Bar Cappella, Port Macquarie’s Choir-in-a-Pub

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200+ singers are expected to pack out Settlers Inn this month. FOCUS chatted with Ruth Allen about the rise of the pub choir movement.

Hi Ruth. what is BarCappella and how does it work?

Upwards of 175 people, many of whom have never sung in public before, meet in a pub to sing a pop song in three-part harmony. We give them the lyrics, and the crowd splits into three sections according to their voice type – high, medium or low. We have three people on stage leading the different voice groups, and we break the song into manageable chunks and learn them together phrase by phrase. Gradually the harmonies start coming together and once we’ve got it all worked out, we sing the whole thing through from start to finish a couple of times – after 75 minutes or so, the crowd are the lead singers and we’re the audience. 

How did you get the idea, and why do you think it has taken off?

The originator of the concept was a Canadian organisation, Choir!Choir!Choir! Their YouTube videos are viral – a version of 1,000+ people singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah got 15 million views! 

The idea got picked up in Australia, in Brisbane by the Pub Choir and in Newcastle by Jane Jelbart and Mark Jackson from The Sum of The Parts Music. I went to one of their early Newcastle events, and it was electric – such a great feeling to be singing with 150-odd strangers. 

There’s a sense of connection and an incredible energy in the room when you sing with such a big group, and the anonymity means you can lose your singing inhibitions and just go for it. I came home on a high, and I wanted to be able to bring that feeling to Port Macquarie.

Can anyone come to BarCappella? What if you haven’t got a good voice or can’t read music?

Anyone can come along – if you sing in the shower or the car, you can sing in the pub! People often tell us that they can’t carry a tune in a bucket, that they were kicked out of the school choir or asked to stand at the back and mime. But when you sing in a big group, the voices blend together – no-one hears the individual, so it doesn’t matter if you’re not very confident, and we teach everything by ear. Settlers Inn is a family-friendly venue, so kids can join in too.

How do you choose the songs? Do you always go for a particular genre? It must be hard to find a song that everyone knows and likes!

We look for songs that will be easy to teach and fun to learn in a short time, and that sound good sung by a crowd. We’ve done recent chart hits like Uptown Funk and Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You, Coldplay’s Viva La Vida, The Jacksons’ Blame it on the Boogie, and and we’re about to tackle a hard rock anthem, Sweet Child O’ Mine

You don’t have to practice beforehand, but it does help to have a listen beforehand to get the basic idea of the melody. And it really doesn’t matter if you don’t particularly like the song, because the choir arrangement isn’t going to be like the original; in fact, we guarantee you’ll never have heard it the way we’ll do it together.

How did you come up with the name BarCappella and the slogan “Sing Responsibly”? What does that mean to you?

Marie Van Gend and I had been running the Absolutely Everybody Choir together, and she jumped at the idea of trialling a pop-up pub sing in Port. She has years of choir experience, so I was very excited when she came on board. Naming a choir or band is always fraught with problems, not least finding something that isn’t already in use! 

The Brisbane group had already staked a claim on Pub Choir, so Marie and I brainstormed all the musical and singing terms we could come up with and trawled the internet to see what the other groups were using. It was a short leap from a cappella, which means singing unaccompanied, to
BarCappella! Sing Responsibly is a play on “drink responsibly” but also encapsulates our ethos – we donate our profits to local good causes.

How do you choose your charity partners? What is your next event going to support?

We look out for locally-run organisations that have a specific project they want to get off the ground. St Thomas Anglican Church used a BarCappella donation to buy swags for homeless people, we helped the Mid North Coast Community Legal Centre to provide meals and snacks for vulnerable young people alongside legal advice, and we’ve also helped fund a domestic violence project for local indigenous women, Djiyagangooba Djugal, for example. Profits from our January 29 sing will be going to Coastal Warriors Mid North Coast: they’re looking to purchase a Seabin, a sort of water-based vacuum
cleaner to keep litter out of our waterways, and we’ll be contributing to that.

How has BarCappella evolved, and what direction do you see it heading in the future?

We debuted in October 2017 and the next one will be our sixth. We started at The Lounge Room with 80 people, but numbers built quickly as the word spread and we moved to Settlers Inn on Hastings River Drive last June. The concept is now so popular, that we’ve had to start selling tickets in advance to keep the numbers manageable – there were over 230 at our last one! I’d love to do a really big BarCappella at some point – maybe at the Glasshouse with a band behind us; that would be super cool.

Where and when is the next event, and how can people find out more?

We’ll be singing Sweet Child O’ Mine at Settlers Inn on Tuesday 29th January at 7:30pm. Tickets are available from www.trybooking.com/BABQT and there’s more information on our Facebook page, BarCappellaPortMacquarie or email barcappella@westnet.com.au

Thanks Ruth.

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