The Dunvant Male Voice Choir. Photo: Getty
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Are Welsh male voice choirs slowly dying out?

There has been a 20 per cent drop in choir membership in the valleys in the past ten years.

On a dark, wintry evening in the Rhondda Valley, southern Wales, the hills that surround the village of Treorchy are barely visible against the sky. A road stretches upwards towards the ridge, where the Christmas tree lights sparkling in the windows of the small terraced houses are reflected in the puddles on the pavement. In the distance, the bright windows of the primary school stand out against the gloom.

In the school hall, a handful of men are standing around chatting – about recent rugby matches, mutual friends’ kids and the tricky matter of deleting an unwanted Facebook account. They are middle-aged and warmly dressed in jackets, jeans and jumpers. More men like them are arriving every few minutes, with some of the older ones entering the hall with sticks or supported by younger mates.

They are members of the Treorchy Male Choir, and they are here to sing. Once everyone has arrived (tonight, about 60 are present), they line up facing the conductor and begin. The sound is rich and full, with four-part harmony stretching upwards from the bottom basses to the high tenors. Their accents are clearly audible in the rolled Rs and lilting cadences of the music. It’s a sound that is synonymous with Welsh culture and life – heard everywhere from the area’s chapels to its rugby fields. Yet in the valleys, being in a choir such as this is an increasingly unpopular occupation.

As a result, the average age of choir members is rising. The majority of them are over 60 and many are retired, explains the secretary, Selwyn Jones. “A lot of the audiences are the same age as us and are dying off as well,” he says. They have a busy programme of events lined up over Christmas, though – they sing in old people’s homes, in children’s hospices and for shoppers in the village.

All-male choirs are part of a centuries-old musical tradition in Wales. They emerged in the 19th century out of the singing in Nonconformist chapels and the groups that, because of the Industrial Revolution, came together to work in the country’s mines, shipyards, factories and docks. The Treorchy Male Choir was formed in 1883 and was soon winning national musical competitions, known as eisteddfods. It performed at Windsor for Queen Victoria in 1895 but disbanded in 1943 while Wales was suffering from the effects of the Great Depression and two world wars.

The present choir was reformed in October 1946. Its two oldest members, Norman Martin and Islwyn Morgan – now 93 and 89 – joined in their twenties when they left the armed forces at the end of the Second World War. “Music had always been in the valleys, so when the choir started again after the war, that was the only place to go,” says Martin. For Morgan, music was a family tradition. “My father was a choir conductor, so the family were always interested in singing,” he says. “I’m one of ten children, all in different choirs. At one time, we were four brothers in this choir.”

After numerous competition wins, the Treorchy Male Choir landed a record deal with EMI in the 1960s and was invited to perform all over the world. “We wouldn’t have got out of the valley without the choir,” says Martin. He remembers the first time he went on an aeroplane, when the choir was travelling to perform in Switzerland, as a particular highlight. “This choir’s opened the world to us. Not just the valleys, or Wales, or England, but the world.”

Martin, a former miner, and Morgan, a retired council worker, no longer take part in concerts or tours. “Sometimes we don’t get back from a concert until three or four in the morning, and I’m finding that a little bit much at my age. But that’s the only complaint I’ve got,” says Morgan.

But both men still come to the two weekly rehearsals. “The comradeship, that’s what I like about it. Most of my friends are connected with the choir,” says Morgan. He recalls fondly the days when the choir had a third weekly rehearsal, too, on Sunday afternoons, for which often more than 100 members would turn out to sing together after attending chapel in the morning. “Of course, people aren’t so religious now.”

The fortunes of the choir and its ageing membership in the past two decades reflect those of this area of Wales. “There are no jobs,” says Selwyn Jones. “These areas were industrial areas or mining areas, and when the heavy industry goes, very little light industry has come in to replace it, so people have to travel to work. Then if they go off to university, they have a better chance of getting jobs away than back here.”

South-east Wales has the highest rate of unemployment in the country, and studies by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation show that almost a quarter of the Welsh population lives in poverty.

Jones says that recent research has shown that there has been a 20 per cent drop in choir membership in the valleys in the past ten years. “The challenge is getting younger people involved, but young people today have got so many other interests. Back in the day, you had the chapel or the church, the pub, the club and there weren’t any sports centres… Life has changed completely.” Further west, he says, where the Welsh language and traditional culture is stronger, choirs are doing well – but here, where the area is more anglicised, it is harder to attract new members. About half of the choir’s members still live in the valleys, with others travelling in from further afield. Most still have relatives here or ties to the area – the choir and its music act as a kind of diaspora link.

From the beginning, the choir has relied on the close friendships between its members. “They worked together, they played together, they socialised together, they drank together and they sang together,” Jones says. Looking around the rehearsal room, where the men are joking around, sharing music and making plans for beers over Christmas, I found it easy to identify that close comradeship still.

They might not get to work down the mines together any more, but this choir’s members will keep singing together for as long as they can. 

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist