Voices in the Valleys, Hearts in the Hills

Almost as rare as the proverbial cold day in Hell is a hot day in Wales. And yet here I was, on my way in a small, stuffy van from Cardiff to the town of Llanelli, Wales early in the evening of a July day when the temperature had neared 100℉. The Welsh, not knowing what to do above about 82, simply slowed life to a comfortable crawl and sought the shade until the record heat passed away. Whatever they had planned could wait.

Except for one thing: men’s choir practice would proceed as usual. And I refused to miss it. As a former choirboy — and choir man — myself, I was determined to hear the magical sound that had been enchanting visitors for more than a century. I was in Wales to shoot a show for the Golf Channel, but I begged my host from Wales Cyrmu (“koum-rhee”), the national tourist board, to find a rehearsal for me to sit in on. She was only too happy to comply.

Llanelli, Wales

Llanelli, Wales

Polite as she was, I could tell she was less happy with my efforts at mastering the name of the town. She pronounced it for me. I am pretty good at languages. But Welsh is among the hardest.

“Schjlan-ESKC-lee,” I said. Repeatedly. Then I stopped.

Just in time, as it turned out, for we had arrived at a nondescript two-story building in one of the town’s main streets. Immediately inside the entrance was a staircase straight ahead, and past a partition to the right, a bar. Except there was a window cut in the partition through which the barman could pass a beer drawn from the nearby tap.

Hm. My kind of choir practice. I put down my £2.25 and walked upstairs with my pint, whose beige head was settling over a body of satisfying brownish inkiness.

In a bare room with a few chairs and music stands were gathered a friendly group of older fellows dressed for the emergency heat: shorts, flip-flops, old dress shirts with only one button used. They smiled and shook hands politely, burying for the moment their wonder at why a U.S. golf reporter would be interested in hearing them sing. Frankly, I was hoping they would ask me to join for the evening. But once I saw how serious they were musically, I was pleased to just watch and listen.

Yep. It was these blokes.

Yep. It was these blokes.

Once the director’s hand went up, they were all business. These men had obviously sung together for some years; they were attuned to each others’ rhythmic behavior in an otherworldly way. But it clearly felt normal and well-earned to them. It was mystical and jaw-dropping to a visitor. The richness of the combined voices — even the very high tenors — is hard to find in any other form of singing, even the best opera choruses. Reverence for the music and the text glides toward the listener, cloaked in a quiet but unmistakable  regional pride. (Click here for a sample from the very choir I looked in on.)

Cor meibion — Welsh for men’s choir — is a tradition that grew out of mining communities, rugby games, and national pride in the late 19th century. Towns boasted of their men singers and strove to excel. Assailed in this century by a long menu of new leisure time options — some no doubt “cooler” than dad’s old singing group — choirs have had a tough time recruiting younger singers. But efforts continue to save the genre. Its loss would be a huge musical shame.

As was so often the case when I traveled for golf TV trips, circumstances, pluck, and good fortune combined to drop me into the perfect place. My reward has been layer upon layer of memories — visual and musical.♦

[For a look at Hollywood’s most famous treatment of Wales — and the importance of singing to its cultural heart — have a look at this scene from the 1941 film How Green Was My Valley. Romanticized to be sure (let us hope not too much), but touching nonetheless.]

© 2013 Adam Barr, except for music and film links

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