Blokes and notes

Marge Overs
Med J Aust
Published online: 3 September 2012

Cancer researcher finds his voice

By day, he works to unravel the genetic code of melanoma; by night, he sings in a men’s choral group that performs to packed houses across the country and overseas.

Welcome to the double life of Professor Graham Mann, leading melanoma researcher and proud member of the eccentric Spooky Men’s Chorale, a men’s choir based in the Blue Mountains near Sydney.

The Spooky Men’s Chorale was formed in 2001, taking its inspiration from the centuries-old Georgian choral tradition.

The brainchild of Stephen Taberner, who writes and arranges the songs and leads the group, the Spooky Men are a choir like no other.

The 12–15 boofy blokes, all dressed in black, deliver a choral performance that is by turn stunningly beautiful and belly-laugh funny — and often it is both.

Their repertoire ranges from the silly to the serious — from a cover of ABBA’s Dancing Queen to an ancient Georgian drinking song in haunting three-part harmony.

Each Spooky Man wears his signature hat and costume, with the idea of representing “mythic archetypes that sit comfortably next to our inadequate daily male selves”, Professor Mann says.

The group is known for its impassive, deadpan delivery — which is enough to bring the house down, particularly when they launch into unlikely numbers such as Kasey Chambers’ classic, Am I not Pretty Enough?

Professor Mann, who was one of the earliest members of the Spooky Men, enjoys the blend of comedy and choral music.

“We sing a mixture of really beautiful music — both the traditional music and songs that Stephen has written”, he says. “It is all very strong music and has a strong emotional kick, whether it’s joyful, wistful and sad, or silly and exuberant.”

He loves the opportunity to make music with a group of men who have become his closest friends, with the bonus of knowing that audiences love what they do.

“Performing to a crowd that is really enjoying what we do is an indescribable experience”, he says. “We’ve performed in some amazing venues — cathedrals, concert halls, crypts — they are just remarkable experiences.”

The Spooky Men have developed a strong following in Australia and in the UK, where they have toured four times, becoming favourites on the music festival circuit and playing to crowds of up to 2000 people. In Australia, the Spooky Men’s Chorale fills festival venues and has performed on the ABC’s Spicks and Specks music quiz show.

Away from the stage, Professor Mann is a principal investigator with the Westmead Millennium Institute and Melanoma Institute Australia and is an associate dean of research for the University of Sydney medical school.

He helps lead a melanoma research program that has teams across the University of Sydney and at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research.

Professor Mann, who has worked solely in research since training as a medical oncologist, has focused on the genetics of melanoma and on developing treatments. “We are heavily involved in full-scale sequencing of a large number of melanomas to identify all the mutations that can be targeted.”

Over the past 12 months, he has been part of a team that has published high-profile papers about the genetic causes of melanoma in families known to have the affected genes as well as in the broader population — and the research is beginning to pay off.

“In the past three years, we’ve seen some of the fastest [research] progress of any cancer in melanoma, with these new targeted therapies making rapid strides. [This is] all the better since it was coming off a low base because conventional treatments, apart from timely surgery, have been so disappointing.”

While he chips away at the causes and treatment of melanoma in his day job, Professor Mann will continue to enjoy the creative space that the Spooky Men’s Chorale provides.

After 11 years, the group has no plans to slow down. It will go back to the studio in the next six months to add to the four CDs and one DVD it has released over the years. Another tour of the UK is scheduled for next year.

Despite their performing and recording success, the Spooky Men are not in it for the (non-existent) money.

“We are effectively a small semi-professional arts company”, Professor Mann says. “When you need to get up to 20 people overseas on a regular basis, you can’t hope to do more than cover your tour costs, and we don’t. But we all feel so fortunate we are able to do this at all.

“The music and the performance is just so much fun. The ability to do these tours and large gigs and to have the kind of audience response that we get is extraordinary and priceless.”

  • Marge Overs



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