Shouting is what some men do best. And when a group of such men get together, you can hardly expect to hear something musical. But that’s what makes the Shouting Men’s Choir in Oulu, northern Finland, so special. The men shout, and it becomes music.
The choir consists of 30 men who generally dress in black suits for their performances. Most locals consider the choir to be a product of long nights in a town with little to do, the north-Finnish sense of humor that borders on the absurd, and of course, a steady supply of vodka. Mika Ronkainen, a local filmmaker, made a documentary film with the choir and its founder as the subject, called Mieskuoro Huutajat. That translates to Screaming Men. It was the first Finnish film to be accepted at the Sundance Festival, and also the first to get international distribution. I saw a short clip from the film on YouTube, in which Petri Sirvio, the founder and director of the Shouting Men’s choir says that the best part of the group’s performance is the element of surprise. “I trained them quite well,” he says rather unabashedly.
Their act is indeed surprising. When you look at all the ‘men in black’ standing in formation with somber expressions, you would expect them to break into something musical. But they open their mouths to release a quick shout, almost like a bark. It does cause a bit of a shock, no matter how prepared you think you are for it. Sirvio conducts the whole time, but somehow the experience isn’t very orchestra-like. The Shouting Men’s choir makes about 5 to 8 tours a year and want to someday get invited to perform at the White House. The group has been in existence for more than 20 years now. Some of the members are actually professional musicians, while others are just passionate about shouting. They perform a variety of pieces ranging from their own versions of national anthems to children’s nursery rhymes, and one of their singles called Our Northern Native Land was a top-10 hit. Each performance is a heady mix of both discipline and abandon.
Interestingly, shouting isn’t much a part of Finnish tradition. Mika, who was in the choir for about 4 years himself, is very soft-spoken. He says, “I think there is more of a tradition of being quiet in Finland.” According to Sirvio, “Here, physical presence is sufficient for sociability and you can speak if you have something to say.” So he says that the shouting isn’t an alternative to singing, but to saying nothing at all. He came up with the idea way back when he was a part of band and choir, and used to mix music for a local punk band called Sound of Oulu. “It was just an idea, very simple and easy,” he says. “The concept was exactly as now; the musical part came later, but the look was there from the start.” Six months later Sirvio advertised in the newspaper asking for men ‘who wanted to scream’ to come forward. 20 guys responded, and since then 170 men have been part of the choir. Only 4 of the original members are part of the current group.
Sirvio says that the Shouting Men’s Choir is no different from a football team. The men are bonded in masculinity, wear the same uniform, and pursue the same program. So the choir in a way is a parody on male bonding activities like hunting, sport, or forming secret societies. This element of parody is, in fact, crucial to the choir. While its members come from diverse backgrounds and professions, it is more about anarchy than it is about democracy.
It’s unusual, yes, but in order to truly appreciate the Shouting Men’s choir, you’ve got to have an ‘ear’ for this kind of stuff, I guess.