January 31, 2007
A Chorus of Strangers Shares in the Fun
Washington Post (DC):
It's sure not your granddaddy's singalong. If you expect to get entrapped in an endless version of "Row, row, row your boat" in three-part canon, think again.
Late on a chilly Sunday afternoon, a bare music room in Bethesda reverberates as a heated chorus sings "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," the 1961 hit that gained new life with the playground set when Disney put it into "The Lion King." Kai Elwood-Dieu, 7, and sister Maya, 5, of Bethesda sit near their parents, Holly and Martin, bouncing to the astonishing vocal percussion contributed by Dave Baumgartner, a member of the Laurel-based a cappella group Almost Recess. They sing along, joining in the communal harmony with their mom and dad and about 60 other song lovers.
Almost Recess, which has been in residence this season at the Music Center at Strathmore, returns April 15 for an encore Family Sing program following last month's success. The group had kids and adults bopping, swaying and harmonizing together for 90 minutes, including multi-vocal parts and rhythms of "The Way You Make Me Feel" from the Michael Jackson songbook.
This Sunday a singalong with two performers from Nada Brahma plans to be a cross-cultural, multiethnic experience, one that might even include a dance step or two. "Anytime you get a group of strangers together singing," said Adam Brower, Almost Recess's song leader and tenor, "it's just great." And that's the point, said Betty Scott, who introduced family singalongs to Strathmore to bring together school-age kids, their parents, grandparents and anyone else who has a yen for singing and little opportunity to do so save for stray moments in the shower.
"You can't go wrong when you sing together," said Scott, an effervescent woman who taught vocal music in Prince George's County schools for 35 years before heading the Strathmore educational music programs for children and adults. "There's a certain innate joy in singing together. And I also think there's a bit of a performer in everybody, even if they don't want a solo spot, but they want that chance to sing and create music together."
That certainly was the case with Zachary Frank, an eighth-grader from Alexandria, who enjoys singing with his synagogue's teen choir, HaZamir. "I sing alto and tenor," said Zachary, 13. "And I think it's really fun to see how other performers, professionals, do it." He was ready to get back to the singalong with his choir director, Elisheva Dienstfrey, to try out Almost Recess's show-stopping techniques, particularly Baumgartner's jaw-dropping skills. A Picasso of vocal percussion, Baumgartner can sound like drum kits, cymbals, congas and other banged instruments using only his voice.
"There's something unique about the communal singing experience that you don't have when you sing by yourself," observed Dienstfrey, who had brought along 15 eighth- through 12th-graders from the joint Agudas Achim and Beth El Hebrew synagogues' teen a cappella group. "You have a sense of joining together to communicate something in a way that you can't do on your own. Singing in groups gives us that opportunity to come together as a community for a common cause."
Tim Gregory of Nada Brahma agreed. "You're feeling a moment of connectedness," he said about communal singing, particularly when it brings together children and adults. On Sunday, Gregory plans on taking kids and parents on a vocal trip around the world. "We'll definitely do some native American chants, some that are typically used during round dances or social dances," he said. "We'll also do community songs from Africa, for sure, because I spend a lot of time in East Africa, Kenya. Then we'll probably do something in Swahili and something from Zimbabwe in the Shona language."
Not knowing the words, or even the language they'll be sung in, Gregory said, won't be a problem. He and his partner, Tracey Eldridge, will have song sheets and translations. He also plans to teach wordless melodies and harmonies -- what he calls vocables -- not unlike the syllables in the chorus of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."
"I want people to come and learn to harmonize with each other," said program creator Scott. And that's exactly what three generations of the Waugh family were enjoying with Almost Recess. From Rockville grandfather Doug Waugh, 72, to granddaughter Lauren, 8, the whole family discovered new voices and new ways to harmonize. Scott added: "I want people to really get that joy of creating harmony in the singing. A lot of people don't normally have an opportunity to do that nowadays."
Dienstfrey agreed: "Something you have with singing that you don't necessarily have with other activities is that sense that you can come up with harmonies and things that you can make what you're doing even more beautiful." Julianna Solomon, an 8-year-old second-grader from Potomac, found her own beauty. In her quiet voice she said, simply, "When I sing it makes me happy and it's a lot of fun."
January 29, 2007
Harmonies come alive with Take 6
Los Angeles Times:
The high-spirited members of the vocal ensemble Take 6 didn't wait until they arrived on stage to start singing Thursday night at Catalina Bar & Grill. With Alvin Chea's booming bass vocal lines driving the rhythm, the six a cappella artists were in full harmony as they sprinted through the room and into the spotlights.
Take 6 is well-known for its capacity to crank up the energy in concert, but this time out, no buildup was needed to reach a level of intensity that remained high for the hour-plus set. So high, in fact, that after one of the singers discovered that his portable microphone had been off for the entire opening number, he said, with a smile, "If you liked it that much, wait'll you hear all six of us singing!"
He was right. All six were even better. The talent in Take 6 — Chea, Cedric Dent, Joey Kibble, Mark Kibble, Claude V. McKnight III and David Thomas — reaches from top to bottom, and each had the opportunity, in one form or another, to play a featured role. But the most impressive aspects of the group's performance reached well beyond the individual soloing.
There was, first of all, their sheer musicality. In the group's use of complex harmonies, with especially wide voicings, Take 6 follows the tradition of the Hi-Los and the Four Freshmen, expanding the earlier groups' block harmony style into complex contrapuntal passages, rich with moving inner lines.
They made fascinating use of simulated instrumental sounds, especially a dramatic collection of beat-box percussion accents.
Add to that their convincing blends of sacred and secular themes, often within the same song. "Wade in the Water," for example, was introduced with an audience singalong that eventually became a three-part harmony pattern accompanying the song's familiar melody.
Best of all, and the quality that brought all these remarkable qualities into focus, was the sense of joy and authenticity that enlivened every note. Together for nearly 30 years, linking up at various times with Al Jarreau, Quincy Jones and Ray Charles, Take 6 performed with the incomparable believability of singers still awed and invigorated by the powers of the human voice.
