Valparaiso Men’s Chorus

Sunday, 14 April, 2013

Alerted to the existence of this bunch of alcohol-fuelled degenerates (the centre of their social universe is apparently Saturn Bar on New Orleans St. Claude Avenue, hence the title of the second album) while trying to dig up some hard information about leader Alex McMurray, the concept of a bunch of New Orleans musos playing the likes of Bound for South Australia piqued my curiosity.

And it did that, I must emphasise, before I started digging and discovered that we’re not just using Valparaiso as an interesting place name to throw into an inebriated ensemble that specialises in ribald sea shanties’ moniker.

Valparaiso might have been a small fishing village during Chile’s colonial past (Spain wasn’t inclined to encourage non-Hispanic commercial dealings) but when Chile became  independent in 1818 it was the main harbour for the Chilean navy. Independence meant the port was opened to international trade, becoming an important stopover for ships travelling from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Straits of Magellan, particularly during the California Gold Rush in the decade after 1848. The city was, in fact, was known as Little San Francisco and The Jewel of the Pacific, attracting large numbers of European immigrants and boasting German, French, Italian and English newspapers.

Things took a dive after the Panama Canal opened in 1914, and competition from synthetic nitrates killed off the Chilean saltpetre industry in the 1920s, though there’s been a rebound in recent years with the construction of larger ships (beyond the Panamax specifications and therefore unable to fit through the canal).

Still, in its heyday, there’s be plenty of ships giving the crew shore time after the rigours of rounding the Horn, and at times during the California gold rush there were more than a hundred ships anchored in the port, taking on supplies, giving passengers and crew a break and loading Chilean products including guano and nitrates.

The Valparaiso Men’s Chorus aren’t the only New Orleans outfit specialising in sea shanties (there’s a more traditionalist crowd called the N.O. Quarter Shanty Krewe) who regularly gather to sing sea shanties and, in leader Alex McMurray’s description of the exercise make a hellacious racket but they’re the only one that draws on McMurray’s traumatic spell singing sea shanties at Tokyo Disney in 2002.

It was, from what I can gather, the sort of experience that would sour any inclination you might have to content yourselves with the bowdlerised versions of the material you and I were exposed to in our school years. 

The Valparaiso Men’s Chorus take on these matters is, from where I’m sitting, a fat more interesting prospect.

2007 Guano and Nitrates

2012 The Straits of Saint Claude

© Ian Hughes 2012