There’s a strange din echoing around Belfast these days. It can only be sometime satanists, occasional folkies and day-tripper pagans The Factotum Choir.
Did you know that in the 1950s there was a choir formed in Belfast with the aim of bringing socialist and experimental music to the proletariat?
Did you know that, in various guises and manifestations, the choir spent the next 30 years branching off into “Satanism, pagan ritualism, folk and psychedelic performance art” – producing, along the way, a “folk opera” called No Joy For Henry, and a “pagan actionist ritual” (Die Orgiegeheimnisse) that was launched in London in 1971? Did you know that it crumbled in the mid ‘80s, its members embittered by in-fighting and lost purpose?
No? Well, you wouldn’t be the only one.
However, take a stroll around the reclaimed debris and ephemera relating to the band, gathered together at Belfast’s Black Box, and you’ll have your eyes opened to the curious history of The Factotum Choir.
Now, (nudge nudge) the folk behind this exhibition have built up a considerable rap sheet for delighting in piss-takes with a PhD (They’re the scamps behind The Vacuum free sheet – a publication that, you may well remember, got into a bout of fisticuffs with Belfast City Council a few years back over accusations of – yes, that again – Satanism), so consider your card to have been marked.
But then, as Stephen Hackett, the exhibition’s curator, makes clear – once you strike up an acquaintance, you’ll realise there’s little about The Factotum Choir that should be taken on trust.
Colin Carberry: First off, When was the choir originally established?
Stephen Hackett: As with many other parts of the Choir’s history this can only be pieced together from the fragmentary evidence we have found, and the memories of choir members, which may not be entirely reliable. The earliest printed material that refers to the Factotum Choir is a programme from 1956, but prior to that Mr. Carter, the Choir’s founder, was ejected from a church choir for trying to get them to sing sea shanties, so I think we can assume he had been trying to get the Choir started for some time before this date.
How did you discover its existence?
Like the Harp bar, the Factotum Choir is one of those things you would hear about in Belfast without knowing anything specific about it. When we named our own organisation Factotum it was partly inspired by the name and what we thought the Choir stood for, but then over time we started to hear stories, mostly from drunks in bars, and pieced together bits of the story. Eventually we met people who had been Choir members and had bits and pieces of its history in their attics and decided we should put on the exhibition and form our own Choir in tribute to the original.
Tell us about ‘The Hound of Ulster’?
The ‘Hound of Ulster’ was what we would call today a multimedia opera, performed in the Ulster Hall in 1985. It was the inspiration of one of the Choir’s most troubled leaders, Hugh Allen, who saw the potential for computer technology to ultimately produce a total work of art – combining music, images and the bodies of the performers. The story concerned a scientist who goes back in time to rescue Cuchulann in a time machine and then bring him back to the present to do battle with the IRA and the UVF. On stage, Allen would use his Digimitt to control the music and pictures while the Choir sung the main parts of the drama. In the film footage we found this Digimitt looks like an oven glove with wires coming out of it, but you can see the projections change when he moves, so there must have been more to it than that.
Why did it disappear?
The quick answer is because they all hated one another more than they wanted to make music together, but also times had changed and I expect it is harder to be an anarchic and unconventional group today than it was in 1975.
Where did the various members end up?
The person sitting next to you could be a former member, but the chances are they would deny it because of all the recriminations that went with every reformation of the membership. The ones we spoke to are mostly broken alcoholics, though one was the director of a local development quango and probably the most cynical individual we have ever met. Though we are probably not supposed to mention that.
With NI supposedly so memory-fixated, do you think it’s strange that so little of their work is remembered?
Yes but what is Northern Ireland so memory fixated about? Rarely anything interesting. And it’s hard to be nostalgic about such a collection of antisocial and dysfunctional people.
How did the reincarnation come about?
Seemed the natural thing to do once we had reconstructed some of the Choir’s story. We just invited people to come along and placed adverts in The Vacuum for new members to come and join. Soon it had a life of its own again.
Tell me about the exhibition.
The exhibition is a multimedia history of the choir with archive film footage of the choir performing and practising at various stage in their career. We have artefacts such as No Joy For Henry stage drawings, agit prop t-Shirts and posters from the early ‘80s phase; ‘Lie down with capitalists wake up with pubic lice’ etc.
Is the choir back for good now?
That remains to be seen. However it does appear that the old traits of infighting, drunkenness and development of overambitious concepts are prevalent in the current group. Time will tell.
What about accusations that it’s just another prank by some notorious art-chancers?
We would suggest readers make up their own minds rather than be easily convinced by such a slovenly accusation.
The Factotum Choir exhibition runs throughout February at The Black Box in Belfast