January 27, 2007
'I Wanna Be a Republican'
San Francisco Chronicle (CA):
Musical comedy. Directed by Ken Bielenberg. With Ben Schatz, Irwin Keller, Chris Dilley, Jeff Manabat. (Not rated. 87 minutes. At the Roxie.)
One wonders what the Log Cabin Republicans would think of "I Wanna Be a Republican," a concert film by the Kinsey Sicks, a four-man in-drag a cappella comedy musical troupe, which skewers the GOP in a series of breezily entertaining songs and skits. Chances are these cross-dressers won't cross over to a mainstream movie audience, but it's doubtful they want to. They do an excellent job of connecting with their base.
The film, ably directed by Ken Bielenberg and produced by Alonzo Ruvalcaba, two Hollywood special-effects guys who started Eyethink Pictures in Burlingame to help meet the demand of the gay/lesbian market, was shot over two nights at the Broadway Studios in North Beach. That brings the Kinsey Sicks back to their roots -- they began on a Castro street corner a dozen years ago. (The movie premiered at the Castro during the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival in June.)
Colorfully dressed and supremely talented, the Kinsey Sicks are Rachel (Ben Schatz, who authored then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton's HIV policy), Winnie (Irwin Keller, a former lawyer who authored Chicago's gay rights ordinance), Trampolina (Chris Dilley) and Trixie (Jeff Manabat). In their show, which they claim is a fundraiser for the Republican Party, they sing such songs -- many original, others are "Weird Al" Yankovicked from other tunes -- "We Are Over-Taxed" (sung to the tune of "We Shall Overcome") and the title anthem, which notes that "global warming is good for my tan."
The stage version of "I Wanna Be a Republican" played in Las Vegas and off-Broadway -- and even toured some red states. The film version, like many concert films, is probably not as captivating as the live event, but the end note of "hope," "We Arm the World," ("We Are the World," get it?) couldn't be any funnier.
January 26, 2007
Austin Chronicle (TX):
Grammy-nominated Conspirare brings together 600 voices in search of our national sound.
Hey, Walt Whitman, you crowed about how you could hear America singing, but you never bothered to name that tune. What were those "varied carols" being sung by the mechanics and masons and mothers and deckhands and hatters and seamstresses and all? Appalachian folk songs? Shaker hymns? A few of Stephen Foster's greatest hits, mayhap? Or – and I know this is after your time, but still ... – some standards by the Gershwin brothers or Mr. "God Bless America" himself, Irving Berlin?
What I'm getting at here is: What makes an American song American? What's the sound that belongs uniquely to our country? Is it something found only in musical forms that were planted and sprouted here, like, say, spirituals, ragtime, jazz, soul, rock & roll? What about certain composers and songwriters whose work seems ineffably to capture in melody the land of the free and home of the brave? I'm thinking of folks such as Aaron Copland, John Philip Sousa, Woody Guthrie, Scott Joplin.
And Walt, your Americans were all singing their separate songs, but what does it mean when people in this country get together and sing, when they pool those voices into a mighty red, white, and blue chorus? Does it sound any different than one in Canada or South Africa or Spain? What is the state of the choir in America today?
These may not be questions on which the fate of the republic hangs, but their answers may still tell us something about who we are as a nation, about the unique ways in which we express ourselves and how that has evolved over our 400 years as a culture. At the very least, they'll make for some lively discussion in our town this weekend as hundreds of choristers gather here for what may well be the largest choral festival in the nation this year.
It's called Crossing the Divide: Exploring Influence and Finding Our Voice , and it's yet one more example of how Conspirare, the esteemed professional choir based in Austin, has developed into one of the leading vocal ensembles anywhere. Conspirare – whose name you might recall hearing around the time the Grammy nominations were announced, scoring a nod for its second CD, Requiem – We Are So Lightly Here, in the category of Choral Performance – is one of just seven choruses in the country that the National Endowment for the Arts chose to host a choral festival as part of an initiative called American Masterpieces. The idea is to support major projects centered on the nation's "cultural and artistic legacy."
Conspirare had the idea of rooting around in the roots of America's choral music traditions, and the NEA liked the idea to the tune of $75,000 – the largest grant the federal agency made in the choral music category of the initiative. So now eight diverse choruses from around the state will be in Austin January 25-28 to perform separately and, on Sunday, in a 600-voice massed choir. In between and around the concerts will be workshops and forums that explore that "American voice" through its many varied musical traditions, as well as through the words of American poets. (Did you catch that, Walt? They hear America lyricizing!) More
January 25, 2007
M-Pact's Rudy American Idol video
For those who may of missed it here is M-Pact's Rudy Cardenas auditioning for American Idol. Simon, as usual, was grumpy but Paula and Randy voted him through to the big Hollywood Round. We're rooting for Rudy!
January 23, 2007
Baker’s Dozen case has a life of its own — a fictional one
San Francisco Examiner (CA):
It seems fitting that the Baker’s Dozen case includes several players involved in San Francisco’s infamous “Fajitagate’’ story some years back, because like that sensationalistic, overwrought tale, this one is bursting with sizzle and lean on steak.
When San Francisco police investigators return from the East Coast today after interviewing one of the injured victims from the Yale University singing group, it will mark the first time they will have received a nearly full account of the incident. Yet it will also serve as a reminder of how much the story has changed since it first emerged — the facts obscured by the self-serving interests of many of those involved.
How does a fight between brawling college-age males become a national story? When it involves the sons of prominent, well-connected individuals at an elite East Coast university and news organizations only too happy to propel a dreamy plot line sure to grab headlines.
But an accurate portrayal has been hard to come by, or at least difficult to get into print. Even the mighty New York Times bought into the hype, running a story over the weekend that parroted a lot of the initial reports — preppies attacked by jealous thugs while police drag their feet — which officials working on the case say is a calculated manipulation of the truth.
Yet it does serve to show the power of certain institutions and showcase San Francisco’s highly parochial nature. After all, does anybody believe that this story would be still be alive if the students were part of a bluegrass group from Austin Peay State University?
One would certainly have a tough time finding a better story than a group of halo-wearing a cappella singers being attacked after singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.’’ But that early report has been debunked by police sources who say the fight was much more of an alcohol-fueled brawl that erupted after much taunting at the premises of two veteran police officers — neither of whom was around during the melee. But that hasn’t stopped Leanna Dawydiak or Reno Rapagnani from painting the story as a faulty investigation by the SFPD — with the suggestion being that perhaps the police are dragging their feet because there’s still bad blood over Fajitagate.
