Every Tuesday evening at around 7pm, a small chapel in Blaenau Gwent becomes a beacon of song.
Tucked away between rows of terraced houses and shops, it is slowly filled by a group of local men, who quietly take to their seats.
There is a calming atmosphere as you walk through the doors of Ebenezer Baptist Chapel and the smell of cleaning polish from the hall which is kept in pristine condition.
But that calmness doesn’t last for long as moments later a piano begins to play, and the building erupts with a booming chorus of voices that spills out of the building and in to the neighboring streets.
This is the weekly practice of the Abertillery Orpheus Male Voice Choir, a group formed more than 110 years ago by local coal miners, who came together to enhance the reputation of Abertillery through their musical endeavors.
It is group that musical director Steve Bard said he is incredibly proud to lead, and one which he believes has become a cornerstone of the community.
“I joined with my father when I was just 15 years old and I’ve honestly loved it every minute of it,” he said.
“Singing is in our blood, and is a big part of who we are in Wales. As a country we have always been famous for our choirs and we’re proud to carry on that tradition now.”
“It’s much more than just that though. This choir is an incredibly important part of the community and we want to keep that alive.”
Hosting around 40 regular members, the choir offers local men the chance to travel all over the country, bringing the beautiful sounds of the valleys to the world.
Everyone who comes through the door gets a chance to sing, and that is what makes it so special.
For some it is a hobby, and for others it is a place where they have sought solace during difficult times.
For 72-year-old Phillip Hill, it has been his passion for singing that has kept him coming back to the choir for almost 50 years.
The Pontypool-born security worker is the longest serving member of the choir, and has seen the effects the choir can have on people over the years.
He said: “I’ve been a member of the choir for almost 50 years and I think it’s briliant. The banter and the atmosphere is great, and you’ve only got to listen to the singing to understand why I’ve kept coming back for so long.
“There’s just so many benefits in doing it. You’re learning to breath and use your lungs, and you have a brilliant social life to go with it as well. One thing I can say for certain is you always feel better after you leave than when you come in.
“A lot has changed in Wales since the time I joined, but the choir is something that has always been there for me, and whether it’s having a couple of beers or a chat, all the boys really do look out for each other.”
Gareth Spracklen, from Brynithel, is another long time member and helps to organise the shows and practices to make sure the choir keeps going.
For Gareth, it is a labour of love and something he says he is honoured to do.
He said: “It has become a big part of my life, but after I retired I needed something to fill my time, and this was it. I’m a natural born organiser so things like this come to me very easily to me, and I love to do it.
“We have people here from a wide variety of backgrounds and vocations, but there’s one thing that brings us all together, and that’s our shared love of singing.
“It makes it all worth while for me when we’re up on stage, because when people first hear us they are genuinely blown away, and that’s something that gives you a massive buzz.”
In September the choir took part in an event in front of thousands of people at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff where they performed alongside other choirs.
Abertillery Orpheus Male Voice Choir has a packed calendar full of similar bookings well in to 2020 but vice chairman Alan Powell fears for its survival if participation rates do not increase among the younger generations.
“The younger people don’t seem to be as interested as some of the older ones here, so that is a bit of a worry,” he said.
“This is a big part of our heritage in Wales and it’s important we keep groups like this together for the future. You only have to see the reaction we get from audiences when we go away to know how special it really is.”
The former Navy man joined the choir three years ago after the death of his father-in-law who had also been a member.
“I never got to sing with my father-in-law, but I know he loved the choir and would be happy to see where we are today.
“I hope we can go on for many more years to come as I’ve never experienced a level of friendship like this before in my life, and it really is a fantastic place to be.”
The Abertillery Orpheus Male Choir meets every Tuesday from 6.45pm to 9.00 pm at Ebenezer Church Hall in Abertillery.
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