From the depths of the South Wales valleys hail a very special choir. They have brought joy to many audiences from many backgrounds with their enthralling harmonies, stunning showcase songs, operatic renditions, classical interpretations and the alluring traditional music of their homeland.
Treorchy Male Choir’s spokesperson Dean Powell gives me an insight into what makes them so well loved and followed. Dean, first tenor, has been a member since he was 16. At his audition, he lied about his age as you have to be over 18 get in. Now, at 39, he’s a mainstay of this famous institution which has toured all over the world with performances from clubs to cathedrals and many famous theatres in between including, back home, Royal Command performances.
“I never thought I’d get in,” Dean recalls. “But I did. I was looking for a new hobby. I guess that means I was a bit of a geek as joining a choir isn’t perhaps the thing that’s uppermost in lads’ minds at the age of 16.”
An iconic symbol of the mining communities of the valleys of South Wales, the choir has a history that goes back to 1883. “In the late 19th Century,” says Dean, “a large proportion of the choir were miners. After being under ground all day, it was a good release to get together and sing. There was a strong camaraderie and that’s still true today.
“I feel great after I’ve sung in the choir. There aren’t any mines any more, but the choir is as important as ever to the community. We do a lot of charity work and it brings us together.” Indeed, singing proves to be good for the spirit and wellbeing. Dean tells me: “There’s a cancer charity that we support called Tenovus. They have formed a 78-strong community choir of people affected by cancer. It has been realised that there are significant health benefits from singing in a choir.”
Norman Cox, first bass, would agree that singing in a choir has a tremendous impact on wellbeing and ability to overcome adversity. A life changing – and also life re-affirming – moment for Norman was a motorcycle accident in 1983 at the age of 25. “I was in hospital for over two months,” he says, “and at first, they thought I’d lose my legs.”
Norman’s wife, whom he married when she was just 18 and he was 21, was his all-important support through those tough times. But the choir also played their part. “They kept my spirits up,” he says. “They’d always be visiting and as soon as I was out of hospital and in a wheelchair, they’d wheel me to rehearsals and up on to the stage to perform with them. Mind you, at the interval, they wouldn’t wheel me off the stage. I'd have to wait there for my cup of tea."
Having seen the Treorchy choir perform at St David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire, Norman decided at the age of 12 that he wanted to be part of it. “My brother Stephen was already a member. I can remember watching them perform on television, on the Tom Jones show,” he says.
Although the Welsh valleys have a strong Chapel tradition, Norman is a Catholic. “South Wales became quite multicultural in the 19th and 20th centuries,” he says. “My great grandmother married an Irish labourer who was Catholic and he took the family to mass every weekend.”
Norman explains what Catholicism means to him. “It’s being part of something universal,” he says.
The choir has recorded an album of Queen covers, a tribute, at Abbey Road and I ask Dean if they walked across the famous pedestrian crossing. He laughs: “Yes, we held the traffic up for a bit. There’s quite a few Beatles fans in the choir.” Norman filmed it and I reckon the footage would get a lot of hits on You Tube.
In fact, there are more than 100 people in the choir. How on earth do they make decisions about what they are going to sing, what to call their album and so on? Says Dean: “We elect a committee. The Welsh are good at forming committees.”
I ask Dean how the Treorchy women feel about their men’s commitment to the choir. “They are very patient,” he concedes. “We can be away touring or recording for a month at a time. We’ve joked that they should change the marriage vows: Do you take this man and the Treorchy Choir….”
“Music and singing is a big part of Welsh heritage,” says Dean. “Singing in school, in competitions: you could be in the pub and suddenly someone will burst into song. Wales is the land of song, you could say that there’s something in the water….or the beer!”
The Treorchy choir has a diverse backlog of recordings and has collaborated with, among others, Ella Fitzgerald, Dame Julie Andrews, Dame Shirley Bassey, and Bon Jovi. They have an equally diverse fan base including Prince Charles, Sir Michael Caine, Joanna Lumley – and now me! I’d love to go and see the choir perform on their own turf and experience the after-show concert in the pub.
I ask Norman who else he would like the choir to work with if he had a choice. “Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull,” is the immediate response. I hope they do, because, from what I’ve heard, whatever the Treorchy Male Choir do seems to work so well. They are a group of amateurs who have had no professional training and yet deliver a first class performance. I think it is because they are so passionate and engaging and take great pride in what they do.
Once you’ve experienced the Treorchy Male Choir you can’t help but want to hear more. And indeed you can, as they are about to release Timeless, their first new recording in 10 years. The album features two female favourites from the Welsh National Opera: sopranos Kate Woolveridge and Iona Jenkins. Timeless is an eclectic mix of classical and contemporary songs including show tunes and even a Zulu warrior chant.
Timeless is released on 5 September.
To find out more about The Treorchy Choir see: www.treorchymalechoir.com
To find out more about Tenovus and the ‘Sing for Life Choir’ go to: www.tenovus.com
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