Dawydiak and Rapagnani were accused of leaking information during that case, charges for which they were ultimately exonerated. Of course, it hasn’t helped that the couple took written statements and photos of some of the participants after the New Year’s Eve scuffle — which sources close to the case say was a clear conflict of interest.
The story’s tenor has been that police officials haven’t moved fast enough since they were called to the scene, even though most of the participants in the fight had disappeared — indeed, the officers who first arrived didn’t even know some kids had been injured because none of them were around. But even though it was the Yale students who delayed talking to police and then only did so after hiring some high-priced lawyers, the reports in newspapers continue to quote individuals feigning indignation that the case is moving too slow.
And of course there’s still the steady drumbeat about it being a possible hate crime, because some of the taunts involved homophobic slurs, even though sources close to the investigation told me it’s never been viewed as a hate crime, just the sophomoric actions of young males itching for a fight.
Of course, this isn’t just about misadventures in journalism. Some people simply want to believe the worst, even when it defies reality. When I tried to set the record straight on the story last week, I received nearly a dozen e-mails from people who told me they didn’t believe my “version’’ of events, as if I were making the news up.
So the Fajitagate case actually should help put the latest overblown San Francisco story into context. Then-District Attorney Terence Hallinan used the off-duty police fight to try to take down the command staff of the entire department — despite the lack of any evidence of wrongdoing. And years of motions and trials later, the charges involving the officers resulted in acquittals for every person alleged to be part of the “conspiracy.’’
We can only hope that District Attorney Kamala Harris separates fact from fiction better than some hired guns and “objective’’ journalists have in the Baker’s Dozen case and charges it appropriately. Then perhaps we can focus on prosecuting more serious violent crimes.
Facts have been hard to come by in this case — too bad it hasn’t limited the stories.
January 19, 2007
Yalies in cartoon strip
Cartoonist Don Asmussen has fun with the Baker's Dozen case.
January 18, 2007
Pookie Hudson, lead singer and songwriter for the doo-wop group The Spaniels, who lent his romantic tenor to hits like "Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight" and influenced generations of later artists, has died. He was 72. Hudson died Tuesday of complications from cancer of the thymus at his home in Capitol Heights, Md., his publicist, Bill Carpenter, said Wednesday.
Hudson continued performing into last fall when he learned that his cancer had returned after a remission. His last recordings were done in October for an "Uncloudy Christmas" CD that will be released this fall, Carpenter said. Hudson's longtime manager, Wellington "Bay" Robinson, said the singer should be remembered for his great writing ability.
Robinson said Hudson wrote "Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight" ("... well, it's time to go") for a young woman he was dating at the time. "He was staying awful late at the young lady's house and her parents said ... he had to go. As he was walking home, that's what inspired him to write that song."
The Spaniels' signature song was a Top 5 R&B hit in 1954. The McGuire Sisters rushed out a version of "Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight" that sold even more copies. At the time, only black radio stations played Hudson's version, according to Carpenter.
The Spaniels' version was heard two decades later on the soundtrack of "American Graffiti." Among the Spaniels' other Top 20 R&B hits, Carpenter said, were "Baby, It's You," "Peace of Mind" and "Let's Make Up."
"He really made a blueprint for what a crooner should sound like," Carpenter said. "I think that his voice, that smooth tenor, was the voice that influenced Smokey Robinson. It influenced Aaron Neville." Neville said as much in a 1991 New York Times interview.
Hudson was born Thornton James Hudson on June 11, 1934, in Des Moines, Iowa. The Spaniels first came together at Roosevelt High School in Gary, Ind., where Hudson was raised and began singing in church choirs.
He was homeless for a time after he went solo and hit a slump in the 1960s, but he got back to work in the 1980s. He told The Washington Post in 1983 that he continued to write new songs, but audiences "won't let us sing new stuff. That's not what they pay for. But it beats doing nothing."
He began receiving regular royalties for "Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight" in the 1990s. He is survived by his wife, Delores, nine children and 16 grandchildren.
January 17, 2007
M-Pact member on American Idol
Big congratulations to Rudolpho "Rudy" Cardenas, long-time member of M-Pact who made it it thru to the Hollywood round of American Idol. Rudy performed Journey’s “Open Arms” tonight on the Seattle round of the show and both Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson gave him enthusiastic reviews.
Minister outlines plans to get schools singing
The Guardian (UK):
A new £10m package to boost music and singing both in and out of the classroom was announced today as part of the government's push to encourage pupils to enjoy music.
The education secretary, Alan Johnson, unveiled the package in response to the music manifesto report, Making Every Child's Music Matter. Mr Johnson named composer and broadcaster Howard Goodall as the singing ambassador who will lead the government's new choral campaign. Speaking at the Roundhouse music venue in London today, Mr Johnson said: "As well as being a worthwhile activity for its own sake - music is a powerful learning tool which can build children's confidence, teamwork and language skills. A better musical education for pupils can also help them hit the right note in their studies."
Mr Johnson said the funding would boost music education, especially school singing, both in and out of school hours.
Schools will be given a "21st century songbook" to provide a top 30 song list for whole school/whole class singing, and teachers and pupils will be invited to nominate and then bid for their favourite material. The national songbook will have a full range of musical genres, from classical to traditional folk to pop.
As part of the package, England's 34 choir schools will also be encouraged to work in partnership with local schools and other music providers to boost local singing.
There will also be a rollout of Music Start programmes to engage parents and young children in music making, and increased investment in training for teachers and music leaders.
A youth service survey conduced last year found that 79% of schools said singing was an important part of school life, and 70% use singing in national curriculum subjects as well as in music.
Mr Johnson said: "Music has a tremendous power to bring people together, can act as powerful social glue and is a great way to engage children in their education. That is why I want to set up a 21st century songbook for schools, containing songs that every child knows and sings, and new material to enhance what schools already use."
