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February 24, 2004

New York Daily News

Don't strike up the band. Instruments are no-no's at the Harmony Sweepstakes A Cappella Festival at Symphony Space. The event, now in its 20th year, always draws big crowds to see the best a cappella groups compete for the New York regional title. "It's a roller-coaster ride musically," says producer Townsend Belisle. "People in the audience always say, 'I never could have imagined that being done a cappella.' Each group gets eight minutes to do what they do." And their repertoires are definitely diverse.

Nine ensembles, including single-sex and mixed groups, will perform everything from jazz standards and contemporary pop to doo-wop and Eastern European folk songs. Six groups are based in the city. The others are from upstate Ithaca, Baltimore and Hershey, Pa. Tonight's winners, along with champs from seven other regional singoffs around the country, will be flown to San Francisco for the national finals in May, and a shot at a recording contract.

"We've rehearsed nonstop for months," says Brooklynite David Deschamps, 43, who sings in the quartet Vox Bop. They won this contest three years ago. "You must be committed," says Vlada Tomova, 35, a professional musician and leader of Yasna Voices, a women's choir based on Brooklyn. Her group specializes in folk songs from Bulgaria, where Tomova grew up. The rest of the singers are ethnically diverse, but they'll compete in colorful Slavic costumes.

"Singing a cappella refines your voice," says Tomova, "but it requires great concentration." It's worth all the effort and weekly rehearsals, adds Tomova, a firm believer "in the power of harmony to uplift both singer and listener."

Rachel Wallins' sextet, the Sirens, blends its voices to a very different sound - songs by Radiohead and Lenny Kravitz - which it'll perform tonight in jeans and black tops. "We gravitate to arrangements that are as complex as they are fun," says Wallins, 35, who works for MTV. But achieving the desired sound doesn't come easily. "Any a cappella group will tell you when you first learn a piece that it's cacophony," says Wallins. "It sounds like New York City at rush hour."

Posted by acapnews at February 24, 2004 9:12 AM


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