The road into Senghenydd from the imposing Welsh castle town of Caerphilly snakes along the side of a steep slope that drops into a rocky valley below. Lined with red-toned terraced houses constructed from local stone, the village almost clings to the hillside, and though coal mining died out here long ago, the landscape still bears its scars. You may need to pause on the high street to allow stray sheep to cross the road – this is one of Britain’s most rural corners.
Senghenydd is home to the Aber Valley Male Voice Choir, and though the choir gives concerts all over the world, it is here in the village’s ex-servicemen’s club that the sound is created and honed to perfection. The 59 men, many of them second- or third-generation choristers, perform everything from sombre hymns to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Singing in both English and Welsh, their voices swell in four-part harmonies, as rich and complex as an orchestra.
Male voice choirs are a Welsh institution, part of the lives of thousands of working men from Snowdonia to the Rhondda. The choirs grew from the companionship and community spirit forged by the men who worked down the mines of the south and the quarries of the north.
Times have changed, but they are still going strong. The choir in Senghenydd practises twice a week (the men come as much for the camaraderie as for the music), and visitors are welcome to drop in on a rehearsal – an intimate and moving experience. The high proportion of silver hair in the choir ranks might raise concern about whether the younger generation will carry on the tradition. But with nearly 150 male voice choirs in a land just short of three million people, this unique part of Welsh life is in no danger of disappearing.