Bursting into song

Covid19’s liking for large get-togethers and singing has robbed me and many others of the annual therapeutic exercise of their vocal chords, lungs and throats in shared and sometimes competitive carol singing. Realising how much I miss this has reminded me of the emotional power of group singing. In the early sixties I ran away from London to the Mediterranean, prompted by the slow collapse of a dismal wet autumn into a freezing, soaking winter. My chosen paradise was Greece, specifically Kavala in the North, answering a times advertisement for an English teacher in a private language institute. I arrived hopelessly ill-equipped for a Macedonian winter, though it did at least stay mainly dry until the heavy snows in January.

My employers ran an evening institute and my working hours didn’t start till four or five. Still somewhat in student mode I got into the habit of staying up till all hours, reading, trying to write and listening to classical music on my Sierra tape recorder, which I had lugged along with me on the train from London – and since I was living in a room in a family home (with no bathing facilities) and had a key to the institute, I often spent most of the night there.

After a while I found a cafe that opened very early in the morning for the returning local fishermen and I would have a breakfast, or whatever meal I thought it was, of a fish stew they made made with the less saleable fish and shellfish before wandering off through the empty city to bed. The stew was delicious and no doubt very good for me; it was also quite good for my Greek, which I was finding very difficult, as the fishermen talked to me asa bit of a curiosity, a young Englishman, not quite a tourist, a regular in their cafe on winter mornings.

At the weekends the brothers who owned the institute would take me out to dinner, with typical Greek hospitality, to a taverna a little way outside the city. I remember it as a large L shaped space with many long tables and an open area for dancing or performing. It was very popular and usually full to bursting.

These weekend evenings at the taverna and lunches at the city central restaurant I usually went to were my introduction to Mediterranean cuisine. Brought up in wartime and post-war austerity Britain I was astonished and almost overwhelmed by the pleasures of plentiful Mediterranean food and wine. I think my hosts/bosses were gratified by my obvious delight and forgave me some of my inexperience.

In the Greek way at the exochiko, the out of town taverna, there would be a great spread of starters, salads and vegetable dishes followed, after a considerable time for eating and conversation, by a wide selection of main dishes, all washed down with the taverna’s own wine. By the time dessert was served everyone was thoroughly relaxed and in the mood for entertainment.

One form of entertainment was perhaps never politically correct, or not since the middle ages, though it wasn’t as heartless as it sounds. A man suffering from some form of mental disability was encouraged to dance and sing, to great roars of laughter and applause from everyone. As far as I could tell he was having a great time, enjoying being the centre of attention. It had obviously become a tradition he expected to be honoured and, when I asked about him, I was told that he was very well known in the city and properly looked after by his family and everyone else. Even so.

But in case you are wondering what any of this this has to do with the title, the final entertainment was always unaccompanied choral singing. There was nothing organised about this – one or two people would just start a tune and everybody would join in, sometimes gradually but often almost immediately. There was no set time; it just happened when the time was right. It was spontaneous and deeply shared; there would be cries of approval when the song was recognised. The repertoire consisted mostly of kantades, traditional and folk songs, known by everyone, but there would also be a popular radio song or two, things by composers like Theodorakis and Hadjithakis, never mind the political opposites they represented.

There must have been a hundred or more singing most nights and they made a wonderful sound, often harmonising skilfully.

My Greek was still far too limited to take part or understand more than a word or two but I found it powerful and moving nevertheless, thrilling just to be present and listen– as near as I have come to the voice of the people, the natural voice of humanity.

Fifty to sixty years later I was at a wedding in Tanzania. A nephew of my wife’s was marrying a Tanzanian girl and there was of course a big reception. A choir of young girls and boys sang a series of songs appropriate to a Moslem wedding. Then during a lull in that singing and while the bride and groom were still sitting in state on their throne, one of the women from the bride’s village started singing, clapping and dancing a traditional marriage song in the local dialect. She was quickly joined by all the women present from the village and they sang, danced and clapped their way towards and around the throne in full-throated and rhythmic voice. Again it was spontaneous (and unscheduled – the religious organisers looked quite miffed), full of confidence and high spirits, part of a time-honoured but vigorous tradition– and though I couldn’t understand a word of the language, the joyful and earthy celebration of marriage certainly came across. Not the same experience, but it had the same kind of liberating power.

I have never been part of anything quite like that. Perhaps if I knew the Spurs football chants better that would come close but I find all that a bit self-consciously clannish and aggressive. The experience that came nearest was singing “For those in peril on the sea” in a large congregation as the climax to a performance of Noyes Fludde by Benjamin Britten. The congregation in the great church became one voice, sustained by the organ and choir, uplifted in a shared human pleading invocation against tragedy and disaster. Highly organised and prepared by composer, choir, organist etc. of course but as audience we startled ourslves by what we could achieve.

I think I first became aware of the possible transformative effect of mass singing listening to the Children’s Hour’s dramatisation (1948) of Masefield’s ‘Box of Delights’ as a boy of eight. It ended with ‘Hark the herald angels’, sung by cast, choir and congregation, rising to a triumphant and thrilling high crescendo, symbolising victory over evil, which morphed into the shrieking whistle of the train returning Kay Harker to the normal world, rescued from the wolves, the agents of darkness, through thrilling adventures.

I’m not sure carol singing by video link will do as much for us this Christmas but we can only give it a try.

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