Lifting voices… and glasses

Published Oct 7, 2016


The Durban Men’s Choir celebrates 45 years of music and song, writes Subry Govender

One of Durban’s musical institutions, the Durban Men’s Choir, which is observing its 45th anniversary, has ambitions of taking South Africa’s wonderful cultural diversity to audiences throughout the country and the world.

The choir, established in January 1971 by Dr John Pauw, performs mainly at churches and at schools in partnership with school choirs, as well as at special events during Easter, Christmas and other important occasions.

Since its inception, the choir has toured a number of cities and towns outside KwaZulu-Natal, including the Free State and Cape, where they performed at the Cape Town City Hall.

The choir has also performed in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Bloemfontein on several occasions.

At home, the choir has appeared at the Durban City Hall and the Playhouse. It has also travelled to other parts of the province, singing in towns such as Richards Bay, Margate and Howick.

“We believe that through the medium of music, the one universal language, we will play our part in bringing peace and harmony to many communities in our country and to the people across the globe,” said Trevor Llewellyn, spokesman for the choir.

The choir’s first overseas tour was to Europe in 1976 and then to the US in 1984. Their second tour to Europe took place in 1989. This was the choir’s last tour out of the country.

Since 1989, the choir has been unable to afford to tour outside the country because of financial constraints. But the members have expressed keen interest in renewing contacts with counterparts in other parts of the world.

“With our special brand of music and choral singing… we want to endeavour to encourage business and cultural links with other countries,” said Llewellyn.

“Inside the country we want to expand our horizons and achieve what we have done in KwaZulu-Natal.”

The choir, popularly known as “The Singing Men of Durban”, practises at the Umbilo Methodist Church on Tuesday evenings.

A senior member and choir official, John Murphy, said the ensemble had its origins in the Durban Male Voice Choir which was founded in the 1960s by a musical couple, Bill and Jill Randall.

“The men’s section was directed by Dr John Pauw and, singing with young voices meant that the men were limited to singing the tenor and bass parts.

“Accordingly, with the agreement of Bill and Jill Randall, the Durban Men’s Choir was formed in January 1971 with the boys forming the Durban Boys’ Choir which no longer exists.

Murphy says that over the years the choir has sung with Gé Korsten, Mimi Coetzee, Rina Hugo, Virginia Davids and, locally, with Colleen Philp.

“They have also sung with the erstwhile Durban Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Edgar Cree) and the Durban Philharmonic Orchestra,” he adds.

None of the original members of the choir are still involved today. Dr John Pauw retired as Musical Director at the end of 1999 and the current Music Director, Norraine Swanby, took over at the beginning of 2000.

“The longest-serving member is Peter Spence, who joined the choir in 1977. Our oldest member joined in 1985 and is now 85 years old.

Apartheid had an obvious effect in that the choir was initially all white. “Because of the circumstances in the early 1960s and 1970s, the choir started with only white members, but since 1990 the choir has attracted a number of members of other race groups,” Murphy says.

Funds are raised through membership fees and special fund-raising events.

“The choir charges a fee to sing at concerts during the year and each year, in November or early December, arranges a three-night supper theatre concert,” Murphy says. “The choir members and their wives run the event, including selling the tickets, cooking the supper, waiting on tables and running a properly-licensed bar, as well as singing a full concert. These concerts provide the main source of income. Also, the members pay an annual subscription to belong.

“When the choir sings away from the Durban area, such as to Richards Bay, Margate, and Howick the fee is increased to cover some of the travelling costs. Any shortfall is covered by the members themselves.

Murphy says the choir would be delighted to recruit more committed members.

“The members are either fully-employed or retired and belonging to the choir requires extreme commitment. Our goal is to increase the membership to, at least, forty committed members. At present we have about 26 members who attend practices and concerts, sometimes erratically.”

The choir also plays a role in funds for charity and presents concerts at retirement homes.

“The choir sings at no cost at retirement homes at least three times a year. The one regular free concert which we sing at is a Christmas concert at the Ray Hullett Centre in Acutt Street in Durban. On the choir’s 40th anniversary in 2011, a concert was arranged by the choir and was held in the Glenwood High School Hall. All proceeds were donated to the Open Air School in Glenwood, with the choir bearing the costs,” says Murphy.

Despite the challenging economic times, the choir aims to do more to encourage schoolchildren and young people to foster a love for music generally and choir singing in particular.

“We want to expand our horizons and contribute, through our music, peace, harmony and development of our communities and societies,” said Murphy.

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