and their faith in God, and not necessarily in English? Your best bet is to go to Wales. The Welsh male voice choir has become the country’s most treasured and remarkable feature, with nonconformist (e.g. Baptist, Methodist) origins in the 18th century. During this time, congregations in both the north and south of Wales formed tenor-bass choirs that led chapel-goers in the singing of hymns, both in English and in Welsh. Singing in these choirs was one of the crucial methods the Welsh used to establish their rugged individualism, especially in the wake of their dying language, political struggles (miners’ strikes and unionist skirmishes) and cultural constraints from the English (the Anglicization of Welsh national schools). Choirs and solo singers alike performed their repertoire at festivals, namely Eisteddfod (roughly pronounced: “ei-steth-VOD”), an annual gathering of performers in different cities around the nation. Fortunately, these traditions are still (mostly) robust today. Since its pious and political 18th century heyday, Wales has been appropriately referred to as “the Land of Song.”
The Flint Male Voice Choir.
The London Welsh Male Voice Choir: the tradition permeates.
Recording of “Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer” set to the traditional tune of Cwm Rhondda: www.youtube.com/watch?v=7s1suWhb5KA
Music for “Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer.”
Some traditional songs include, as given above, classic hymns like “Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer” (sung most often in worship settings), “Myfanwy” (a tragic love song), “Llef” (a prayerful song for the dead), and “Calon Lân” (a patriotic song and anthem of almost all Welsh rugby matches today).
www.youtube.com/watch?v=yYOxBncgmLQ (mixed choir)
www.youtube.com/watch?v=NEAAdqRVJY0 (male choir)
Welsh male voice choirs have become something of a spectacle to the outside world: Only Boys Aloud, a choir made up of 130+ boys aged 14-19 from the financially depressed and socially troubled South Wales valleys, was featured on Britain’s Got Talent in 2012 (and placed third!). Additionally, more localized choirs’ rehearsals are popular sights for tourists, and visitors are often invited to audit or observe them. These intimate rehearsals are typically held once or twice a week, and each town or village has a choir of their own, normally affiliated with the church, though not always.
While media attention does not always capture the raw essence and cultural motivation behind the existence of these choirs (and, in addition, antiquates them and makes them out to be “old-timey”), the continued popularization of these choirs within the country and around the world has yielded benefits. With the most prominent and active members of the male voice choirs rapidly aging, there is a great deal of concern surrounding the preservation of this tradition. Organizations such as The Aloud Charity (from which sprang Only Boys Aloud) help to make these choirs relevant again in the lives of young Welsh men yearning to find a sense of personal and national identity.
My personal understanding of the male voice choir is one that is decidedly political — a stunning reaction to historical cultural takeover (by the English), as well as a continuing soulful singularity that unites generations. When one goes to Wales and hears everything from the Welsh accent to the vigorous sound of choirs resounding in the hill-valleys of the Rhondda, you will also hear the song of a people with lyricism and pride sewn into their hearts.
I can practically hear my great-great-grandfather singing with the other men as he returns home from the coal mine in Maerdy. That is, if he wasn’t tone-deaf just like the rest of my Welsh family…!
“The Land of My Fathers”