A travel report by Keith Miller for The Telegraph.
It’s ten o’clock on a Monday morning. Outside, it’s a muggy 84F (29C); there’s a heavy sweetness in the air from the blossom by the pool; the crabs are shyly scurrying at the edges of the beach; a few chunks of coral gleam, half-buried, in the sand and the water teems with wrasse and angelfish. Inside the Club Resort Barbados where our choir is practising it is savagely air-conditioned and a man named Mike is helping us to find our diaphragms.
We’ve four two-hour sessions to look forward to, culminating in the slightly more daunting prospect of a performance – I can’t yet quite bring myself to call it a “gig” – in the resort’s Ewok-like central recreation area. But for now it’s thumbs in navels, breathing in and holding, hissing like kettles as we exhale. The theory – though it’s expounded with a light touch – is that once you can feel where the sound comes from it’s easier to control. Within half an hour we’ve warmed up and done a (fairly bashful) group hug; Mike has gauged our different vocal ranges, and we’re ready to rock and roll.
This year Mike King launches a programme of singing workshops here and elsewhere across the Caribbean. His work as a voice coach is just one facet of a busy musical career as producer, performer and arranger. He has worked with Mark Ronson and Boy George; he coaches contestants on The Voice UK for their very first on-camera appearances; his professional choir, the Mike King Collective, mixes session and live work (they played Edinburgh last summer).
Our group here in Barbados is a more ragged assembly: half a dozen journalists, Mike’s wife and collaborator Carol and – crucially, it will turn out – several members of the resort’s staff. The latter have been roped in through a mixture of bribery, coercion and vague promises of time off in lieu; general manager Rodcliff Massiah is here, as is Dewey King, the air-conditioning technician, who’s clearly not wildly happy to be here today, but who will emerge as one of the strongest talents in the group as the week unfolds: a clear, soulful tenor with a faint burr like torn silk.
During a break I managed to corner Mike. Does he really believe anyone can sing? His easy enthusiasm is undimmed. “I believe everybody can be taught to sing… it’s all about technique.” Unconvinced, I push for more. “What if you’re just tone deaf?” “I’m not sure there’s any such thing. But if someone thought they were tone deaf, I’d just do a lot of listening with that person, a lot of repetition.”
No one left behind, then. Our musical menu would include reggae, soul and R&B-type songs (plus the Jackson 5’s Rockin’ Robin – the accidental copyright-free status of the song makes it invaluable as a promotional tool) though Mike has other genres in the kitty should he find himself working with different age groups. His arrangements, sturdy and learnable and mostly set in three parts, can be tweaked if more holidaymakers show up, or if people can’t reach the high notes.
As we started to work on our “set” I grew increasingly impressed with these arrangements. There was nothing fancy in there, but Mike has a way of getting to the heart of the tune – and as we grew a little more confident, he taught us a few tricks of pitch and volume that helped to make sense of a lyric, or buttress the architecture of a song.
Dinner the first evening was at Lone Star, a storied seafront joint a couple of miles up the coast. We tossed morsels of coconut prawn to the crabs and drank in the beauty of the place: the torchlight and the sighing waves. Some of the group had never sung in front of other people before, or only ever done karaoke; we were still a little apprehensive, but an afternoon of swimming and spa-ing had induced a general mellowness. Mike, who lives part of the year on the island with his wife Carol (some of whose family are Bajan), had joined us.
He leaned conspiratorially forward: “Do you remember this morning, when you asked if it would be hard work? I told you I’d make you work but you wouldn’t know how hard you were working.” It already feels a long time ago.
Being an infrequent visitor to the tropics, I was knocked sideways by the prodigious energy of nature: the flowering shrubs, the aerial root systems, the glorious cavalcade out on the reef. I got away from the resort most days (though really all you need is there: the whole all-inclusive thing itself feels like a kind of tropical bounteousness). I visited the 17th-century church of St James and the reef conservation zone a mile north of the resort; I surveyed the grandiose façades of spendy Sandy Lane next door, which looks more like the hideout of a disgraced politician than a place of relaxation (we all preferred the homely elegance of The Club, with its enchanting layout, colonial furniture and friendly atmosphere).
There was also a snorkelling trip where two turtles rose from the depths. One had an enormous barnacle on its shell, like a beauty spot on a rococo princeling; the creature within had itself emerged to get its share of the food our boatman had thrown in the water. It was hard to look away. We took a minibus tour to see the rugged east coast, the northern cliffs, a few relics of the sugar trade. But the climate slows you down: most of our time was passed within The Club’s precincts, swimming, grazing and reading and – it’s an inescapable phrase – chilling out.
In fact, the singing workshops brought a touch of order and purpose to our sybaritic days. On day two a real live tourist rocked up, having seen a poster outside the restaurant: Clement Benjamin from Nottingham. A seasoned choral singer, he threw himself into the workshops with gusto.
The staff began waxing more positive about the project: not only are they all pretty good singers (there’s a lot of church on the island, and the local secondary school has a famous choir), but singing in the workplace can be a great leveller – something I can vouch for as a member of The Telegraph choir. Our post-warm-up hugging sessions grew longer and more enthusiastic.
The Kings invite us to a rehearsal of Voices for Lupus, a charity choir they’ve set up on the island. It was truly a joyful, ringing sound: 60-odd people belting out Labi Siffre and Al Green (an actual reverend took the verse solo) in a sweltering school hall. It was uplifting, if also chastening (we still have a way to go) – but there’s something to be learnt, too, from the way the different parts huddle together and help each other – the way the whole choir is so communicative within itself. It’s very different from the European choral tradition, where all eyes are on the conductor. We lent a hand putting chairs back afterwards and several singers promised they’d come to hear us on Thursday.
Our time in Barbados sped up towards the end. The gig – I feel qualified to call it a “gig” now – was, I think, a success although not an unqualified one: moving suddenly from the cool, dry air of the rehearsal room to a more ambient space proved a bit of a shock. It felt more comfortable in the throat, but we needed to take it up a gear to be heard.
Voices for Lupus showed up as promised (together with a Bajan senator who was a patron of the Hope Foundation Barbados, the charity behind the choir). All the “visitors” – including our tourist friend Clement – got a couple of solo lines in a cleverly slowed-down, gospelly version of Bob Marley’s One Love.
In these and the ensemble parts, Mike took us beyond the karaoke thing where you can’t quite be yourself, just a sort of pale imitation of the original singer, and if you’re not careful you end up doing some sort of hideous Keith Lemon parody: we really do feel like we’re inside the songs singing out. The most enriching thing, somehow, is to sing alongside the resort staff – it’s a very intimate act to experience with a group of people we might otherwise have engaged with on a much more superficial or transactional level. There is, as predicted, an extra-intense hugathon after we finish – and even talk of a staff choir forming.