Photography: James Mulkeen

Words: Eileen Caiger Gray

Now let’s raise the rafters with a rousing, harmonious chorus of Happy Birthday To You to Doncaster’s Quirky Choir, a choir that’s forever creating new eras. Thanks to the endless enthusiasm, creativity and, yes, quirkiness of founder Janet Wood, the choir is now a vibrant twenty years old, and after two decades of richly entertaining the good folk of Donny with quirky musical fun, they’re going stronger than ever with almost fifty mix ‘n’ match members turning up solidly or dipping in and out as life dictates.

So how quirky is this choir? And what do they mean by quirky? Unconventional, off-beat, unique, bizarre, perhaps? Well, you judge. Is it maybe a tad bizarre to have potted plants and pieces of fruit wired up to sing back snatches of the choir’s recorded voices when touched? And what about songs featuring aspidistras, a wonky donkey, the entire contents of a kitchen drawer and a lament on the absence of biscuits, all composed in offbeat collaboration with half barmy Barnsley Bard, Ian McMillan. Quirky and fun, too! Yet these recent musical offerings but scratch the surface, for there’s always something new on the quirky horizon.

Over the years, flexible groups of enthusiastic singers have popped up here, there and just about everywhere with their exciting, eclectic blends of worldwide music and genres. Sometimes it’s for special celebrations, commemorations or commissions; sometimes they’re just keen to spread cheer.

Rousing choruses ring out as singers give their all at a shopping centre, bar, care home, refugee or homeless centre, library, foyer or bus station, summer fete, marriage proposal, Steampunk event, the cheering on of an Olympic Torch or in a major collaboration at Mansion House, Corn Exchange, Dome, CAST theatre or Sheffield Manor Castle.

Mining songs rang out at the National Mining Museum celebrations in 2016. In Shake the Shackles in 2007, they celebrated the bi-centenary of the abolition of transatlantic slavery in grand style in a big collaboration with local Gospel choir, musicians, clog dancers, a vigorous group of South African drummers, and welly-dancing performers. This year, they sang a specially composed song at Doncaster’s Suffrage celebrations. In a major collaboration with English Touring Opera in 2005, the choir took part, along with hundreds of children and adults, in a fabulous fully staged, full-length opera, One Breath. In 2015, they performed a scintillating new composition for Radio 3, specially written for them by visiting composer Anna Braithwaite all about Donny Market, beginning with loud bell-ringing and colossal shouts of ‘Oyez! Oyez!’ from the town crier.

Funding from the Arts’ Council this year is a much appreciated birthday present that’s enabled local and national artists to collaborate with Janet and the entire choir on grand-scale projects, resulting in a whole new repertoire of hugely diverse compositions, with a special exhibition in the New Year, and all to be jubilantly celebrated at The Dome on March 10th 2019. Hayley Youell’s singing fruit and McMillan’s missing biscuits are part of it, as are heartfelt compositions from musician and accordionist Luke Carver Goss, and joyous harmonies in praise of worldwide friendship from Zimbabwean Lucky Moyo, sung at November’s Museum of the Moon at Doncaster Minster. These new compositions and recordings add to an already wide-ranging global repertoire of songs and styles from folk and pop to the experimental and innovative, with a particularly robust catalogue of exhilarating African rhythms.

Founder Janet believes everyone has the right to sing, even those who think or have been told, they really, really can’t. There are no auditions, members choose whichever voice-part they prefer and, with songs learnt by ear, there’s no need to read music. People of any age, gender, vocal ability, size, shape, background and interest are welcome to join the therapeutic, energising, quirky singing at 6.45pm on term-time Wednesday evenings at The Point on South Parade, which is the home of Doncaster Community Arts or Darts, who have inspired, enabled and hosted the choir since the launch of The Point in 1998. After informal vocal and physical warm-ups, a new song can be thrilling ears and vocal chords in a matter of minutes, hands clapping, feet dancing to the surround-sound fun of an uplifting 4-part harmony, generally unaccompanied. Fortnightly singing sessions, tea and biscuits included, are also held on Monday afternoons for those living with dementia and their carers. Indeed, for making new friends and for enhancing the mental and physical well being of us all, a bit of quirky singing is definitely just what the doctor ordered. So here’s to many more happy birthdays.

If you are interested in joining Quirky Choir, or have been before and want to come back, all are welcome. Just come along to The Point, South Parade, Wednesdays 6.45 – 8.45pm.

Follow Quirky Choir on Facebook HERE.