Dunvant Male Choir has withstood world wars, industrial decline and mining disasters. What would the rehearsals at Zoom look like?
on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, their faces appear: Norman, Nigel, Alan, Dai and the others. It became second nature to close the door at 6:30 pm, click on the Zoom link, check that everyone is fine, ask if anyone has escaped beyond Swansea, have a laugh. Then the men are silent and the singing begins.
They sing alone, watching the silent faces of their friends, imagining the exhilarating sound they all make together, from the heart, from the guts: singing hymns, spiritual and musical songs to each other. Dunvant Male Choir (DMC) is the oldest male singing group in Wales, and has continued despite Covid-19. Last year was supposed to be a year of celebration, the 125th anniversary of the group, with shows planned to acknowledge their endurance and survival, including a gala show last June with Sir Bryn Terfel, the world-renowned bassist who started his career with the choir as a student (he loved them so much that they sang at their wedding).
In the end, there were only two small concerts. I went to the first one, in January 2020, on their birthday night, in the chapel where the choir was formed and where they usually practice. The emotional impact of the sound of 80 men filling a room with powerful, tender and focused voices is difficult to convey, especially when this choir is an important part of many local families, including mine. My stepfather and my younger brother sing in it; my middle brother, Jon, 38, is the musical director and conductor (at three, he pulled a chair in my grandparents’ living room to conduct along with the tapes). In this part of southern Wales, choral music runs through our veins.
When the pandemic came, so did the silence. The choir needed to continue. Dunvant overcame industrial tragedies; the decline of steel, copper and coal; a decrease in the chapel communities that fed their culture of singing hymns; the younger generations’ preference for less community and home entertainment. Population aging is a challenge for all-male choirs, something Dunvant began to face before the onset of a disease that posed a special threat to older men. But if it could survive two world wars, it could lead to a pandemic – as Geoff “Effie” Evans, one of the two oldest members of the choir, reminds me: “We were determined that the coronavirus would not end us.”
Ebenezer’s chapel is on a curve in the road near a laptop repair shop, a playground and the Cantonese restaurant in Lua Cheia. It is in the heart of Dunvant, a large, mountainous village 6.5 km west of Swansea. The chapel was built in 1890, just five years before the choir that formed there. At the top of the hill, Evans’ house overlooks the valley where his mine once stood.
Evans, a small, solid man with a kind and cheeky face, is the third generation DMC, following his father, Cyril, and his grandfather, Stanley; his mother’s three brothers sang as well. He was a teenager when he entered and just turned 80. “I was just a boy when I started singing,” he smiles. “Literally wearing short pants.”
Dunvant was a Welsh textbook village at the turn of the 20th century, dominated by industry and the chapel, its two mines employing 770 men (the percentage of men working in industry in Wales was 43% at the time). It was a difficult life. A coal engineering apprentice at age 20, Evans had to get his boss out of the mine after the roof fell on the coal face. The man died shortly afterwards. “His skull exploded on his head, and I carried him. At the morgue, the policeman tried to be brave and told me to put it on the table. I said, ‘I was working with that man three hours ago’ ”.
The village also lost miners in underground floods in 1914 and 1924, and another in a railroad accident. But there was a heat in that world too, Evans says: “A company, without wanting to be sentimental.” He describes how it would translate into music on round trips to the face of coal at any end of the week. “You would jump on a drum in the talking [the train that took the men down] and every Monday morning they would sing The Lord’s My Shepherd together, or There is a gold mine in the sky. That would be you refreshed, ready to go. And the same on a Friday afternoon, when you are leaving, ready for the weekend. It was lovely when you heard that. “
Choral singing involved more of these stimulating things after work, but the tradition was not exclusively Welsh. Gareth Williams’ 2015 male choir story, Do You Hear The People Sing?, Describes how they were initially popular in continental Europe in the early 19th century, fueled by nationalism and romanticism. Glee clubs were also becoming popular in the UK, with many male groups singing a cappella; the boom in the Welsh men’s choir was a consequence of the large number of men who moved there in search of work. As the first nation to have more people employed in industry than in agriculture, Wales was qualified as the world’s first industrial society. Men were far more numerous than women across the country (in Rhondda, another central region for male choirs, there were 50,000 men to 38,000 women in 1891).
