A Cappella and Other Thoughts

Yesterday I attended a concert on campus. There’s a shy girl in one of my writing classes who came to me, ticket in hand, and asked me if I would come and see her sing. She’s a nice kid, and a diligent student, so how could I refuse?

Well, it turned out to be a cappella music concert. You know, where vocal groups sing without instrumental accompaniment (aside from a little beatbox work by some of the guys in the ensembles, and that’s still not really instrumental). Now, it may seem strange to those of you who think of groups like Boyz 2 Men when you hear mention of a cappella music, and I know that there is a long, long tradition in African-American music of singing unaccompanied — but this wasn’t that kind of a cappella music. The closest these kids got to anything not white was the very suburban “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”.

Suburban was really the word of the evening. I’d say about 60% of the songs were in English, and were either old jazz or contemporary pop, by which I mean white popstars’ songs. For those of you who were at all involved in music in high school, you will remember your vocal jazz choir often performed a mix of jazz standards and vocal arrangements of contemporary pop songs. This was like that.

Which made me wonder why it always seems to be the white-American-suburban culture that makes inroads here. I don’t see why singing in the style of Manhattan Transfer would be more of an appeal than, say, singing in the style of Boyz 2 Men or Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Especially the latter seems to have a kind of power to it that manages to blend all kinds of emotions, where groups like Manhattan Transfer have always seemed to me the epitome of the “vocal jazz ensemble” genre — that the songs must be relatively innocuous and inconsequential. To be honest, I always found the whole genre to be rather shallow and, well, somewhat pointless, beside the point of smiling pretty, bobbing to the beat in a group, and making nice little harmonies that don’t add up to much effect. Disposable music as a genre, I suppose.

But this isn’t a criticism of the kids’ singing. They very obviously worked hard for a long time, and they did well. And actually, I did get a few chills down my spine, believe it or not. I think I finally really understand how some of the Broadway songwriters were geniuses… because so many of their little throwaway songs are so innocuous, so inane, and yet they express the poignancy and commonness of so many human emotions that we so often try to hide or keep inside ourselves. And I think that’s what is missing in a lot of the other stuff — the modern popsong arrangements especially. And I think that in all of my serious writing, my attempts at satire have failed mostly because I’ve never been able to pull off that kind of poignant honesty in a way that doesn’t teeter over into fromage.

Anyway, as for my student, I happily got to see her perform in two songs before I had to dash off to class. She even had a short solo, and she performed it admirably, even if I could still see her shyness. Good for her, doubly so when she’s so self-conscious. Very nice kid. I always enjoy seeing my students when they’re outside of my classroom and, in some way or other, in their own element.

Hmmmmmm. I wonder if these kids have heard that all-vocal Bjork album.

UPDATE: Oh, I forgot to mention, there was a guest ensemble, who seem to be some kind of pro- or semi-pro Korean a cappella ensemble. Some of their songs reminded me of Manhattan Transfer, but they did do one very striking piece in which the beatbox guys (2 of them) went back and forth between loping bass lines and simulating the sound of traditional Korean percussion instruments, and the singers slipped back and forth between normal voices and voice-sounds approximating pansori vocalists, and the sounds of solo and duo haegum playing mournful melodies from the old days, as it were. The band goes by the name Maytree, and at least one of their CDs is available at YesAsia.

7 thoughts on “A Cappella and Other Thoughts

  1. Gord:

    You wrote “Which made me wonder why it always seems to be the white-American-suburban culture that makes inroads here.”

    Which made me wonder whether Korea is a lot different from Japan.

    In Japan African-American culture is huge ranging from–for the young folks–rap, hip-hop, break dancing, baggy jeans, and NBA basketball to–for the middle aged and older–jazz (Ornette Coleman played here last month to a very appreciative audience). Also, what I suppose would be called African-Jamaican culture, rastafarianism and reggae, are (if mostly as fashions) big. Is this not the case in Korea?

    As far as choosing songs to sing is it perhaps just that arrangements of Carpenters’ tunes are just a lot easier than, say, gospel. I rather doubt that many amateur Korean singers have the pipes to handle a lot of what African American groups sing (correct me if I’m wrong). As an old African American blues man whose name I’ve forgotten put it, “Some of these white guys can really play the guitar, but I’ve never heard a white man who can vocal like a black man.”