The culture minister David Lammy added: "I grew up in a house full of music. All day festivals on Broadwater Farm blended with choral singing in my local church. As a child my head had room for both Bob Marley and John Wesley. Young people embrace music, and today's announcements mean a stronger, more exciting pathway in music for all young people - from toddlers to teens."
Can anybody imagine the US government funding such a program? O how I would love it if just the money spent on one aircraft carrier was instead spent on music education for kids. Why should such a wish seem so absurdly impossible in today's times?
January 15, 2007
Yale attack ignites media frenzy
San Francisco Chronicle (CA):
Under any circumstances, the party pummeling of Yale a cappella singers was a headline-grabber. But when they were kicked and slugged after singing the national anthem at a get-together in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's hometown, the tale was destined to go national -- especially with the Yale network making sure the story didn't die and lighting a firecracker under the San Francisco Police Department.
And go national it has -- Time magazine and the New York Times are among those looking into the beating of the Baker's Dozen singing group at a New Year's Eve party in the Richmond District. Conservative Fox News host Sean Hannity has even offered a $10,000 reward for witnesses to come forward and identify the attackers, who allegedly include the sons of some prominent San Franciscans.
The local hot buttons are plentiful as well. Some of the suspected attackers are graduates of Sacred Heart High School and the party was well-attended by graduates of St. Ignatius, two of the city's preeminent Catholic high schools -- though there's no indication that old school rivalries had anything to do with what happened. In fact, the incident may have been less about the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and more about guys jealous over the attention the preppies were getting from young women at the party.
There's also the mutual enmity that has built up over the years between the Police Department and the couple who own the house where the party took place -- both of them longtime officers. And there are the reports that words like "homo" flew just before the fists did that night.
From the moment 18-year-old Yale freshman Sharyar Aziz Jr. -- his jaw broken in two places -- flew home to New York to undergo what turned out to be three hours of reconstructive surgery, the story was going to have its day. His parents, Laura and Sharyar Aziz Sr. -- he's a wealthy New York investment banker -- fired off a lengthy e-mail to Yale administrators, including the school's dean and a representative of the Baker's Dozen, three days after their son's New Year's Day return, when he arrived wearing his bloodied clothes and a hospital gown.
The Azizes' e-mail made it clear they were unhappy with how San Francisco police were handling things. Even before the investigation had really started, officers told them "it is not clear the Police Department (believes) a prosecutable crime was committed,'' they wrote. They were also concerned that the alleged ringleaders of the attack were being given a pass because of their family's social prominence. "There is some suggestion that at least one of these boys has been in trouble with the law before, and family influence prevented him from being charged,'' the couple wrote. They said they expected "to become increasingly involved in the legal aspects of the attack on the Baker's Dozen'' to "insure that all crimes are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, local politics and influence notwithstanding.''
Soon enough, the e-mail was being copied by family and acquaintances and sent to Baker's Dozen alumni around the country. One alum in New York who received it contacted an old Yale classmate and lawyer friend, Jamie Slaughter, a partner in the firm of former Iran-Contra prosecutor and ex-San Francisco Police Commission President John Keker. Soon, Slaughter was working the phones -- to Mayor Gavin Newsom's office, for starters, and to the law firm of a former Keker lawyer, Whitney Leigh.
It wasn't long before the local media were running stories that raised questions about why police hadn't made arrests or taken victims' statements right off the bat. By week's end, Newsom had become extraordinarily involved in what appears to amount to an assault case. He had met with his police chief, Heather Fong, and even placed a lengthy call to the Aziz family in New York to assure them everything was being done to get to the bottom of things.
The elder Aziz is far from convinced. In an interview Friday, he accused Fong of lying when she told The Chronicle that the Yale singers couldn't identify their attackers. "Absolutely mind-boggling,'' he said. "I cannot understand how the chief of San Francisco police would go on record and claim there was no identification."
A police spokesman said the problem was that victims who said they could identify their assailants while at the scene had left before officers could take a full report. Aziz added, "Frankly, at this moment, I am not entirely sure whether the current police investigation will cause any of these assailants to be criminally charged.''
The politics of the attack, and what police did to investigate it, are becoming increasingly explosive. Leigh, the lawyer retained by the Azizes, has his own practice -- with former Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez, Newsom's opponent in the 2003 mayoral election. And the team has taken on former San Francisco prosecutor Jim Hammer, who now does legal commentary for Fox News.
And Newsom -- who faces re-election this fall -- appears concerned both by the questions being raised and the motives of those raising them. "There is certainly a lot of misinformation out there and a lot of suggestions that I don't think are necessarily founded are being put into play,'' Newsom told ABC7's Dan Noyes last week. "People are hiring attorneys everywhere, and there's a lot of PR and spin." The mayor then went on with some spin of his own, telling Noyes that "apparently a lot of people were fighting on both sides."
That brought a sharp retort from Leigh, questioning the mayor's hand in steering the investigation. "It's not unusual, given the seriousness of it, that the mayor would want to see the case properly investigated -- but his multiple inappropriate comments are worrisome,'' Leigh said. "Any suggestion by the mayor that this was anything but a brutal attack by a gang of thugs on guests of our city is just inappropriate and unsupported by any evidence.''
And then there's the matter of the owners of the home where the party was held -- former mayoral bodyguard Reno Rapagnani and his wife, Leanna Dawydiak, two longtime cops who have accumulated more than their share of friends and enemies within the department. Rapagnani, now retired from the force, and Dawydiak, who is on leave from the department, were brought up on disciplinary charges of leaking personnel information to the press during Fajitagate. The resulting investigation cleared their names, but not the bitterness between them and many department higher-ups.
In the Baker's Dozen case, the couple initially tried to help investigators by collecting photos of the victims' injuries and statements from the singers before they left town. But it turns out police are also interested in Rapagnani and Dawydiak -- specifically, whether alcohol was being served at their house to underage partygoers while the couple were somewhere else. Police we spoke to on the condition they not be named said they were looking into "what was going on before, during and after the attacks" -- including the role of alcohol on both sides.
Newsom, however, appears to have made up his mind, telling ABC7: "Why were these kids, they're all underage, why are they in a home with a lot of liquor, where did they get the liquor?" Rapagnani said he'd cleaned out the liquor before the party and that if anyone did any drinking, it was before the party. He said the only booze he knew of at the gathering was a 30-pack of beer that was brought in by one of the alleged attackers -- and that there is a photo of the youth coming in taken by one of the guests.