Many of these men were single and wanted to have fun; the choir gave them an expressive outlet, a social life and, fundamentally, other cultural opportunities. Eisteddfods (Welsh cultural competitions) encouraged the learning of a new repertoire; a victory has always been fantastic, says Evans. He remembers having arrived at the home of one in western Wales at 5 am of the 1960s: “Being left by the bus in the square, and the men all scattered over the hills here, walking home in different directions, still singing, their voices still talking together through the valleys. “
In the 1890s, Welsh choirs also traveled to the United States, sharing their songs with communities of Welsh immigrants. Dunvant choristers traveled to America, Canada and Singapore, but consider their trip to the German village of Burgaltendorf in 1966, on the outskirts of Essen, to be the most innovative. They were approached by the West German embassy, and the tour was a “delicate situation”, Evans told me, “because many choristers had fought in the war”.
It was a revealing trip. “In terms of wealth there, you were either up or down. I stayed with a couple who were as poor as church rats and had to go to the work bath to bathe, but they were so kind, so kind. And Burgaltendorf was a bit like Dunvant is for Swansea, actually. We built bridges – that was the concept. ”Lifelong friendships were formed, and the choir returned to a 50-year meeting in 2015.“ I loved every minute, ”says Evans, beaming.
He is a frequent visitor to the chorus afterglows, the songs after the concert at the nearest pub, hotel or club. Here, mass voices whisper together, engage and fly, often fueled by “some cwrws” (beers). The last one came after the concert I saw: their voices swam around the drip trays as they flew around the seats, with a force of celebration. Another show took place on St. David’s Day, in the neighboring village of Três Cruzes. But soon the venues were empty, the singers’ doors firmly closed.
Last April, my brother (a level A music teacher getting used to giving classes online) decided to do rehearsals at Zoom, dividing the choir into tenor and bass sections on Mondays and Wednesdays. The first few days were difficult: many members are over 70 and, like Evans, do not know how to use computers. “There were a lot of grandchildren delivering iPads in mailboxes and giving instructions out of the windows,” says Jon. Fortunately, this strategy worked: a year later, two-thirds of the choir sing together regularly online (all rehearsals are also recorded and available to be repeated).
Chris Wood is more adept at technology, being a younger member of the choir. “At 52,” he laughs. He returned to America’s Wales in 2008, where he lived and worked for 20 years. After the divorce, he returned home and went to the DMC Christmas concert to cheer himself up; he had experienced the radiance as a child at a local pub, Found Out. “It was such a dramatic and moving experience to see these men sing again, 30 years later – the same men, but 30 years older. It changed my life. And the sound they made: it was heavenly. “
Afterwards, Wood learned that the choir had 150 members at its peak in the middle of the 20th century, but its active members were now around 70. More worryingly, the average age was 75. “I thought, you know what? The choir has given me so much pleasure, I owe them the adhesion, or even the attempt ”.
He was nervous, because he didn’t know how to play an instrument or read music, and no member of his family had ever been a member. He also has tinnitus, caused by a neck injury in his youth, so his first rehearsal was difficult. “Hearing, ‘This is your ticket’, so trying to hold it – at first, it was like they were speaking Russian. But that night was one of the greatest experiences of my life. There was a lot of camaraderie from the older members towards me ”. It is the same with new members today, he says: “We all take care of each other”.
The choir has been busy with recruiting initiatives in recent years. There were flashmobs at local markets and shopping centers, and on Gower’s beaches; there were viral videos (Facebook is their main communication tool). They also regularly sing on the field at Welsh Rugby Internationals, an arena that shows the power of their sound and its importance in Welsh culture. New choristers from Welsh universities have joined, and the youngest member is now 20 years old (the oldest is 93).
Covid-19 poses a cruel risk to male corals, with first wave statistics pointing to the particular vulnerability of older men. The aerosols through which it spreads are produced in large masses when people speak loudly or sing. (The government has published principles for safer singing to help corals.)
Singing during the pandemic months increased the well-being of the choir members, Wood told me. Health benefits continued to be a significant area of study during the pandemic, and a 2020 study by the Gerontology Society of America supported the adoption of community choirs to help reduce loneliness and increase interest in life. Closer to home, a study by Oxford Brookes University, published in July 2020, but based on research conducted before the pandemic, showed how choral singing increased feelings of relationship (a desire for acceptance through interpersonal connections) between people older.
