WALES is the land of song, but what happens when Welsh choirs go on tour? CHRIS PEREGRINE talks to one man who should know. He has organised enough of them and has now written a book about it all...
MANY things are said in bars, some wise, some not so wise.
Alan Maggs has probably not decided what category his comment in a Spanish taverna two decades ago falls into, but one thing is certain — it sort of changed his life.
A challenge was laid down and accepted. And so began his role as a tour organiser for Welsh choirs all over Europe.
"For the first 14 years of my life I was frog-marched to choir practice at the local chapel in Pontycymmer," he says.
"My family then moved to Swansea, where my voice broke overnight. Must have been the sea air but at least I was no longer required by a choir. Any choir!
"Fast forward 20 years and I found myself in a Spanish bar, in a typical Spanish town. The conversation centred on the town's choral heritage and, fortified by the local brew, I said something like: 'You can't claim to be a musical town until you've received a visit from a Welsh choir'. 'Well, bring one to us,' said the tall distinguished Spaniard who, unknown to me, was the town's councillor for culture. So I did.
"In fact over the next 20 years I helped organise scores of trips for choirs to that particular town and scores more to various parts of Europe and the UK, many of which, I accompanied."
And Alan thought it was about time he put some of those experiences down on paper. Hence Welsh Choirs on Tour, what he calls an affectionate tribute, with names changed, to some of the very many characters he got to know in often quite surreal situations.
It is subtitled What Goes on Tour Stays on Tour. Or Does it?
Reading the book may provide the answer as the antics of characters like Dickie Fountain, Dai Bungalow, Phil the Pill and Huw Coffin as they march triumphantly through Europe promoting Welsh culture are revealed.
Alan says: "You can take the boy out of Wales, but you can't take Wales out of the boy!"
At the time he came into it he was mainly running sports tours and selling a bit of property in Spain. His chance bar encounter propelled him in the choral direction, although definitely not as a singer.
"When I came back from Spain I wrote to about 20 choirs and two said yes, one from Neath, Bryncoch, and one from North Wales," he recalls. "I did not see it as a business opportunity. But it went from there to be honest."
Some 100 or so tours later, you could say it took off. Trips to countries like Spain, Finland, Poland, the Czech Republic, Italy and the home nations have followed.
Alan has gone on many of the tours, but is tending to take more of a back seat these days.
"I am hurtling towards 60 and getting too old to rampage around Europe with Welsh choirs," he jokes.
Some choristers may be older than that, but Alan, from West Cross, says: "They seem to have a new lease of life when they go on tour!"
Among his tour duties is lining up the concert venues, and then you have got to fill them.
"We don't overkill in a place," he says. "We don't normally have more than four Welsh choirs in a place a year. We don't want hundreds of choirs in the same place, otherwise it gets boring. Ex-pats particularly support us, not just the Welsh but Brits generally. They all come to the concerts. They tend to be free but often tickets are sold to raise money for local charities."
Alan accepts there may be a cliched image of Welsh choirs on tour, and the book's concentration on humour may reinforce that. But he does not mean it.
Stories like the time a Spanish waiter watched in awe as members of a certain choir piled their plates ridiculously high when it was time for the buffet.
He wandered over to Alan to express his astonishment at the mopping up operation he was witnessing.
"Sometimes Welsh people on tour can come over as daft, but I mean daft in a nice way, because I am hoping it is done in an affectionate way," he says.
"I would come back from a trip and go to the pub and say a few funny stories about what happened, and people would say you ought to put them in a book. So I was encouraged to write the book because there are so many funny stories."
Alan may remember them, write about them, but he does not sing himself.
"I am the exception that proves the rule," he says about the reputation of every Welsh man and woman being a singer.
Welsh Choirs on Tour by Alan Maggs, with Peter Read, is published by Y Lolfa.