Dawydiak was incensed by the mayor's comments, especially his remark that the incident was "a good reminder how important it is to remind our parents to be good stewards of underage drinking." "This," Dawydiak shot back, "from a 40-year-old mayor (he's 39) who was out taking his underage girlfriend to bars and parties where liquor was being served?" Which goes to show that while there may be a shortage of facts in this affair, there's no shortage of finger-pointing.
This story really has been quite big in the media, including international coverage, and I'm sure there will be more to come. This weekend, in another (much poorer) part of town, several teenage kids were shot in drive by shootings yet hardly a mention in the newspaper...
January 13, 2007
Do you need a cappella rehabilitation?
Love a cappella? Love it perhaps a little too much. Then you should probably watch this short infomercial on the long term harmful effects of singing a cappella. Luckily help is at hand at "The Institute of A Cappella Rehabilitation".
January 12, 2007
How 'American Idol' Uses (and Abuses) Melisma
National Public Radio:
If you're one of the 30 million viewers who are addicted to the Fox talent show American Idol (and even if you're not), you've probably heard melisma.
Melisma is the musical art of creating a run of many notes from one syllable. In the United States, singers in the African-American church popularized the vocal practice, which dates to Gregorian chants and Indian ragas. When Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin began singing popular music, they brought melisma to more mainstream audiences. Whether you love it or hate it, Whitney Houston's hit "I Will Always Love You," with its elongated "iiieeee-eyes" and "ooooeeeooos," is a prime example.
American Idol contestants (and pop singers) sometimes abuse and overuse the technique in songs. At worst, they can fracture a word into a soulless slur of syllables that feels both alienating and groan-inducing. Plus you have no idea what word they're singing.
To get ready for the new AI season, spend a few minutes this weekend with our guide to melisma, courtesy of Anthony Heilbut, music producer and author of The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times.
How was melisma used in the early days of the African-American church?
Usually one person would recite a lyric or line of a song. Then congregants would repeat the line with their own variations. The ultimate choral effect was immense.
Can you describe that sort of melisma?
The melisma of a traditional gospel singer is rooted in folkloric moans and blue tonality. The most transcendent moments occur when a melismatic line is saturated with blue notes.
What can melisma accomplish in a song?
As some crucial moment in the lyric, the singer will worry a word to the point of abstraction. Ideally, the vocal distortions, the intricate and convoluted division of one syllable into as many as breath will allow, convey an eruption of feeling. But melisma can become so predictable that the singer's passion can be questioned, even though the singer is usually making "ugly faces" to convey the soul's torments.
How has melisma changed over the years?
As gospel singers became more professional, they would try to outdo [each other], much like a jazz musician in a cutting contest. The fancier the runs, the more amused or delighted the audience might be.
About 20 years ago, I dubbed these elaborations the "Gospel Gargle" and the "Detroit Disease."
Why blame Detroit?
Some of [melisma's] earliest and most audacious practitioners hailed from the Motor City. [Their variations] are much more self-conscious. In more recent years, soul singers, and ultimately pop singers, adopted these very busy and self-advertising forms of phrasing.
So while a great gospel singer such as Aretha Franklin can employ melisma for dramatic purposes in a manner that seems true to the song's message, singers today seem to indulge themselves in a manner that is both virtuosic and anonymous. And the more it is done, the worse it is done. Something that might have seemed fresh and charming in the beginning began to seem self-indulgent and, to many of us, exhibitionist.
What are they doing wrong?
Often, there isn't any musical justification of what they are doing. [Their runs] interfere with the flow of the melody, of the lyric, of the harmonies, sometimes of the rhythm itself. It's frequently a very vulgar and ugly display. [That's] the style of American Idol singers, most of whom are amateurs. [They] are simply mimicking the devices of the style's most famous practitioners — singers like Mariah Carey, who indulge in runs.
How can melisma serve singer and song?
It can carry both the singer and the congregation to a higher sense of the song's meaning; until it really becomes really a form of musical catharsis.
When [the late gospel singer] Marion Williams sings "The Day Is Past and Gone," her subtle use of melisma helps turn a lullaby into a cosmic blues. The note-bending begins with the third word, "is," which is echoed in the next measure by a moaned hum, which is also melismatic. The listener understands at once that she is singing about something deadly serious. By the time she has reached the penultimate line of the second verse, "but death may soon disrobe us," each melismatic turn has led us to the song's crux.
With all the attention and backlash this style receives, how subjective is any of this?
In and of itself, melisma can be a great thing, it's just been terribly abused by some untalented and insensitive singers. But I think the practitioners like to think that this is a sign of their engagement in the song.
The irony is that melisma is one of the glories of gospel music; I feel a real loyalty to it. I don't think you can get very much better than gospel singers at their best.
January 10, 2007
SF police cheif defends handling of Yale singers' beating case
San Francisco Chronicle (CA):
Police Chief Heather Fong defended the San Francisco police officers Wednesday who broke up a street beating of members of a Yale singing group on New Year's Eve, saying they made no arrests because they were unable to find anyone who could substantiate any charges. Accusations of delay and inaction by police have dogged the incident in the Richmond District that left one member of a renowned Yale University singing group, the Baker's Dozen, with a broken jaw and another with a concussion.
Relatives of some of the victims complained that police moved slowly to investigate the case, which began when uninvited party guests heckled the all-male a cappella singing group and reportedly hurled homophobic slurs at a party at the home of a San Francisco police sergeant and her husband, a retired member of the department. The hecklers mocked the singers as they sang the "Star-Spangled Banner," witnesses reported. After neighbors broke up the party, at least one of the hecklers allegedly summoned a vanload of friends, who set upon the group and beat them as they were walking back to the home where they were staying.
In discussing the case for the first time, Fong said officers who went to the scene detained four individuals and tried to talk to others. But, Fong said, witnesses could not tie the four individuals to the beating, and officers released them. A dispatch log of the incident, which summarized communications by Richmond station police officers who responded to the scene on 15th Avenue near Lake Street, suggests that at least some of the officers present dismissed the incident as minor. "All parties want no PD (Police Department) action ... No injuries,'' it says, according to sources familiar with the log.
