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Saturday, September 3, 2011

Shanty choirs

I think I have mentioned choirs singing sea shanties already several times in this blog. I am fascinated by shanty choirs. Singing in one is hugely popular in the Netherlands today, and I would like to know why.
Several things come to mind. One of them is that, whereas village brass bands as well as church choirs are disappearing rapidly – the village where I live had two brass bands (as it goes in late-pillarized Dutch society: one Christian, one general) five years ago, and both of them have stopped existing by now – shanty choirs pop up everywhere. And not only at the sea- or lakeside; every village, also those with no shipping background whatsoever, seems to have at least one shanty choir nowadays. If we would have mountains, even the Dutch mountain villages would have them. As a spokesman told me: after Germany there is no country with so many shanty choirs as the Netherlands.
Of course the people singing in the shanty choirs are not necessarily nautical types. I remember a story of a shanty choir doing a performance on a boat which was forced to return because the choir got seasick. It is mainly a male business, although I did once see a performance of a female shanty choir. I don’t think I have yet seen many mixed shanty choirs but I am not so sure actually. I’ll keep my eyes open.
The repertoire is interesting. Dutch, English, American and German shanties, but not only shanties; in some choirs anything with a vague connection to something sea-ish is potentially on the playlist. Often there is a conductor; often he is not trained as a conductor but does the job anyway (don’t understand me wrong: I am completely in favor of musicians musicking without any formal music training – music in our society has come in the hands of specialists way too much). There is a small instrumental ensemble, often with an accordion but not always, and I have seen double basses, bass guitars, guitars (electric and acoustic), pianos, banjos, fiddles, whistles and much more.
Talking about specialization: there is of course a sort of international as well as national inner circle of festivals, good choirs, professional shanty singers, and shanty researchers. When I was at the shanty festival in Appingedam last weekend, several of those (semi-)professionals performed, and there were stalls where you could buy for example the complete Folkways-collection of shanty cd’s (about 30, I guess), or huge and specialized books on several shanty traditions. I do not know what the relation is between this the shanty hard-core and the people singing in the local shanty choirs; I suspect many of the choir members are interested in singing in their choir but not in the paraphernalia surrounding it all. Maybe that’s the conductor’s task?
For me, an interesting thing is that there seems to be a relation between on the one hand the tradition of village choirs/brass bands and shanty choirs, but on the other hand maybe also with the Dutch folk revival in the 70s and 80s and the current shanty boom. At least in Friesland, the province where I was playing in the folk revival, many folk players at some point have turned to playing something maritime.
So far some descriptive remarks. They of course don’t answer the question from the beginning of this entry: why are those shanty choirs so popular nowadays? At some point I will make a serious study of shanty choirs in the North of the Netherlands in order to answer that question. Two remarks of two different spokesmen may point in the direction of a first answer. When I discussed my fascination for shanty choirs with a conservatoire colleague, expressing my wonder why people like to sing in those choirs so much, my colleague said: “Singing? That’s not singing!” - leaving me with the question what on earth is done in shanty choirs if it is not singing. And when I talked to the founder of a village shanty choir, he explained to me: “In most choirs they ask prospective members if they can sing. We never ask that. We ask if they want to sing. If the answer is yes, they’re in.”

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