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Have organ, will party — the growth of Organoke

22 December 2023

A new craze has grown out of a church in Camberwell, reports Simon Walsh

© Kate Hockenhull

The crowd at Organoke at St Giles’s, Camberwell

The crowd at Organoke at St Giles’s, Camberwell

IT IS the Second Sunday of Advent, and I find myself back in church that evening. Not for evensong or a carol service, but for “Organoke” — in other words, karaoke accompanied by the organ. Billed as a “Christmas Extravaganza”, it’s far from the usual Sunday-night pattern of worship.

The difference is noticeable at the door. Each entrant has their hand stamped, in the manner of a nightclub, and is told to take a party hat (“They’re obligatory!”). I do as I’m told and head inside, shrugging off my coat. The building is throbbing with people. The lights are down. There’s a hum of excitement.

The parish of St Giles’s, Camberwell, in south London, was mentioned in the Domesday Book. The church is a glorious example of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s Gothic Revival style, with windows by John Ruskin. But tonight these are all second fiddle to the riot of Christmas jumpers, mulled-wine scents, and people rushing to one another with hugs and happy shouts. Tinsel abounds, fashioned into a headdress here, a feather-boa substitute there.

TV screens display a countdown to the start of Organoke. I find a seat towards the back. In fact, I have no choice, as all the pews are full. Passing a sign that offers “Earplugs for sensitive ears”, I settle down with a can of beer. (When did I last have beer in church?) With minutes, the five band members take their places.

A drum roll, an overture of Christmas tunes, and the presiding minister arrives in the shape of Ida Barr (stage name of the non-binary performer Kit Green), an earthy music-hall artiste by way of the witty drag tradition. Ida explains the running: group singing of Christmas hits in the first half, then individual numbers in the second.

“Come into the centre aisle,” she invites. “But try not to jump on the grates as sometimes they give way, and I’m not a licensed C of E practitioner.”

The music gets going. More Santa hats than I can count bob about as a mass of bodies rise up from the pews to stand on the seats with their hands in the air. I look around nervously, but no representative of the Victorian Society appears.

The concept is brilliantly simple. In the first half, Christmas songs are announced, the lyrics come up on the screens, and everyone sings along. The band occupies the large sanctuary (purple-fronted altar behind) and the organ is the star, with a camera on the organist relayed to another screen.

It’s unrehearsed group singing, but with the collective experience of yelling along at school discos or in the car to a favourite hit. Arms wave and the church resounds, perhaps with a thousand tongues.

Throughout the first half, people are filling in slips of paper, offering to perform songs in the second half.

The crowd is tearing through the classics. Then an important announcement: it’s Ashley the organist’s birthday! Whoops and cheers usher in a rousing “Happy Birthday” chorus.

© Kate HockenhullParticipants in the second-half karaoke

At the interval, I talk to some of those attending. Tim and Alex are friends, both there with their girlfriends. They speak warmly of the “community vibe” and how this event slots into the seasonal whirl of Christmas markets, ice-skating, and carol services. Looking around at the main age bracket, which bulges around 30, they both agree it’s very millennial.

Roshni is an Organoke veteran. It’s her fifth time, and the third Christmas event she’s come to. “It’s fun and festive, silly, too, and I love Ida,” she says. “I’m really positive about it being in church — it adds something extra.” She’s with her friends Christina (“The band is a game-changer, isn’t it!”), and Roderick, who’s a lawyer. “We like to sing karaoke,” he explains. “And it’s nice to enjoy a religious place in a non-religious way.”

Roshni was introduced to Organoke by a friend who has now moved overseas; so she’s actively recruiting to add to her number. She has only one regret: she’s never been picked to perform a number in the second half. Her friends cheer her on. “We do a lot of karaoke at home, often singing along to YouTube,” confesses Christina.

Lucy is someone else who’s been coming for years. She’s a local, from Peckham, and describes the event as “amazing — just being together, and you can belt your heart out”. She says she’s not religious and feels secular about the night. “I’m not sure holding it in a consecrated building brings much. It’s different to singing carols, but it is probably the biggest event in my Christmas diary.”