Fong said she was not familiar with the log entry. She added, however, that officers responded to various locations where witnesses or potential witnesses were being interviewed. She said it is possible that the "no PD action" was logged by an officer who had interviewed people who were not hurt and that the injured parties were elsewhere. Fong said police have 50 to 60 more interviews to conduct and still have to review video and photos from the scene. "When the facts are there and we have individuals providing information specifically saying this person did this, then we ... act. But those individuals weren't there for the officers to interview," Fong said.
Some of the victims have insisted, however, that they pointed out who was responsible and then were told they could leave. "The singers who pointed out the suspects were told, we got it, you can go,'' said a source familiar with the investigation. The log of the police communications was made as two seriously injured victims -- Sharyar Aziz Jr., who suffered a broken jaw, and an unidentified man -- were on their way to San Francisco General Hospital. Police who interviewed them there said neither man could identify the attackers, police reports show.
Mayor Gavin Newsom has spoken with Fong about the incident and "is deeply concerned for what happened to the students from Yale," said his spokesman, Peter Ragone. "He is confident that the Police Department will engage in a thorough, swift and fair investigation and take the appropriate action. If any laws were broken, that should be dealt with appropriately. If any conduct was unacceptable, that will be dealt with appropriately as well." Ragone said Newsom was waiting to learn more about the police response before drawing any conclusions. "What often happens in these circumstances is that there's more than one side to every story."
The follow-up investigation into the incident got off to a slow start. It was not until Jan. 5, several days after the incident, that police investigators began to conduct interviews in the case, authorities say. In that time, members of the singing group had left the city.
Reno Rapagnani, a retired SFPD officer whose daughter hosted the party, said he understood that the department's officers might have been overwhelmed on New Year's. "I'm trying to assist the department,'' he said. "I think any cop or any citizen would do the same thing. I hope.'' But, he said, there continue to be delays in police interviewing the singers. "It just seems to be taking a lot of time. They assigned inspectors, and they were off for two days. They (the singers) were still in San Francisco for a couple of days. What does that look like? Maybe I'm missing something.''
He said that he pushed the department to investigate and that his wife, a police sergeant who is on disability, took photos of the injuries to the singers. He gave the photos to police, but on Wednesday he said the police were not satisfied with just obtaining the digital photos. He said the investigators instructed his lawyer to give them the camera. "He wanted to know what they wanted the camera for,'' Rapagnani said. "There was no answer -- they said something like, we can't give our secrets.'' Rapagnani said he had asked the department's special investigations unit to be brought in but was told that the case did not warrant it.
Whitney Leigh, an attorney representing Aziz Jr. and another singer injured in the incident, Evan Gogel, said the attack was brazen and left four or more singers injured. "This was an unprovoked, premeditated ambush that was shocking in its senselessness and violence,'' he said. Leigh said that regardless of the early handling of the case, he believes police now are taking the matter seriously. "It's important that the victims be given the chance to identify their assailants ... at the earliest opportunity.''
Tina D'Elia of Community United Against Violence, a San Francisco organization that monitors anti-gay hate crimes, reacted immediately to the events, calling the attacks tragic and horrifying. "This is really serious on a very public level," she said, adding that she has contacted the police department's hate crimes unit about the incident. She said she has left messages at Sacred Heart Cathedral school -- which some of the alleged attackers attend -- offering to send anti-hate violence speakers to talk to students there. The incident, she said, shows "a level of targeted rage and hatred that is really scary and to me just screams that it is a problem that's not going away. ... If that's not addressed, then what do we have? We have dead bodies."
January 8, 2007
Yale Choir Assaulted; No Arrests By SFPD
Members of a renowned choral group from Yale University were attacked outside a New Year's Eve party in San Francisco, sending several of them to the hospital. Now the police department is coming under fire for its handling of the case. This does not look good for the city. Yale sends its popular singing group, The Baker's Dozen, on a holiday concert tour. And San Francisco sends the young men away bloody, bruised, and several of them seriously injured.
Laura Aziz sent her son, Sharyar, off on a concert tour with one of Yale University's singing groups -- he came to San Francisco over New Year's. This is how the 18-year-old returned to New York last week. Sharyar Aziz, Yale University Student: "Besides any bruising or scrapes to the face, the main injury that I suffered was I broke my jaw in two places." Laura Aziz, Sharyar's Mother: "It was shocking. It didn't make any sense. It still doesn't make any sense."
The Baker's Dozen are a 58-year tradition at Yale. They've put out two dozen albums and toured the country, with appearances at the White House and Los Angeles Lakers games. When their winter tour brought them to San Francisco, retired police officer and department lawyer, Reno Rapagnani, arranged a New Year's Eve party at his home in the group's honor. Reno Rapagnani, Retired SFPD Lawyer: "I had given strict orders to my daughter that if anything got out of hand that the party would be over."
The trouble started at midnight after The Baker's Dozen sang "The Star Spangled Banner." Witnesses say a few local young men didn't appreciate the attention the Yale students were getting, made fun of their conservative dress and began taunting them and making threats. Leanna Dawydiak, Hosted Party: "They had something here special that these other fellas obviously didn't have and that irritated them."
Witnesses say 19-year-old Richard Aicardi was the most aggressive. Sharyar Aziz: "'You're not welcome here,' he called a few members of the group, whether it was fag or homo, very, I would say, juvenile taunting." Aicardi took out his cell phone and called in reinforcements. Reno Rapagnani: "He said, 'I'm 20 deep, my boys are coming.'"
One of the vehicles that brought the attackers was captured by surveillance camera at a church across the street. As The Baker's Dozen left the house, they were ambushed -- five, six, seven assailants attacking each member. Their injuries ranged from scrapes, black eyes, a badly sprained ankle to concussions. The most seriously injured was Sharyar Aziz. He was rushed back to New York for reconstructive surgery -- his jaws wired shut for eight weeks. He'll forever have two titanium plates in his face. The varsity squash player will miss the season, now underway. He's trying to remain positive.
