No Instruments Allowed – Not the a cappella I remember

On Saturday night, I took Erica and her BFF, Kathleen to a concert featuring five a cappella singing groups:
No Comment from the U of I (mixed voices)
Touch of Class from llinois Wesleyan University (all female)
Acafellaz from Illinois State University (all male)
The U of I Rip Chords (all female)
The Xtension Chords from the U of I (all male)

I am reaching into my memory banks in order to recall the last a cappella concert I attended – I think it was 1991’s Concert in Bad Taste, delivered by the Chorallaries of MIT. Yeah, I am a previous member of this group (affectionately referred to as a “Choralum”), and a cappella flows through my blood, so I was excited to see these five groups perform. I even dragged along my tween daughter so I wouldn’t be there alone.

To recap Saturday’s performances, we (and not just me - Erica and Kathleen DID have a good time) really enjoyed all of the singing groups. Our favorite group had to be the Xtension Chords, with their high energy, harmonies and funny songs (sing these lyrics to Joan Jett’s I Love Rock and Roll):

Now we all love our university
There's nothing but corn as far as the eye can see
We love that echo spot and the good ol' morrow plots
Just one school that's good enough for me
And it's time to give some R-E-S-P-E-C-T
I love Illinois, it's the greatest school in the country, baby
I love Illinois, so come and hang around the corn with me
Part of the groups’ performances is the shameless marketing of the respective groups’ performance CDs, T-shirts and websites. And of course, I am a complete sucker when it comes to buying music by independent musicians, so at the end of the night I am $50 poorer, but so much richer musically. But after listening to these carefully produced CDs, I have come to the conclusion that this isn’t quite the a cappella I remember:

We never used mics during our performances – you had to project your voice. But in a large hall, they are a must (albeit a little loud at times), and really adds to the intensity of the performance.

Today’s groups use vocal drumming (beat boxing) extensively – it used to be that simple finger snapping was sufficient. In 1989, the Chorallaries just introduced vocal drumming, thanks to Wes Carroll’s (now of the House Jacks) skills. I didn’t realize how much the vocal drumming has permeated the a cappella scene, and how real it sounds.

College a cappella is big business and has grown in popularity – there are regional and national competitions (International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella - ICCA), extensive time spent on producing CDs, with the hope that a vocalist could break out on the national music scene, like Sara Barielles. Her song, Gravity, and group, UCLA's Awaken A Cappella, was featured on the Best of College a Cappella compilation CD in 2004. [Side note – she is my current FAVORITE artist – I love her entire Little Voices album]. Organizations like Varsity Vocals,, totalvocal, Contemporary a cappella Society (CASA) didn’t exist when I was involved with college a cappella.
When I graduated from MIT in 1989, there were three a cappella groups – that has grown to eight groups presently.

These are all great advancements in this genre of music, but when I listen to my freshly minted copy of 2008’s Best of College a Cappella (BOCA - Album art above), I can’t help but cringe at the obvious digital rendering of perfectly good voices into pseudo synthesizers or electric guitars, which, in my opinion, is not a cappella. [I just ordered the Chorallaries latest CD, Positive Chorallation – I hope they kept the voice manipulation to tolerable levels]

So call me old school in this regard, and I’ll prefer to attend more live concerts than listen to a slickly produced CD – that way I can hear the voices, the not always perfect harmonies and enjoy the raw energy and talent of the singers.

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