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Byron Shire
May 17, 2021

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Tony Backhouse

New Zealand native Tony Backhouse, founder of Sydney’s foremost a cappella gospel choir Cafe of the Gate of Salvation and the Honeybees Choir, and Heavenly Light Quartet, comes to Mullumbimby to run vocal workshops this weekend.

Tony has run more than 2,000 vocal workshops on four continents, for the

public, festivals, schools, churches, organisations and corporate training events. He continues to record and arrange vocals with artists around the world, and lead tours to black churches and choirs in the USA bi-annually.

What led you to choir?

Accident. I wasn’t even interested in choirs, but back in the late 80s my fascination with old-time a cappella gospel quartets such as the Dixie Hummingbirds led me to form a quartet (the Elevators) – four male singers – and when we did a gig with female quartet Wild Wild Women we sang a few gospel tunes together. It sounded so good that I formed a choir to try get some of that gospel energy going. There was no African-American presence in Sydney, so I had to make my own fun.

Why do you think there is such interest and an upsurge in people wanting to sing with choirs?

In recent years, new community choirs have given a voice to those people who wouldn’t be interested in the old choral society/classical choral model. More and more song leaders have emerged to run vocal groups that are non-auditioned and deal with a repertoire of pop/jazz/vernacular/ethnic musics, music that is more accessible and informal than the choral society/classical choir. People are realising that singing in a choir can be fun, empowering, socially lubricating and uplifting.

What is it that is unique about music produced just by the human voice?

Hey, it’s portable! And the voice is capable of great nuance, feeling, textural and tonal variety and it can work with words.

What do you love most about working with people in an a capella setting?

Because the gospel repertoire I lean on is made up of some easy-to-learn building blocks, we can create something beautiful quite quickly, and that’s part of the joy – creating a sound that didn’t exist before (because it’s a new bunch of people), and hearing a bunch of voices open up and let loose.

What are you going to be teaching at your workshop?

I’ll be teaching some traditional gospel tunes that you may not have heard before, some South African gospel and whatever else I feel the crowd is ready for at the time – and I try to show how we can get as much expression and truth out of the songs as we can by introducing some simple performance devices.

Tony Backhouse – Rehearsing for Heaven – An a cappella workshop at Byron Region Community College in Mullumbimby on Saturday, 1–4pm.Admission from 12.40; no bookings necessary; cash payment on arrival $35, or $30 for Summersong graduates.

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