Choral music has long been a major component of church and school in this small country next door to England. But no other nation I know has fostered male choral music like Wales, where the tradition has grown out of industrialization, harsh economics, nonconformist religion, rugby and a bittersweet love of country.
There are more than 100 male choirs scattered from Newport near the English border to the Isle of Anglesey on the Irish Sea. Some groups are world-renowned, such as the Treorchy and Morriston Orpheus choirs. Others are collections of local guys — basses, baritones, first and second tenors — who get together to rehearse twice a week so they don't have to wash the dinner dishes.
They may be accountants or real estate agents who never get dirt under their fingernails, but when they practice or perform, you hear the voices of their grandfathers. Up in the valleys north of Cardiff, they're still digging for coal and singing to scare away ghosts from dark mines.
I came to Wales in late November to hear the choirs sing in rehearsals, which are free and open to the public in one town or another almost every night of the week. It seemed a good chance to get to know Welsh male choral music in its shirt sleeves and to begin preparing my soul for the holidays.
Voices of history
The male choir tradition is a story of quiet, well-ordered, rural life interrupted by the Industrial Revolution; of 14-hour days in the mines, martyred union organizers, horrendous accidents underground; of once-bucolic valleys defiled; of a hard-working, churchgoing, persistently hopeful people.
Some of that is in the air at the Museum of Welsh Life in the village of St. Fagans, my first stop after landing at Cardiff International Airport on the country's south coast. The museum, set on about 100 acres in an area west of the capital known as the Vale of Glamorgan, brings together historic structures from all over the country. It includes an austere little Unitarian chapel with a teal blue interior dating to the 18th century, when Wales ignited with the fire and brimstone of Protestant religious sects breaking away from the Church of England. "You won't find any graven images here," a docent volunteered.
Beyond it is a terrace of snug workers' houses built around 1800 in the town of Merthyr Tydfil, then an iron manufacturing center. Peeking inside was like seeing a page from "How Green Was My Valley," a 1939 novel by Richard Llewellyn (transformed into an Oscar-winning movie) about a family from a similar terrace in a mining village that always echoed with song.
Driving west after that, I saw the ugly petroleum refineries of Port Talbot and sheep grazing on a gorse-dappled hill to the right. The sky was a depressing, gray bowl, but there was brightness at its rim.
Ahead lay Swansea, a gritty port city about 40 miles west of Cardiff that was targeted by German bombers in World War II. It has a prison and a squalid downtown that boasts little more of interest than a forlorn Woolworth's.
But it's also the birthplace of Dylan Thomas, and the Dylan Thomas Center near the waterfront has an excellent exhibit on the stormy life of the Welsh poet, who died, drunk, in New York City in 1953. Wales, he said, was "the land of my fathers . I leave it to my fathers."
Thomas was well-known in the bars of Mumbles, just around the bay from Swansea, a holiday hamlet at the threshold of the golden strands fringing the Gower Peninsula.
There I checked into the modest Carlton Hotel on the waterfront and asked how to get to the shopping center in Llanelli, where the Llanelli Male Voice Choir was giving a "Festival of Light" concert that night.
Three people gave me three different sets of directions and collaborated in teaching me how to pronounce the double l's in Llanelli by tucking my tongue to the roof of my mouth and lisping out the side.
I got lost for an hour in the dark on a drive that should have taken 20 minutes, rounding enough rotaries to make my head spin. I finally reached the shopping center, dominated by a big ASDA store, the Wal-Mart of Wales, to which Christmas had already come in the form of merchandise and decorations, and followed a mom speaking Welsh with her two children to the mall atrium. By then the choir, made up of about 40 blazer-clad men, mostly old enough to have fought in World War II, was singing its last amen. Then the vicar of Llanelli led prayers in front of Hair Express and Claire's accessories.
I was sorry not to have heard more of the Llanelli Male Voice Choir, but still remained upbeat because I had arranged to attend a rehearsal of the acclaimed Morriston Orpheus Choir and meet with its director, Alwyn Humphreys, the next evening.
Choirs and CDs
Before that, I hiked to the lighthouse atop the cliffs at the end of Swansea Bay and idled along the Mumbles waterfront, where low tide had exposed half a mile of spongy muck. I climbed to the scenic ruins of 12th century Oystermouth Castle in the center of Mumbles, bought a box of Christmas cards in Welsh just for the fun of it and had a conversation with a man in a shop, who acknowledged a little ruefully that he didn't sing. "If you're a Welshman," he said, "everyone expects you to the way they expect French women to be good in bed."