National Arts Centre: Choir! Choir! Choir! sings a song of community

Choir!Choir!Choir! in action. Photo: Joseph Fuda

Like a fine piece of choral music, Choir! Choir! Choir! started softly and grew into something expansive and grand.

The Toronto-based outfit began as a lark at a birthday party and, nine years later, is an industry unto itself, with road shows across North America and beyond, motivational corporate gigs and even a charitable foundation.

Last week, Choir! Choir! Choir! led American Idol contestants in a performance of Lionel Ritchie’s song Hello as the superstar himself arrived by limo. This Sunday, C!C!C! (to use an abbreviation from the merch table) will lead football fans in singing O Canada at the Grey Cup in Ottawa. But first, there’s the headline show at the National Arts Centre on Saturday, Nov. 25, for which the choirmasters have special plans.

“It’s a special venue, and we wanted to take advantage of the fact we can put on a bigger show,” says Nobu Adilman, who co-founded and leads C!C!C! with Daveed Goldman. A typical show sees Daveed and Nobu — their webpage recommends the name “Dabu” — leading audience members in a choral sing-along to arrangements of popular songs. Sometimes, guests are on stage, and the NAC show will include Chris Murphy of Sloan, and C!C!C!’s own 50-person performance choir. But, Adilman says, “it’s all about getting the audience singing.”

Ottawa saw C!C!C! at Bluesfest this summer — on a tour that took them to festivals across the continent, including the storied Newport Folk Festival — and at Parliament Hill on Canada Day, where they led the holiday crowd through the Tragically Hip’s Ahead By A Century and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. The video of the latter song has been viewed online more than 300,000 times, a success that echoes what can be seen as the big bang in C!C!C!’s history.

The story began in 2008, when Adilman was asked to put together a choir for a friend’s birthday. There he met Goldman, who was playing guitar.

“It was so much fun, that Daveed kept saying to me every time I ran into him, ‘When are we going to do that choir thing again?’”

In February, 2011, the pair corralled 20 friends in a borrowed office space in downtown Toronto, to have some fun and get a break from winter’s social isolation. There was no plan, Adilman says, “no idea that it would become a thing that we would do every week or would become our jobs. It was really innocent, really just a thing to do with pals, but what we established on that first night is pretty much the bones of what Choir! Choir! Choir! is.”

When Dabu are (is?) not out on the road, C!C!C! still meets twice weekly at Clinton’s Tavern on Bloor West. Anyone is welcome — there are no auditions and no commitment required. People get lyric sheets at the door and are sectioned by low, mid and high voices. So far, hundreds of songs have been performed, all to arrangements by Dabu.

Things started to change in January, 2016, when David Bowie died. At the tavern choir, “we realized the collective grief over Bowie’s death was really noticeable,” Adilman says. They organized a larger event at the Art Gallery of Ontario and tickets “sold out in 10 minutes,” as Bowie fans gathered to sing his early hit Space Oddity.

“That was the first video of ours to go viral (and) we’ve been really busy and growing exponentially since then.”

Choir! Choir! Choir! has become something of institution for collective grieving in Canada. The Bowie video has more than a million views on the choir’s Youtube channel. Their version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, with Rufus Wainwright, has more than six million views, and a performance of Prince’s When Doves Cry at Massey Hall (with 1,999 voices) has almost 750,000. More recently, Dabu led a tribute to Gord Downie at Toronto city hall.

“Music is an incredibly powerful thing,” Adilman says. “It stokes emotions in a way that other art forms do not. … You put 500 to 2,000 people in a room together, all expressing their own emotions through singing … it just feels like you’re floating.”

Downie’s memory will be felt during the NAC performance as the set list includes Ahead By A Century, along with songs by Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Sloan, Justin Bieber and possibly others. It’s more songs than in a usual show, because the performance choir is on stage. 

“If we had to teach our arrangements to every single one of these songs, we’d be there for eight hours,” Adilman says. “This way, even from the first song we can have three-part harmonies, with the audience singing lead and the performance choir singing the backups. . . It’s a completely interactive night where the audience gets all this candy thrown at them, you know, super fun.”

The performance choir will also be at Lansdowne Park for the Grey Cup. “The whole idea is we want everybody to sing the national anthem with us. … We want people in their houses across the country to sing too,” says Adilman, who shivers at the suggestion it’ll be Choir! Choir! Choir!’s coldest performance to date.

“Please don’t say that.”

Choir! Choir! Choir!
Where: Southam Hall
When: Nov. 25 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.