Sharyar Aziz: "I can't just look back at that incident and be depressed for the next two months. I have to learn to deal with what's been given to me." What especially concerns the Aziz family -- when police arrived, they detained four of the attackers who were identified by members of The Baker's Dozen, but officers did not make an arrest. And a full week later, they still haven't made an arrest.
Whitney Leigh, Gonzalez & Leigh Law Firm: "That doesn't seem to comport with traditional police practices and as a result, at least at this point, there's several violent youths or young men, actually, who are out on the street and shouldn't be." Police investigators didn't even bother to photograph the injuries to The Baker's Dozen. The couple who held the party that night took pictures. Leanna Dawydiak: "Maybe I'm missing something, but it seems as a citizen in San Francisco that something should be done a little more than has been."
Police spokesman Neville Gittens defends the handling of the case. Neville Gittens, SFPD Spokesman: "What you want to do is you want to have a complete, thorough investigation. So the officers responded, the fight was abated and now an investigation is ongoing."
The couple who hosted the party wonder whether the authorities are moving slowly because of the family involved. Rich Aicardi and two of his brothers who were involved in the incident are the sons of prominent San Francisco pediatrician Eileen Aicardi.
The I-Team met with Eileen Aicardi and her sons last night. They invited us into their home in the shadow of Coit Tower, but later declined to be interviewed. Rich Aicardi did not want to have his picture taken. The incident threatens to be another black eye for the City of San Francisco.
Mayor Gavin Newsom wouldn't address it when we caught up with him late this afternoon. There has been movement since we began investigating this story Friday night. Police interviewed Richard Aicardi on Sunday. Officials at Yale, by the way, issued a statement this afternoon saying they hope the "perpetrators will be apprehended and prosecuted." We'll keep on top of this and report back to you if something happens.
Have a tip on this or another investigation? E-mail the ABC7 I-Team or call 1-888-40-I-TEAM.
January 6, 2007
The Hi-Lo's video
As regular readers of this blog know I am a huge fan of vocal jazz arranger Gene Puerling however as often as I listen to the Singers Unlimited and The Hi-Lo's, I had never had the chance to see them perform. So it was a real treat when I just discovered this video clip of the Hi-Lo's performing "My Sugar Is So Refined" from an appearance in 1957 on the Nat King Cole TV show. It's a great clip as they were also quite accomplished performers and very cleverly promote their release "Suddenly The Hi-Lo's". Learn more about the Hi-Lo's here.
January 5, 2007
Yale Sisterhood Still Raising Its Voice
Hartford Courant (CT):
Every year since 1909, a cadre of elite Yale singers selects 14 juniors to succeed them in the world's oldest and best-known collegiate a cappella group, the Whiffenpoofs. In 1981, just 12 years after the university began admitting women as undergraduates, seven determined women created their own a cappella group, Whim 'n Rhythm.
"A number of us could see all the benefits associated with the Whiffs, and we decided that it would be nice for future generations if we could start something similar for women," said Janet Dea, one of the founders of Whim, as it's known around campus. "Those were the days when feminism was very much alive, and we considered ourselves trailblazers." The Whim 'n Rhythm have persevered for 25 years, performing around the world, including stints at the venerable Mory's Temple Bar, the longtime home of the Whiffenpoofs.
Last fall, one of its members, Robin Pearce, decided to make a 30-minute documentary about the group and its history. Besides discovering all of Whim's musical contributions, Pearce, whose yet untitled film debuts this spring, also unveiled the important ways in which Whim helps its charges through that "real world."
"People refer to male alums as the `old boys' group, but Whim is sort of like the `old girls' group," Pearce said. "Many alumnae have lent a hand in any way they could, helping women through business and life. "Yes, it is a singing group, but it's also a very important group for women at Yale."
Indeed, besides its acclaimed art, theater and music schools, Yale has a long legacy of founding and supporting undergraduate singing groups, all of which have attracted many local fans in addition to supplying both Whim and the Whiffs with a host of talent. As with the Whiffs, Whim is a group through which a few, like Dea (a professional singer and voice coach in Toronto), may launch their professions - and see the world.
In the coming year (one that includes a new CD, "Independently Blue), the Whim will perform in such places as Chicago, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Vienna. "Just as soon as we're done with graduation, we're picking up and flying to Japan," said Kathryn "Kat" Ogletree, a lifelong singer and a current member of Whim. "Whim is a great way to cap off your a cappella career at Yale. A lot of us have come from the farm teams, so to speak, to Whim, which is the big leagues."
This big-league status has taken some years to acquire. The first members of the group didn't have much time for harmonizing. "Our inaugural year was really a labor of love. We wanted to put something in place for future singers," Dea said. After gaining status as an official university club, Whim began working with Fenno Heath, a renowned music professor and, at the time, the conductor of the Yale Glee Club, who secured a time slot for Whim in the glee club practice room. During the spring of '81, the singing crew developed a repertoire of three songs for a joint concert with the Whiffs, after which the male group donated the proceeds to Whim.
Since then, the members of Whim have remained the premier women's singing group on campus, aside from one year, 1993, in which the previous class decided not to choose successors. After a season without Whim n' Rhythm, however, a group of alumnae living in New York City held auditions for 1994's troupe, set up an endowment and brought the group back to Yale. Since then, Whim has not missed a concert.
January 4, 2007
Washington City Paper (DC):
In 1942, Vanderbilt University professor George Pullen Jackson and folklorist Alan Lomax produced what David Warren Steel, in the liner notes to I Belong to This Band, calls “the first convincing field recordings of a large Sacred Harp convention.” Early sacred harp recordings, according to Steel, were often of small groups.
The most enduring collection of sacred harp hymns—B.F. White and E.J. King’s 1844 song collection The Sacred Harp, A Collection of Psalm and Hymn Tunes, Odes, and Anthems (the title actually goes on a bit longer)—became, Steel says, quoting some unnamed sage, “the book oftenest found in the homes of rural Southerners other than the Holy Bible.” Despite the book’s domestic popularity, the music is in its element when performed in large-group singings—“a community musical and social event” Steel writes, that “came to be associated in the deep South with church and community homecomings and decoration days,” right down to the “sumptuous ‘dinner on the ground’ spread in the churchyard at noon.”
