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November 22, 2005

Pilgrim a cappella

Old Colony Memorial (MA):

For The Nonce is a sound for the ages in the 17th century. And as late November nears, the quintet of Pilgrim singers carry a song of the season as well. Sarah Cole, Dan Cuetara, Sara Mahoney, Shelley Otis and Mike Weber bring the 1600s to life as Colonial interpreters at Plimoth Plantation by day. When the work is done, they continue their immersion in evening song.

Last year, the five friends and co-workers joined forces and created a singing group that specializes in the music of the Pilgrims settlers. Stuck for a name, they settled on the working title of For The Nonce, old English phrase meaning just for now. The name endures along with the old English focus. "We thought about The Village People because we always work in the (1627) village, but it was already taken," Cuetara said. "We couldn't quite reconcile ourselves to it either," Mahoney said.

For The Nonce has a distinctly different sound from the disco of the 1970s. The group blend in five-part harmony, wrapping their voices around songs common folk would have enjoyed in the 1500s and 1600s. The group found inspiration in the material provided by the plantation for their roles as interpreters. Their private research in the plantation's library developed dozens of songs that commoners like the Pilgrims would have known and possibly even sung in the original settlement here.

The group dresses in Pilgrim finery. The men wear doublets, breeches and hats. The women wear smocks, waistcoats, petticoats and metal corsets called stays. The ladies cover their heads with white linen coifs as well. The group is one of three affiliated with the plantation that sings at dinners and receptions. For The Nonce is distinctive in two ways. They are the newest of the groups and they focus almost exclusively on the music of the common man, singing songs that would have been played at weddings, fairs and festivals of the day. "Because that's what the people of Plimoth Plantation were, just common Joes," Mahoney said.

The singers share loves of history and music. Cole sings mezzosoprano. Cuetara sings tenor/baritone. Mahoney sings soprano. Otis sings alto. And Weber sings bass. Cole brought the voices together last year, after Otis returned from a sabbatical. The two women may have the most classical training. Cole has been studying music for five years. "It's different from 17th century, but it's English and dance music," he said.

The group limits selections to songs that would have been available in 1627. The earliest, "Oh, My Heart," is attributed to King Henry VIII in the early 16th century. Cuetara is openly skeptical of the king's involvement, wondering how a man who killed two wives could write a song to lost love. "Buddy, get a clue," If you'd just stop killing your wives," Cuetara tells audiences.

The group has mastered harmony, taking on everything from the psalms to a 17th century birthday greeting. Long before the familiar Happy Birthday song was written, singers celebrated birthdays with rhyming verse for youngsters and more mature lyrics for adults. At a recent dinner, For The Nonce welcomed a girl into her teens with the 17th century tune called "Shoot False Love."

The group practice daily in the 1627 village and perform for special audiences. They are available for private functions. They played a mock wedding at the plantation last spring but have yet to land a gig for the real thing. They are about to go international. The group is scheduled to sing Saturday in America's Hometown Thanksgiving Celebration Parade. The group will be shuttled to the waterfront from their jobs at the plantation to sing a few songs for the parade's opening ceremonies. The show will be broadcast to soldiers overseas in Iraq. "They're just an incredible talent. They give an Old World feel," plantation spokesman Jennifer Monac said.

Posted by acapnews at November 22, 2005 12:03 AM