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They’re burly, (mostly) bearded fellows in denim and they love to sing about nature, life, death and Louis Riel. Sound familiar?
If you haven’t stumbled upon a Riel Gentlemen’s Choir performance since they started up six years ago, then you’ll want to track down the Winnipeg group this weekend at Nuit Blanche.
Their only confirmed appearances are scheduled for today at 9:45 p.m. near Old Market Square and at 11 p.m. at Le Musée de Saint-Boniface (494 Taché Ave.), where choirs will perform throughout the evening. Otherwise, the men plan to roam downtown, spontaneously bursting into song.
A couple of years ago, Dallis Klassen heard the choir’s booming voices echoing from an alleyway during Nuit Blanche. He ditched his bike and friends, eager to follow the music.
"I just had to go and listen to as much of their set as I could. So I did and it sounded great," Klassen said.
He joined their ranks in January.
He grew up singing in church choirs and this is his first secular choir experience. So far it involves performing in oft-unusual venues.
The Riel Gentlemen have sung aboard canoes paddling down the Assiniboine River, at the Manitoba legislature and in Union Station. They host an annual a cappella Jane’s Walk and, most recently, sang gospel tunes at the Harvest Moon Festival in Clearwater, with special guest Alexa Dirks, a.k.a. Begonia.
Their weekly practices in a Wolseley basement dubbed "the speakeasy," usually span about 90 minutes, though they can get sidetracked by socializing, conductor Jesse Krause said.
"Music is the only constant," Krause said of their routine. "And beer — for better or worse."
Krause, 31, writes almost all the group’s repertoire, except for traditional songs and hymns. He studied music at Canadian Mennonite University, where many of the choir’s first members met, including Seth Woodyard.
In 2011, Woodyard was planning a multimedia installation at Aceartinc called Good Work. He wanted a men’s choir to perform in the video portion, The Big Wash, and so put the call out to a bunch of friends and artists who might want to sing.
They enjoyed the experience so much they opted to keep performing together.
"From the way we sang those first few years to now, we sing much more beautifully, while still maintaining a certain ruggedness," Woodyard said.
"I never really considered myself much of a singer, although I’ve always really enjoyed singing... It’s an opportunity to get together and sing, really in a context that’s different than most any other choirs."
Their numbers fluctuate from around 10 to 25 singers per gig, Krause said, and the choir is always recruiting.
Woodyard and Krause are mulling next steps for the Riel Gentlemen, which they hope will include expanding to have more diverse voices.
"I think that often what happens is what we present as the Riel Gentlemen’s Choir is a very hetero-normative, kind of loud, strong, powerful conception of masculinity. Personally, my constant hope for the choir is to continue to grow to become more full than just that," Woodyard said.
"Singing in a group together allows this opportunity to have strength and power and even beauty in numbers."
Krause feels the choir is a great way for the men to express emotional vulnerability, too. This can be especially refreshing for those with more stoic Mennonite backgrounds, he said.
"In some ways (the choir) is very conventionally masculine, like burly guys with beards and often shouting and things like that," Krause said.
"But there’s a lot of emphasis on joy and trying to learn how to be emotionally competent."
Jessica Botelho-Urbanski covers the Manitoba Legislature for the Winnipeg Free Press.