    Just a thought,

  2. David,

    Yeah, hip-hop music is big here, though I find that it doesn’t intersect with fashion so much — those who can wear mainstream fashion (which is mostly somewhat like mainstream North American fashion from the 50s for women, and from the 80s for guys, ie. fairly conservative, with the exception of one thing — the miniskirt, which is really big now, like, controversial big now). The last guy I knew who said he liked metal was someone I’d never seen out of dress clothes or a suit — and he was a student, not a working man. It seems that outside of a small segment of people (or maybe a larger number of weekend clubbers), hip-hop clothing is kind of the last fashion refuge of the overweight. While trying to help someone remember the name of a student we’d both taught, I mentioned she was heavy, and wore hip-hop clothes a lot. He replied that, yeah, of course, that is the heavy woman’s only fashion choice here.

    I find most of the interest in jazz is concentrated on Latin jazz, and other kinds of “lite” jazz, or Kenny G, or sometimes something that has a little funk mixed into the cheese. I don’t think Ornette Coleman would find much of an audience here (though I’d be in the front row genuflecting). Pharoah Sanders player here a couple of years ago, but the club that brought him in also shut down two months later (it was a Blue Note club, I think somehow affiliated with the record company but I don’t know — I do know there are Blue Note clubs in Japan and this place was affiliated with them somehow).

    Breakdancing — I don’t know, I don’t go to clubs or other places where people dance, but the few rock clubs I’ve been to, almost nobody dances at all — live music is relatively (2 decades or less) new here, and they just don’t have a well-developed live music culture at the moment. Clubbing is popular among some segments of the young, and there’s interest in new kinds of dancing, but most of what I’ve seen with average young people is that (a) they’re embarrassed and shy about dancing, and (b) they tend to only know one or two moves which they do quickly, and then retreat from view. I mean, when the new “booby-booby” dance started being performed, there were these investigative reports on TV news about how people were sexy-dancing in clubs, and instructional segments on how to do it, and so on.

    I also haven’t seen much (if any) interest in Afro-Caribbean culture — no rasta here, mon, or at least not much of it.

    As for “having the pipes”, I don’t know. One of the beauties of an anthology like Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music is that the race of the singer is sometimes apparent, but occasionally impossible to guess. I’ve heard people here who have very strong, cultivated voices, and even people who have learned to bring out that “black/soul” timbre to their voice (for want of a better word, but the thing that one hears in the voice of, say, Cassandra Wilson but not in the voice of, say, Britney Spears).

    Maybe it’s just that arrangements of The Lion Sleeps Tonight and the like are just more easily procured? As I say, there’s a vocal jazz genre with tons of sheet music available and so on. Amateur kids wouldn’t be working on their own arrangements, so it’s entirely feasible it’s all down to what one can order online.

  3. Gord:

    I don’t want to rub it in, but Ornette was really something. I felt so privileged to have the chance to hear him play. He’s 76 now, so who knows how much longer he’ll be touring.

    The great thing about the show was that it was anything but a golden-oldies “do you remember this” sort of thing. He seemed as fresh and edgy as ever.

    If you get a chance–even if it takes a plane ticket to Japan or somewhere–don’t miss him.


  4. Huh. A friend told me years ago that when he saw Ornette live in NYC, he was good, but that he was obviously losing steam and didn’t have the fire he used to have.

    But I would like to see him. Maybe I’ll try book something during one of my holidays, sometime.

  5. Gord:

    I never saw Ornette in his heyday, so maybe he has lost some steam–but he was sure seemed (mixing metaphors here) to be firing on all cylinders when I saw him. One of the nice things about Japan is that since jazz is huge here (at least among the middle-aged and older), and the audience is extremely knowledgeable, and also willing and able to pay premium ticket prices, there’s a fairly steady procession of jazz legends through town.

    Many of them, unfortunately, play the Blue Note which is physically a nice club–small, great sight lines, etc..–but seems to restrict musicians to two forty-five minute sets. That’s not one show of two sets but two shows. They clear the house after the first set, and if you want to see the second you need to have a ticket to get back in.



  6. Ugh, that’s horrible! Then again, if you have a chance to see these people at all, well, that’s something!

    I envy you the jazz. :) Perhaps sometime I’ll have to drop in for a show. If I do, I’ll email you and let you know!

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