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July 2, 2008

Barbershop grapples with modern era

The Tennessean :

It may not be Nashville Star, but the latest singing contest to hit the city has plenty of drama. Barbershop harmony, that sudsy, old-fashioned singing style dispensed by men in bright vests and straw boater hats, is working to update its image, with a new move to Nashville and a push to recruit more youth. But updating barbershop has upset traditionalists, who have accused the leaders of barbershop's governing organization, the 70-year-old Barbershop Harmony Society, of forgetting the past.

This week's gathering of 8,500 barbershop singers in Nashville for their international convention will be a test of whether both sides can finally bury the straight razor. With a series of performances and high-stakes competitions, which run through Saturday and include a Friday appearance on the Grand Ole Opry, the Barbershop Harmony Society hopes to show how fresh barbershop music can sound, while appeasing a traditionalist wing that clings to its old songbook rooted in the Gay 1890s. Keeping harmony will not be easy, not even for people dedicated to the task.

Barbershop's squeaky-clean image aside, modernizers and traditionalists have sparred over everything from last year's move to new headquarters in Nashville to the recent shortening of the society's original name, the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, or SPEBSQSA. Traditionalists are trying to build up a parallel organization, the Barbershop Quartet Preservation Association, with its own competitions and meetings. But after threatening to break from the society, the group is working to patch up its relationship with its fellow barbershoppers. "What others want to do, we take no exception," said Jack Martin, the BQPA's chairman. "We just want to do our thing."

Modernizers, meanwhile, say they believe in keeping the door open to traditionalists, but they insist that without new blood and fresh thinking, barbershop will die out. "One of the things I don't think they understand is I can't do any of this without money," said Ed Watson, the Barbershop Harmony Society's executive director. "I'm doing this so they can do their thing."
'Keep it barbershop'

The dispute centers on just how far barbershop can veer from its signature sound of four unaccompanied male voices ringing in harmony before it ceases to be barbershop music. It pits modernizers versus people known within the society as "kibbers," for their slogan, "Keep it barbershop." Many joined the society decades ago, and they believe the musical form should not deviate too far from the roots that made it successful.

Traditionalists believe most modern songs do not lend themselves to barbershop harmonizing, because their chord structures are based on blues, not the classical sounds that form the basis of barbershop. They also dislike the big barbershop choral competitions that have come to dominate conventions. Instead, they want to keep the focus on "quarteting," in which four men form an improvised group instantly by blending their voices. Choruses and modern tunes are fine, they say, but to quartet, barbershoppers need to have a shared songbook.

They also can't become so professionalized that amateurs feel left out. "If you sing with someone, that's a bond," said Liz Garnett, a musicologist with the Birmingham Conservatoire in England who has studied barbershop music for more than a decade. "That's really an important part of why it continues to sustain itself."

The dispute over barbershop's direction has spilled into other aspects of the society. Five years ago, the society decided to slough off the SPEBSQSA name and logo for something catchier. The result was a switch to the more direct Barbershop Harmony Society and an emblem that shows the profiles of four men of different colors superimposed on a simplified musical staff. The logo was meant to symbolize the society's new commitment to increasing racial diversity, but critics said it ripped off the Girl Scouts logo.

Many members were even more upset by the society's decision to move its headquarters from a lakefront mansion in Kenosha, Wis., to a renovated office building in downtown Nashville festooned with stainless steel barbershop poles and a two-story Norman Rockwell print. They saw the move to the Music City as a step away from barbershop's amateur roots. But Watson, a 30-year member of the Barbershop Harmony Society in addition to being its top staff officer, says the move was motivated more by practical considerations, such as Nashville's central location and its airport access, than by an interest in tapping into Nashville's music scene. "Music is what we're all about," Watson said. "But we're not a professional organization. We're a hobby organization."
Modernizers win out

Modernizers, argue that barbershop has been an evolving form from its earliest days in the late 1800s, when African-American men began to mix gospel tunes with vocal techniques brought over by immigrants from Central Europe. They believe many pop harmonies can be arranged to fit barbershop's signature sound. These days, champion quartets and choruses at the barbershop conventions often feature repertoires that include contemporary tunes made popular by non-barbershop singers, such as the Beach Boys and Harry Connick, Jr.

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Posted by acapnews at July 2, 2008 10:15 PM


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