Emily first came for the “Royal Wedding Special” in 2018. “For that one, all the songs were about love,” she tells me. “Friends got me to come along, and I’ve been a regular ever since. I’d love it if the church could do more of this. It’s so uplifting and Christmassy.” She lives locally and will be doing a number of festive activities (Kew Gardens for the lights, a show in town), but, for her Organoke “feels like the start of Christmas”.

Martin and Tom are a couple who live locally. It’s Martin’s first time, and he’s enjoying it. “The building and the people are very interesting,” he offers. Tom adds: “It’s a wonderful community thing.” They’ve put a bid in to sing karaoke in the second half.

No one knows whether they will be picked (the organisers use an old-fashioned tombola), and the band doesn’t know the song in advance, which keeps everyone on their toes. Ida calls up the singers in turn and has a few words of cheer with each one. Solos, duets, even little groups, like a mini choir.

The band rises to every challenge (guitars, brass, drums) and the video link shows how hard the organist is working. And the performers? On the whole, pretty impressive. These are karaoke enthusiasts; they know what they’re doing. Except this is a live band, and not a soundtrack; so it brings something extra. The crowd are loving it. They bop along, cheer, laugh, and applaud with gusto. Ida keeps it all moving.

Martin and Tom’s dream comes true when they duet on “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”) and even do a little dance. The crowd whoops with joy.

The hits keep coming. There’s “Santa Baby”, and then “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”. Next up, Ida introduces “Juan from Spain”, who takes to the mic for a wholly authentic rendition of “Feliz Navidad”.

The elation at the end of the evening is shared by all, and everyone floats out into the night air with beaming smiles, promising they’ll be back again soon.

ASHLEY VALENTINE (Feature, 15 December) is the organist, both at the church, for all its main services, and for Organoke events. He also teaches locally and oversees the Camberwell Community Choir. He’s proud of the instrument, although admits it needs a lot of money (“hundreds of thousands”) spending on it. This was where the founders of Organoke, Tom and Jordana Leighton, came in. Mr Valentine was planning a 48-hour organ-playing record attempt, and the Leightons suggested a karaoke element to liven some of it up.

Camberwell locals, the Leightons were married in St Giles’s. “We started small with Organoke,” Tom Leighton explains, “and thought that was brilliant, but, over time, it grew and grew, so much that we’re now doing other venues, including the Battersea Arts Centre and Brighton Dome this month. But the venue must always have an organ.” He has an ambition one day even to see Organoke in the Royal Albert Hall.

The are in the process of applying for a Heritage Lottery Fund grant and need to show the instrument is being used outside of services. The organ is also used during the screening of silent films.

© Kate HockenhullThe organist, Ashley Valentine

Mr Valentine also sees it as a way of helping people to experience church and the organ in a different way. “A while ago, we had a wedding, and the couple wanted a pop song at the end, instead of a traditional voluntary. ‘Ah, I thought: that’s Organoke,’ as they were looking for something their friends could sing along to as they went out.”

The Revd Nick George, Vicar since 2002, is proud of this parish initiative. “We’ve had live jazz events in the crypt for almost 30 years; so St Giles’s was already established as a music venue.”

Organoke, he continues, “has become one of the hottest tickets in town — local residents, students, young professionals, health teams, the local thriving arts community — they all come and bring their friends along”. A simple idea to raise funds for the organ has become “a full-blown Camberwell phenomenon”, he says.

The event is “a fun, moving, silly, emotional rollercoaster of community singing and entertainment”. The core components have a Christmas-cracker effect. “There’s Ashley and his band, Ida with her jokes, practical quirky, topical wisdom, and a full-on, inclusive welcome: it’s a blend made in heaven.”

For Fr George, Organoke’s energy and joy are infectious. “It has provided simple, quality entertainment during what continue to be difficult times for many people.” There is overlap within the community. The following weekend, the church is hosting a craft fair and its annual carol service. Some of the Organoke crowd will surely be back for another round.

Organoke is a registered trademark and cannot be used without permission. If churches with a capacity of more than 400 would like to show off their organ in a similar event, then the team would love to talk about collaboration. Contact them at: hello@organoke.com

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