A group of singing butchers in the Rhineland can look back on a long tradition. They are a thriving relic of what used to be widespread in Germany: guilds of men's choirs.
The scent of cured meat hangs in the air in an old butchery in Cologne's once industrial, now trendy Ehrenfeld district. It's a bad idea to come to the rehearsals of the registered club "Cologne's Singing Butchers" on an empty stomach.
"Gentlemen, I'd love to let you get away with the notes you're singing there, but you know me: I stick to the score!" booms the choirmaster, but it becomes readily apparent that 30 singing butchers are not easy to tame. Again and again come cracks and jibes from the choristers, followed by bursts of laughter.
"With that lot you've really got to have strong nerves and the right amount of assertiveness," admits choral director Theo Balkhausen.
Joy in singing
At 60, the head of the choir is the youngest man in the room. Most members have been performing together for decades and have seen each other through good and bad times. The group's bond is apparent.
The days in which every respectable family man was a member in at least one choir have passed. In the 1950s, many of German's all-male choirs began to die out. In Cologne, just two remain: the butchers' and the bakers' choir.
"There used to be three different butchers' choirs in the city," recalls Joseph Kling, the group's first tenor. "There was one for each side of the river, and then one for the big butcheries."
But as the members withdrew, the various choirs melded. Joseph Kling is now 79 years old and worked for just over five decades as a butcher. He sings because he loves it, and it is good for him, he says. Despite his age, he has a wonderfully clear voice.
No vegetarians allowed
"Any man can sign with us under one condition - he must eat meat and sausage, and he must buy it from a butcher!" quipped the choir's president Walter Heinen.
With this approach, the choir has managed not to shrink despite its aging membership. Walter Heinen can even count six newcomers, who have had to learn the butcher's song. In translation, it would go: "Anyone who isn't daft / Praise for me the butcher's craft / Because that roast in the pan / Must come from someone's hand!"
The song goes on to ask what good even the most beautiful cow, pig or ox is as long as it is alive - lyrics not for the faint of heart, and it's clear that there are no vegetarians among the group's ranks.
Emphasis on togetherness
The choir focuses on being sociable and less on developing its musical qualities, reflects the rather critical choir leader.
"It took me a certain amount of time to understand that," he said.
But one thing is clear: the group's members love to sing regional Carnival songs above all else, a nod to the festival for which Cologne and surrounding communities are famous.
"I can't give them Schubert or something like that to sing - they'll laugh me out of the room," said Theo Balkhausen. "They used to sing only in unison. It was a real drama before I could get them to sing in four parts!"
And not everyone in the group agrees with the more complex arrangements.
"I find it difficult. We're singing songs that we've sung for 40, 50 or 60 years the same way, and now the choral director comes and makes an arrangement out of it where, as the second bass, you have to sing the exact opposite!" complained one well-nourished and self-proclaimed bachelor named Jonny.
"That's crazy, the tenors up there, and then you're doing something totally different - it's hard! Especially we in the second bass part always have to sing against the melody."
Pea soup as lifeblood
The butchers' guild is blessed with plenty of bassists, but that's quite a bit different in Cologne's rival choir composed of bakers. According to the butchers, they have lots of tenors and almost no basses.
"The flour must do something to the voice," explained one singer.
For decades, the singing meat and bread sellers were all-out enemies, but they were able to reconcile their differences recently at the dedication of a new set of bells purchased for the Cologne City Hall.
"Our choir first formed in 1902, and the bakers in 1912," said the choir's president Walter Heinen, unable to avoid a little dig. But he is proud that the bakers and the butchers come together now once a year in a Cologne church to sing a mass together.
"That's really an incredible experience when we are singing with about 50 people there," he said.
As rehearsal ends, the tables are pushed together, and from out of nowhere comes a pot of pea soup with some extras on the side: meat, of course. It looks like there is never rehearsal without some soup to go with it.
But it's a lot more than food that holds the guilds together.
"It's because we all work hard and like to get together and talk with each other. We're just a really fun group!" Heinen concluded.
Author: Anastassia Boutsko / gsw
Editor: Rick Fulker