The Column: In a pub in Wales, lifting of voices keeps culture alive

Wales, a country about the size of Israel with more sheep than people, lures tourists from all over the world, not only to take in its exquisite landscape but to experience its lush music, much of it sung by male choirs.

With repertoires that run the gamut from traditional Welsh songs, such as “Men of Harlech,” to songs borrowed from other cultures, like the Calypso “Jamaica Farewell” (sung in Welsh), these groups are bonded by fellowship, their love of music and their commitment to keep their minority culture and language alive.

During a week in rural North Wales this month with my son and his family, the weather was so atrocious that even the penguins at the Mountain Zoo seemed to be shivering. But the rhododendrons were blazing and the concerts in pubs and churches warmed the soul.

At the end of their performance in a pub in Betws-y-Coed, the Moelwyn Male Voice Choir dedicated its final song, “Take Me Home,” to a couple of choristers from California. The poignant ballad about a miner’s son who leaves home as he must, yet longs for his past, brought tears to both of us. One of the singers asked how I liked their music.

“I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven,” I said. A week later, listening to the song on the Internet, I still cry.

“Singing is not for sissies,” says Billie Bandermann, a De Anza College voice teacher who directs HaShirim, our South Bay Jewish choral group. In North Wales, where singing is pursued with the passion of football, men in its fabled choirs would chuckle into their beers at such a truism.

In towns like Llanrwst and Blaenau Ffestiniog, these spirited singers are plumbers and farmers, shopkeepers and policemen. Recruiting youth is a problem, bemoaned members of the Moelwyn group. Introducing the Llanrwst Male Voice Choir, emcee Jon Richmond joked that the average age is 28. But as the audience scanned the gray heads, he admitted that he might have reversed the numerals.

In the Bay Area, the problem is not simply one of age, but of commitment. In my Jewish and secular chorales, recruiting more than a few good men to balance the four-part harmonies is a continual challenge.

Maybe we need something like an Eisteddfod, the Welsh performance festival where regional choirs compete for medals. Not content simply to perform in their homeland, Welsh choral groups also bring their music to venues throughout the world.

Jewish singers nurture some of that spirit through such events as the annual North American Jewish Choral Festival, held in New York’s Hudson Valley. In the past, area Jewish chorales came together to share their repertoires and join in concert with local cantors. Last year, some of these cantors took their music to the Vatican. Although its focus is not on chorales, the Berkeley-based Jewish Music Festival highlights the multicultural Jewish experience.

Music is a magical means of outreach. While audiences, Jewish and otherwise, may be familiar with klezmer, “Hava Negillah” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” few are aware of our inspiring choral harmonies — and still fewer have had the opportunity to join in.

At the end of the concert in Wales, the Llanrwst choir invited choral singers in the audience to step onstage for a final hymn — a song neither my husband nor I had heard before. But surrounded by the other voices, we picked up the tune and bathed in the harmonies.

Taking inspiration from the Welsh, let’s share the gift of song. Maybe we’ve been singing to ourselves for too long. Of course, a few more robust voices of the male persuasion would help deepen our connection to our tradition and carry it forth.

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is writing a memoir on her late-life romance. She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].