“Harp” is an odd word for the human voice. The genre may be described more properly as shape-note singing because it’s written with four shapes representing two pitches apiece—the better to teach sight reading. In a vestige of its singing-school past, performers run through the “fa-sol-la-mi” notes of the song before heading on to the lyrics (Nicole Kidman, Donald Sutherland, Jude Law, and others are seen singing sacred harp as news of secession arrives, in Cold Mountain). Since sacred harp is usually performed a cappella, pitch is relative, as are the unusual open-fifth harmonies that are blasted out as loudly as possible.
According to Dust-to-Digital founder Lance Ledbetter, the style was initially popular in the Northeast but fell out of favor. “It ended up coming South,” he says, “and when it came South, it found a place and it stayed.” Despite its popularity, Steel explains, the music was “ignored by the cultural elites” until the arrival of Jackson’s 1933 book, White Spirituals of the Southern Uplands, which “established its connection with folk song.”
Given the label’s preoccupation with the past, though, what’s surprising about I Belong to This Band is that nearly half of its 30 tracks stretch all the way back to George W. Bush’s second term. Thirteen of the compilation’s songs were recorded at a sacred harp convention in De Kalb County, Ala., early last July. Actually, what’s even more surprising is that the newer tracks are arguably better than those that date back to the first half of the century. They may not have the pop and hiss that signal classic recordings’ provenance, but between the modern recording equipment and the sheer size of the singing groups (about 200 participants) the July 2006 recordings have a forceful clarity.
If the occasional cough or throat-clearing on the newer tracks underscores the all-are-welcome aspects of the music (the democratically minded words with plain rules for learners are visible on the liner notes’ photo of the The Sacred Harp’s cover), on the older tracks, in general, individual voices are more prominent, and the singing sometimes seems more skilled. The first track, laid down by Denson’s Sacred Harp Singers of Arley, Ala., in 1928, at times calls to mind the strictures of barbershop. Partway through their shape-note warm-up on their 1940 spin on “Weeping Mary, page 408,” members of Roswell Sacred Harp Quartet launch into a round of shape-note solos (one sings something like “sol sol la sol la mi fa”).
When Steel’s notes assert that the new tracks are “presenting a variety of genres and styles, and confirming the emotional depth and sheer joy that has inspired singers for several generations,” he’s half-right. The joy and depth come through, but a little more information on the inspirations of and stylistic differences between the new recordings would have been welcome. To unchurched ears, they pretty much sound the same: spectacular, but still.
That said, the overall quality of the collection erases any concerns about Steel not nerding out more. Ledbetter says Dust-to-Digital aimed to present as much rare material as possible (an exception is Track 24, “Present Joys, page 318,” which is included in I Belong to This Band, Steel explains, to correct a slow recording speed that caused “excessively fast and high-pitched sound of the pressings”), which precluded the inclusion of the 1942 Jackson/Lomax recordings. Still, the side-by-side comparison of the fuller, technically excellent newer recordings and the eclectic small-scale sounds of the older tracks makes for a compelling listen.
The collection’s lyrics, with their blend of hope and world-weariness, take the long view as well. Souls seek out “Another home/A brighter world on high,” a world where “I shall bathe my weary soul/In seas of heav’nly rest” quite apart from our own “vain world of sin.” The same old songs will probably stay popular as long as folks continue to fear sin and yearn for Paradise. Or simply look on from afar.
January 3, 2007
Harmony Sweepstakes seeks a cappella groups
The New Year brings us to the beginning of another season of the Harmony Sweepstakes A Cappella Festival, the 24th annual of this prestigious event. Last year was once again a rousing success and we will do our very best to ensure that this year will continue the tradition of presenting some of the finest vocal harmony groups performing today from across the country.
This year, for the first time, we have expanded to eight the number of group members allowed to compete and we are actively seeking both new and established a cappella groups who would like to participate in this year's events. Regional shows are held in Boston, New York, Washington DC, Chicago, Denver, Olympia, WA, San Francisco and Los Angeles with the regional champions winning airfare and accommodation to San Francisco to perform in the National Finals.
A cappella groups of all genres and styles are welcome and originality is always encouraged so if you are in a group, or know of one that you think should participate, you can learn more here.
January 2, 2007
Review - Tallis Scholars, St John's, London
The Independent (UK):
Taking place within St John's regular Christmas Festival - now 21 years old - this concert by The Tallis Scholars, under its founder/director Peter Phillips, drew the largest audience I have ever seen in this space. The galleries, bar, and restaurant, plus the main space of this deconsecrated church, were absolutely brimming.
The Scholars came of age long ago and, although a vast following has been built up, the group is beginning to sound a mite tarnished. Where once the purity of line, the accuracy of intonation, and the blend of sound were all aspects to marvel at, here at least a shaky first half questioned those assumptions. But intelligence of programming has always been good, and this was no exception.
In these nervous days of wishing people "Happy Holidays", Renaissance sacred music of a profoundly Christian provenance was celebrated. "Foreign" composers were flanked by English, although the first half sported only the locals. Thomas Tallis's "Loquebantur variis linguis" made a wonderful opener, the glancing harmonic blows caused by the independent clashing of lines a shivering delight. But, with 10 singers, including two sopranos, the top line was at times strained. This a cappella music is cruelly exposed and the grander acoustic of a mighty cathedral might have helped to support it.
In Christopher Tye's "Missa Western Wynde", the help of a few young choirboys might also have been desirable. And singing without vibrato (as required these days) does make life more difficult up in the stratosphere. Diction, too, from top to bottom, was not what it could have been, which was a pity because, if clear, the progress of curling contrapuntal lines is more easily followed .
The discovery of the evening was two motets by the Flemish composer Philippe de Monte (1521-1603). His "O suavitas et dulcedo" and "O bone Jesu" were both gravely beautiful, suavely melodious and harmonically rich. Beginning the second half, these motets seemed to find the choir in much better form. And in Palestrina's "O bone Jesu", intonation and blend was also far surer. With John Taverner bringing up the rear in two of his votive antiphons, "Quemadmodum" and "Mater Christi", even the high notes were fully negotiated, and we could leave feeling elated.