Tony Tucker, 82, another longtime member, is a widower who, like Evans, is perceptive and experienced. The choir is a commitment, he says. Before retiring, he was a foreman at BP, often doing double shifts during the week to make sure he could go to rehearsals and shows on the weekends. “There are no half measures, or you’re in or you’re out.” He only missed three shows and a tour to Singapore, because his wife, Sandra, was sick with dementia; she was in a nursing home, he explains, and he couldn’t leave her. He speaks warmly about how the choir has supported, making sure that widows of deceased members are included. His favorite memory is from the time when they won the National Eisteddfod of Wales in 1980. The men sang at the Royal Albert Hall, and he will never forget the applause. “Out of this world, it was. We thought we were world champions. “
He misses hearing the other voices now. “It is difficult to explain how much that means. Meet different people from different walks of life – assemblers, workers, engineers, office workers, teachers, directors, police officers. And everyone is being treated in exactly the same way, and everyone is on a quest, so you’re singing together … it’s a very powerful thing. “
Last year, every Thursday they brought a quiz, choristers taking turns to be the quizmaster (one week, Evans wore a bow tie and sang Calon Lân in one piece, one of the most beloved hymns in Wales). The social importance of this, as well as rehearsals, is vital, says Jon. “The choir is not just singing. It is about stories and shared friendships, those long ties that are strengthened by rehearsing together. ”On Facebook Live, they broadcast their annual competition for young singers (pre-recorded by individual participants), and even managed to do their annual Christmas concert and the Saint David’s Day concert, on March 1, together. For that, each choir had to stand in front of an iPad or laptop, wearing their burgundy blazer and tie, and watch a video of the conductor beating each song, while the lyrics traveled across the screen. Each singer then recorded his vocals alone, before Jon electronically mended his performances.
With a year of existence as a Zoom choir, things also look promising. As the blockade slowly subsides in Wales, older choristers are getting their second vaccination, while singing is being promoted as a healthy way to control any persistent Covid-19 symptoms (NHS England is launching a program, ENO Breathe, developed with English National Ópera). In the past few weeks, the choir has started an online recruitment campaign, reinforced by its new online recordings archive. The April 2022 gala concert now looks like a solid prospect, rather than a fantasy.
Bryn Terfel is also looking forward to it. When I speak to him in late January, he is at home in Penarth, having performed just a few shows last year: Fidelio in Graz, Tosca in Munich and a show with Britten Sinfonia at the Barbican in London. “For these shows, every ‘i’ was scored and every ‘t’ was crossed – but Dunvant’s time will also come. I can imagine the joy of them singing when they return – the joy in them for having overcome this horrible and fragile period. “
DMC is special to Terfel because the choir sought him out as a 20-year-old singer who had done well in eisteddfods. He was a soloist with them at Brangwyn Hall in Swansea, where he will perform alongside the choir next year. He remembers staying with the choir secretary, his wife and his “yappy terrier” in 1985, and being well taken care of. “They fed and paid me, which meant a new score or a new suit. These shows were also one of the first times that I did great opera arias live in front of people, and it was important to do that with these guys, because they had a deep love for singing. They came over and patted me on the shoulder at the end, and that meant a lot. “
Terfel made his first international trips thanks to Dunvant, traveling with them to the United States and Canada between 1985 and 1987; he saw the Met in New York for the first time and sang to his first sold-out crowd. Since then, he has sung with professional choirs around the world, but says there is something about the Welsh amateur choirs that hits him like nothing else. It is partly about church and chapel, he says, and people meeting every Sunday to sing loudly, after a week working in industry or agriculture. It also comes from the singing of the Welsh language: “Welsh has seven vowels, so it’s good for that.”
It is also about “that feeling of being a team, where everyone knows that they can achieve more together and that it is something that must be worked on. It is about nurturing that feeling that came from the soil and keeping it growing.” why Dunvant has kept working for so many years and why it will last. “They are like an underdog in a football match, who always has a sparkle in their eyes and a smile. These people will do anything to help each other, it never goes away. This is what the joy of music is. Sharing this love. “