Why am I singing an old Labi Siffre song into my iPad? It must be love

It seems like madness, but being in a Zoom choir with my work colleagues is quite uplifting

“As soon as I wake up, any night, any day, I know that it’s you I need, to take the blues away...”

It’s a dark Monday evening in February. Rain spatters the skylight and it feels like spring will never come. I am in the attic, trying – occasionally successfully – to remain in tune and keep up with a cheerful, ukulele-playing young woman on my iPad who’s leading me and 30-odd others through It Must Be Love, the 1970s Labi Siffre hit later revived by Madness. This evening my main objective is to rein in my inner Nutty Boy (mockney is fine in the shower, but someone might actually hear this), and skew more towards the approach – if not the crystalline falsetto – of Siffre’s original, since that seems to be a better guide to what we are attempting.

The "we" is the rather clunkily-titled Irish Times Irish Examiner Choir (media consolidation does not lend itself to memorable choir names), and our perennially optimistic and encouraging leader, Eimear Hurley. I'm in the attic because it has been made clear that nobody else in the house wishes to have their evening spoiled by my vocal stylings. Our makeshift choir is part of Cork International Choral Festival's Choirworks programme, devised specifically for lockdown. The programme offers workplace colleagues around the country "the chance to learn to sing and form a virtual company choir, or improve their singing and existing workplace choir, through online interactive music lessons, workshops and team-building activities".


In normal times, the phrase “team-building activities” would be cause to reach for the revolver, but you take your fun where you can get it these days. And, to be honest, I’d always fancied the idea of having a go at communal singing sometime. If not now, when? The paradox is that the opportunity presented itself at the worst moment for established choirs since the turbulent years of the early Reformation. Identified internationally as the cause of several super-spreader events early on in the Covid-19 crisis, the essence of what choral music is all about – human beings gathered together to breathe deeply and sing loudly – could hardly be more dangerous during a pandemic caused by an airborne virus. The sad irony is that the scientifically established physical and health benefits of singing en masse are exactly what a lot of us need and crave right now.


All the more reason to appreciate the agility and creative thinking of Cork's artistic director Peter Stobart and his team, who despite everything have put together a strong programme for this year's festival, which starts in 11 days' time. They would normally expect more than 5,000 singers in the city, but this year, obviously, that's not possible. Instead, a varied line-up includes online concerts, events and free interactive workshops which will see 48 international choirs compete and perform. There'll be a new film about Ireland's best-known choral ensemble, Anúna. There'll be gala performances and world premieres from St Fin Barre's Cathedral.

Abysmal or brilliant

And The Irish Times Irish Examiner will be there, competing in the Workplace Choir of the Year competition with our subtle or challenging or uplifting or lyrical or abysmal or brilliant interpretation of It Must Be Love. Any of these could be true, because no one has a clue what it’s going to be like. The thing about remote choirs is that you can’t hear how anyone else is getting on. Due to the limitations of Zoom and the other videoconferencing platforms, you can never actually sing together. This, apparently, is all down to “latency”, which my dictionary first tells me is “the state of existing but not yet being developed”. This could well turn out to be an accurate description of our choir, although it’s the computing definition – “the delay before a transfer of data begins following an instruction for its transfer” – that makes synchronised singing impossible.

So all rehearsals were conducted with the mute button switched on, and at the end of the process everyone recorded their own singing parts and sent them in to be assembled into a (presumably) seamless whole. The whole thing is not unlike the BBC’s current Saturday night entertainment show I Can See Your Voice, which hinges on finding out whether people who claim that they can sing are actually telling the truth.

To be honest, I don’t even know if I can sing. Watch this space...

The Cork International Choral Festival runs from April 28th to May 2nd. The winner of the Ibec Workplace Choir of the Year competition will be announced at the festival's online awards ceremony on Sunday May 2nd. corkchoral.ie