Songs from the shed

Unreformed Australians singing Georgian harmonies. Sounds a bit spooky, Tom McKinlay reports.

As the men of the Spooky Men's Chorale tell the story, they emerged ruggedly fully formed from the Blue Mountains, blinking perhaps, but certainly bearded and barrel-chested, and launched into song. Georgian song.

It's a resonantly pungent image and strictly deadpan.

We're dealing here in the best of male realities, where the skerricks of truth are well buried but nonetheless right on the money.

Sing the Spooky Men do, though, and in the Georgian style, led by former Christchurch man and peripatetic choirmaster Stephen Taberner. He is bringing the Australian choir to New Zealand for the first time next month, when they will appear as part of the Otago Festival of the Arts.

By video link from just south of London, Mr Taberner explains that he first became enamoured of the Georgian oeuvre some years ago.

"I listened to this amazing sound and thought one day I want to be in a singing group, a male singing group that tries to get this kind of sound. That sings in vast resonant spaces and makes women cry."

He's since visited the Caucasian country, and is a confirmed convert to their ways.

"Musically it is the basis of what we do," Mr Taberner says of the chorale. "There's a sort of elemental warm-grained goodness and simplicity to the way the Georgians sing."

It is there in the timbre and texture, he says. It is also, he says, very masculine.

"And in terms of musical arrangements, they arrange stuff into three parts, which gives a certain simplicity. But they are really amazing three-part arrangements. It's hard to explain. They are kind of unexpected and awesome and ... ".

At about this point Mr Taberner changes his mind, it is after all still early in England.

"They are not simple actually.

They kind of keep you guessing." He seems happier with this second explanation.

"It is a very different kind of sound to our ears than the major chord-influenced harmonies of, say, our hymns or indeed gospel.

"It is often not actually major or minor but kind of open, which makes for a very interesting sound.

"So that's our beginning point musically in terms of the sound we are going for."

The other dynamic in which the Spooky Men deal is a line of humorous exposition about the male condition, which was initially just played for laughs, but, Mr Taberner says, seems to have revealed some sort of ancient truth.

We have now left the halls of music and wandered on to the plains of philosophy.

"The idea of a Spooky Man is kind of the idea of a man who is vast and genial and eats and drinks a lot, doesn't take himself too seriously but enjoys the masculine pursuits," Mr Taberner explains.

"I think a key thing of that is this figure of a man who is not really trying to compensate for anything," he says.

"And these men are found everywhere, you know, throughout the world, throughout history."

When you agglomerate that kind of masculine energy the result is something more than just good fun, he says.

"We have this thing [in the chorale] about pointless grandeur, we describe this quality called pointless grandeur, where a man kind of puffs himself up and sort of pretends to be magnificent. But he realises he's just a guy."

The history of the world, its wars and conquests, it's often about men taking themselves too seriously, Mr Taberner says.

The humour the choir employs aims to explode some of that self-regard, while uncovering something more elemental and positive about the male condition.

Take for example the Spooky Men's song, Don't Stand Between A Man And His Tool.

Mr Taberner describes it as a mediation on the ancient contest between man and problem. We are now deep in the metaphysics of the shed.

"The purity of the man versus the problem means you can have a companion there, you can have another man there, who is also looking at the same problem, if you like. But the simplicity of it is really based around the fact that the problem is the beautiful thing that unites you."

Throughout, Mr Taberner comes off as equal parts wry and earnest. Whatever the mix is, there's the very strong impression that the Spooky Men believe themselves to be on to something.

Dunedin audiences might be more familiar with this antipodean mythologising than they know, as the choir last year provided the Georgian soundtrack for Speight's most virile and, yes, spooky, advertising to date.

It is still available online for the curious and involves a hirsute man fighting, befriending and inevitably eating a wild pig, among other pursuits. It is a paean to the untamed spirit of Adam.

The chorale's leader, Mr Taberner first moved to Australia, with his double bass, to study jazz. There, some time later, he stumbled across what he describes as a "world music hippie choir", which awakened him to new possibilities.

"I began to think, 'I could do this, I could lead this'. I could make this an avenue of creativity and passion.

"By the time the Spookys started [in 2001] I had been doing music full-time for five years, mostly as a choir leader."

Besides the Spookys and various other community choir involvements, Mr Taberner now travels the world taking singing workshops. Before Dunedin, he has a stop in Latvia.

There was an explosion of community choirs in the 1990s, he says, much of which has been sustained.

"It is popular for a very good reason, because singing is an elemental pleasure that has become sort of subverted by excellence. So people think, 'I can't be in a choir, I can't sing because I am not an amazing singer.

"They do that to dancing a little bit as well.

"To sing or to dance should be human rights, things that you do just for the pleasure of doing them. Secondly for excellence, first because it is good to do them. So the community singing movement is a reclaiming of that," he says.

"Any group of people can make an awesome sound together. You don't need to be an excellent singer.

"That's the general premise of my work as a workshop leader."

All of that said, the Spooky Men have an undeniable excellence about what they do.

Yet Mr Taberner does not make any particular claims for the vocal dexterity of those involved.

"That maybe underlines the point. None of them are singers and none of them in my mind would really have much credibility as soloists. They do solos with the Spooky Men, which is great because it shows off who they are. But they are not singers, they do not study singing, they do not do warm-ups every morning. They are just ordinary guys who have learned some musical skill and who can listen to each other, which is kind of nice. I like that."

That's their charm, he says.

Their ordinariness.

The Dunedin show will be something of a greatest hits affair, in which the Spooky Men will do the songs they have taken to the world - notably the UK, where they have toured several times.

There is a caution that comes with the concert. The Spooky Men have been known to leave newly founded male-voice choirs in their wake.

"Yes, it does happen, which is good," Mr Taberner says. "We are particularly happy to be involved in the promotion of that, anywhere. The thing about getting men singing is that it does not just work well for the men themselves. When you get men along singing in community choirs it regenerates them as well."

Catch them
The Spooky Men's Chorale sings as part of the Otago Festival of the Arts, at the Kings and Queens Performing Arts Centre, October 12-14. Tickets TicketDirect.

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