BABS Convention 2010

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The last weekend in May saw Britain’s barbershoppers return to one of their favourite venues for this year’s BABS Convention. The Harrogate International Centre provides not only a good-sized auditorium and enough ancillary rooms for changing and warm-ups for 37 choruses, but a wonderful central space for the social interactions that fit in an around the formal events of contest and shows. The continuity of space from area to area and level to level allows everyone to feel they are part of the same occasion, while the way the space is broken up into somewhat separately defined areas gives a sense of cosiness and intimacy.

The convention had enjoyed considerable publicity beforehand, including an article in the Independent on Sunday the previous week, which rather confusingly presented a picture of the quartet The Cardinals from 1949 as an illustration for a feature on 2008 BABS champions Monkey Magic. It also gave a nice example of how the journalistic research process is well-suited to perpetuating errors and misunderstandings; I’m sure any of their interviewees would have been happy to put the writer right on their assertion that ‘when entering competitions members are restricted to performing a list of traditional songs’.

In fact, this year’s convention was notable for the variety of material on offer, particularly in contrast to the Sweet Adelines Region 31 Convention earlier in the month. There were a few repetitions between performers, though these tended to be the newer songs, such as David Harrington’s arrangement of ‘That’s Life’. But the contest saw more new material than I have seen before in a British convention. Windsor A Cappella had commissioned a set including a Hot Note Medley from Paul Davies followed by my River Island of Dreams. Tuxedo Junction, meanwhile won the small chorus trophy with French Foreign Legion which they commissioned last year and also gave the contest premiere of Johan Wikstrom’s Edelweiss. This was their first contest, and in bringing brand new material for this first contest appearance really helped them make their presence felt in the association.

There also seemed to be a greater level of creativity in staging and performance than I have seen for a while. Crossfire are the first quartet in the UK to take advantage of the rule change from a few year’s back that allows talking as part of the presentation. They gave a narrative link between their two songs that not only bound the set into a more coherent whole, but which also made sense of a lyric that I’ve previously heard as a place-holder (the line ‘you certainly know the right things to wear’ in ‘Moonlight becomes You’). Spirit of Harmony, meanwhile, offered a choreographic style that was much snappier and lighter on its feet than the ‘typical’ barbershop moves,

There was of course also lots of traditional material – but a good variety of it. And it occurred to me that the debate you sometimes get about whether the attractiveness of the style is helped or hindered by the age of the material is somewhat misguided. Barbershop’s ‘cheesy’ reputation is often attributed to the continued performance of songs from the time of the genre’s golden-era in the early twentieth century. And there are performances that could lead you to that conclusion. But there were also some glorious performances of beautiful songs from that era that were persuasive demonstrations of why people might like to continue singing them; I’m thinking particularly of Steel’s performance of ‘If I Had My Way’ that helped win them quartet gold medals and Monkey Magic’s performance of ‘When I Leave this World Behind’, which was truly touching.

I think the issue is more about the quality of the material. For instance, I won’t feel sorry if I never hear ‘Walking my Baby Back Home again’ again. It’s not just the uncomfortably date-rape tinge to the humour that disturbs me, but the way it seems to invite mediocrity in performance. Even in the best performances I’ve ever seen of this song, the ensembles seem to underperform what they are capable of. I don’t have a principled objection to trivial music per se, but I question the wisdom of investing contest-preparation levels of time and attention to it.

Anyone who has spent much time in regular rehearsals will know that one of the side-effects of a successful session is that people hang round for longer afterwards. People have a stronger sense of social connectedness after a good musical experience. The same is true of barbershop conventions I would suggest. Sunday’s quartet finals were really exciting, with the last two years’ champions making a bid to qualify for International next year as well as strong competition for this year’s medals and the excitement of two significantly improved young quartets leapfrogging into the top six. And Sunday’s afterglow was one of the best I have experienced in years. When I left at dawn, people were still singing.

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