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April 5, 2006

It's not their granddad's barbershop quartet

Atlanta Journal-Constitution (GA):

In a small music rehearsal room upstairs in Emory University's Schwartz Center, 11 students form a loose circle. Grant Braswell starts them off, laying down some vocal percussion by making rhythmic, exhaling "p" sounds through his lips like a toddler pretending to be a motorboat. Ryan Huff and Makobe Tabengwa bring the bass, singing a repeated "ba-doom-doom, ba-doom-doom." Several young women chime in with harmonic ah-oohs, and then comes Rohan Rupani over all of them with the melody: "I'm just a teenage dirtbag, baby ... " Liz Bullard waits for her cue to join him in a duet, bouncing lightly on her toes to the "ba-doom-doom" bass.

The song, "Teenage Dirtbag," was a tongue-in-cheek pop hit about adolescent self-loathing for one-hit wonder band Wheatus in 2000. Now it's in the repertoire of Aural Pleasure, an Emory University a cappella group that's part of a growing number of college students reinventing the tradition of singing without instruments. Aural Pleasure is one of several groups performing Friday night at Emory's third annual BareNaked Voices concert, along with No Strings Attached, The Gathering and AHANA.

These aren't traditional glee clubs, barbershop quartets or choirs. No spangly vests, and any finger-snapping is probably ironic. These are students bringing a wry iPod sensibility to vocal harmony. They offer intricate, sometimes ravishing, sometimes bizarre, arrangements of recent rock, pop, hip-hop, R&B and country. "Since You've Been Gone," "Hey Ya," "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy," as well as songs by Pink Floyd, the Fugees, R.E.M., the Dixie Chicks, Green Day and Michael Jackson, are fair game.

"I love a cappella you're creating the sound of a whole band, but with voices," says Lauren Poor, who sings with the Emory group the Gathering. "Sometimes you want to do something like 'Creep' by Radiohead that no one would think you could possibly do a cappella," says Becky Herring, music director of Aural Pleasure. The co-ed group of 14 has also done "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Lady Marmalade," while Emory's all-male No Strings Attached once served up "People Are Strange" by the Doors.

A quirky sense of humor runs through the college a cappella scene. One University of Georgia group calls itself With Someone Else's Money (i.e., the members' parents'), and Aural Pleasure speaks for itself. Other names include the Hangovers, Voices in Your Head, and ARRRR!, a Brown University group that dresses like pirates. Some puns get a little obscure: a California group's name is Fermata Nowhere, but not many people may know that fermata is a musical term.

Few of the singers, at least at Emory, are music majors. Christine Tagayun, a junior and president of the Emory co-ed group AHANA (African Hispanic Asian Native American), is a neuroscience and behavioral biology major. "Music is a love, and I was going to be a music major, but my parents were leaning toward neuroscience," she says, telling a full story in just a sentence. Poor is a senior psychology major who sings with the all-female group The Gathering, which has one voice major out of about a dozen members.

Many of the groups become friends or little social circles. "We have the vibe we do because we're more like a family," Tagayun says. "We hang out together." Kevin Smith, a freshman who sings with No Strings Attached, says, "There's a certain energy around college a cappella." And sometimes, a certain following as well. On Facebook.com, the social networking Web site that's an obsession among many students, there are two groups of Emory women who call themselves (with tongue in cheek) "groupies" for No Strings Attached. "If you honestly polled most guys in the group," Smith says, "they would tell you they joined to get girls."

The popularity of college a cappella is fairly recent, at least at Southern schools. The Yale Whiffenpoofs, which started as a glee club in 1909, are considered the first college a cappella group, but the national scene didn't start heating up until the mid-'90s, when a company called Varsity Vocals started holding national competitions and issuing compilation CDs.

There are more than 1,000 college groups, says Amanda Grish, executive director of Varsity Vocals, although it's impossible to keep track. "It really started growing first on the East Coast. It's just now starting to take hold in the South, but now it's starting to get huge there." At Emory, three of the four groups started in the '90s. And AHANA, a diversity-oriented group that leans more toward R&B, is just 2 years old. Grish says the a cappella scene used to be fairly "white bread," but that has changed dramatically in recent years.

A cappella groups sing in all sorts of circumstances. They perform for free during various campus activities, while some hire themselves out for serenades on Valentine's Day or local parties. Nearly all record CDs regularly and sell them for about $10-$12 through their Web sites. The funds generally help pay for road trips to festivals and contests. They also have to deal with demanding schedules and not being members' top priority.

All the Emory groups performing Friday have members who are studying abroad this semester, and even Brendan Dolan, who's president of No Strings Attached, will miss the concert for family reasons. But Emory President James Wagner will be there. He used to sing in a barbershop quartet, and he's been known to join some of the groups onstage for a singalong.

Posted by acapnews at April 5, 2006 11:17 AM