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. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.

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

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Why do politicians keep making podcasts?

Nick Clegg is the latest to take to the internet airwaves.

“Rage is the opposite of reason. Discuss!”, Nick Clegg declares jauntily at the start of the first episode of his new podcast, Anger Management. The former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister can now be heard on the internet airwaves fortnightly, grilling guests about what he calls “the politics of anger”. Since his show is introduced by a montage of angry politicians shouting, it’s guaranteed to raise the listener’s blood pressure before the host even starts talking.

Clegg is just the latest in a long run of politicians to try their hand at podcasting. Perhaps the most notable example in the UK is the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose Reasons to be Cheerful show made in partnership with the former Absolute Radio DJ Geoff Lloyd hit number two in the iTunes podcast chart when it debuted in September 2017 and was recently nominated for a 2018 British Podcast Award. Jacob Rees-Mogg, too, has a fortnightly podcast called the Moggcast, which launched in January 2018 and is hosted by Conservative Home. Where once a politician might do a phone-in show on LBC or guest host The Jeremy Vine Show  on BBC Radio 2 to show how in touch and relatable they are (as in Call Clegg, which aired on LBC from 2013 to 2015, or Ed Milibands lunch time death metal scream), they can now go it alone.

In his column in the i newspaper introducing the podcast, Clegg puts his finger on exactly why it is that politicians find podcasting so attractive: it’s all about control. “I have grown to abhor the tired and tested confrontational interview format,” he writes. On his podcast, “there is no wish to pounce on a slip of the tongue or endure a soundbite being hammered home”. There’s a freedom to this kind of on-demand internet audio, which can be delivered directly to an audience without having to get past the traditional gatekeepers of broadcasting. There’s no need to put up with John Humphrys or work with the BBC’s requirement for political balance. The politician, usually on the receiving end of whatever the interviewer wants to throw at them, is in charge.

Given this, it’s unfortunate that in his first episode Nick Clegg falls foul of his own edicts. His first guest is former Ukip leader Nigel Farage (coincidentally also the host of a podcast called Farage Against the Machine). It’s a slightly odd choice of guest to launch the show — made, no doubt, to generate controversy and a higher iTunes chart position — and it doesn’t exactly show Clegg’s broadcasting skills in a good light.

In a recorded disclaimer that plays before the interview, the former Lib Dem leader and vocal Remainer tries to pre-empt criticism that he’s giving a platform to someone with pretty unpalatable views. He explains that the first half of the 47-minute episode is meant to be about Farage’s “life, not really me cross-questioning him”, and that to hear them “locking horns more on the issues of the day” listeners must wait until the latter part of the show.

This approach results in Clegg letting Farage get away with a number of fact-light statements early on, and then later adopting the Humphrys-style tactic of repeatedly interrupting Farage before he can finish a point. As an interview style, it’s the worst of both worlds — neither spacious enough to allow the guest to explain their thinking fully, nor robust enough to provide an effective rebuttal. Hosting a podcast is a deceptively hard thing to do. It would take someone substantially more skilled behind the microphone than Clegg to completely reinvent the one-on-one discussion format in a single episode.

The lure of podcasting for politicians is in the way listeners react to the medium. The entire burgeoning podcast advert market is founded on research that points to a strong sense of intimacy between podcast host and audience — it’s a level of loyalty and engagement that surpasses many other forms of media. In politics, that can be harnessed for electoral gain: for instance, Hillary Clinton had a podcast called With Her that ran during her 2016 presidential campaign.

The trouble is that politicians aren’t necessarily that good at making podcasts. They’re not journalists, and they don’t often have a good nose for what makes a strong show for the listener, or take the advice of those who do. For those still in office (or, like Clegg, still wanting to participate in politics despite losing his seat), there are other pressures that can prevent them being completely honest on air. As Amanda Hess pointed out in the New York Times in 2017, the best episodes of Clinton’s podcast were made after she lost the election, when she moved out of campaign mode and just tried to process what had happened like everyone else.

The rise of the podcasting politician is the result of a few different factors: an increased dominance of personality in politics; the tendency for us all to gravitate towards our own “filter bubbles” of reassuring content; and an ever-more polarised media climate. For my money, the best show to come out of this trend so far is Ed Miliband’s. He leans in to the “geeky” stereotype that haunted him for his entire career and, guided by veteran broadcaster Geoff Lloyd, is seeking to make something that looks beyond the political bubble.

Podcasts are at their best when they serve a particular niche interest group: there’s clearly a community of people who enjoy listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg intoning bleakly about obscure areas of policy, and best of luck to them. Politicians should realise that it is not a form that works when you try to appeal to everyone. Otherwise, like Nick Clegg, they will end up telling Nigel Farage that he’s “very good at the high horse stuff about how the EU is ghastly” in a strained tone of voice.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.