28 Mar 2024

New community, same credo

From Three to Seven, 4:00 pm on 28 March 2024
Julian Raphael

Julian Raphael Photo: Supplied

Julian Raphael was a Wellington music phenomenon, and then he wasn't.

When I returned to Wellington to work in 2005, I quickly became aware of the crowds Raphael was drawing to the central city's Wesley Methodist Church Hall every Wednesday evening, with the Wellington Community Choir.

People were coming in their hundreds to sing gospel, folk, African songs - no music, no auditions - led by this larger-than-life character with the booming bass baritone, flowing dreadlocks and sometimes a guitar, or drums.

There was a time, it is said, when (if you were in the know) you couldn't walk down a central Wellington street without bumping into someone who was part of this Raphael-led, grass-roots music revolution.

I would've joined it myself, had it not been for my hours - working nights on RNZ National - but I kept an eye out and an ear on Raphael's musical ventures. Not just with the Community Choir, but also singing workshops and his male-voice chorus, MaleVocale.

His all-embracing approach and enthusiasm was a model when I decided to set up my own choir, given my work hours precluded me from joining anyone else's.

But then, a few years back, Raphael had gone.

I wasn't sure where, until I bumped into him at the 2023 WOMAD Festival in New Plymouth.

It turned out he and his partner had moved to Taranaki to do pretty much what they'd been doing in the capital city.

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Julian Raphael took the western road to Taranaki. Photo: Andy Jackson/ 123rf

This year, while at WOMAD Taranaki, I took time out from the festival to catch up with Raphael and find out more about his new life out west.

Like me, he'd got to know New Plymouth through regular visits to its annual world festival of music and dance.

He likes the fact that Taranaki is a little out of the way; "you have to make an effort" to get to it.

Raphael also noticed New Plymouth didn't have an all-comers choir. The city was ripe for his choral credo: "if you can get in the door, you've passed the audition".

Raphael's New Plymouth Community Choir is called the Taranaki Singing Venture, or TSV for short - not to be confused with another Taranaki-based financial institution.

The venture is imbued with Raphael's approach to music: a love of people, a love of teaching, and belief that music is an activity for everyone, not just those who can really excel.

He hasn't stopped with the TSV. Raphael's Taranaki adventures also include a new male choir, teaching drumming, "table singing" (we'll come to that in a moment), and teaching guitar.

Raphael's Taranaki male choir is called the Taranaki Song Men

He was keen to continue his love of male-voice singing, something which he really treasured during his time in Wellington.

What was it about male-voice choirs?

"As a man you would probably would clock this, but there's something very special about the sound of men singing together in a harmonic and collaborative manner that is just really a very unique sound."

"I like the fact that men can sing in a really strong way but they can also sing very gently. I'm a real fan of the [Australian group] Spooky Men's Chorale. I love the fact that there's a group of guys that in a sense, sings in a way that sort of shows them up, that's extremely funny and unique."

"Well, smart men know the way to a woman's heart is to make her laugh," I suggest.

"And to make some sounds that make her go gooey," Raphael adds.

At the moment, Raphael's focusing on reviving old Kiwi work songs, from the bush, from the farm, from the sea.

"'Cos here we are, a bunch of Taranaki guys and let's sing some songs about our country."

As for the table singing, that's an idea that comes from Raphael's love of  Eastern European and Occitan acapella singing.

Like me, Raphael was blown away at WOMAD 2023 by the Occitan group, San Salvador.

Raphael went along to the group's workshop, and came away with a few ideas for a group of his own.

"I thought, wouldn't it be great to have six or seven voices who are really flexible ... to do this sort of music. We got some trestle tables and we decked them out like a feast ... and we were drinking out of goblets. We rehearse around the table so we'll sing around a table, and it was just different. You don't have to stand up to sing."

So will Taranaki be Raphael's last musical base?

This is a man who's always travelled. He starting singing as a choir boy in Dunedin, moved to England with his parents, studied there, before moving to Wellington for the best part of a decade and a half.

Will Raphael feel the pull of another musical venture?

He can't rule out another move for him and his partner, but having just set up life in their own home he concluded "when I moved in, I thought, I'm not moving in again".

We can think of worse places to be stuck, and Wellington's loss is Taranaki's gain.