by Tim Clarke
They perform complex instrumental songs, yet they wield no instruments. They wear matching t-shirts. And they embrace the pun with a fierceness rivaled only by your dad. They are the collegiate a cappella choir, hear them ‘doot.’
In the last decade, three different a cappella groups have originated on the U of T campus. Their names are all relatively self-explanatory puns: OnoScatopoiea is an a cappella group with a jazz bent, the Varsity Jews have a focus on Judaism, and Tunes Beats Awesome, more commonly abbreviated as TBA, typically work out of the pop genre.
What might surprise you is that these groups are not made up of music students.
“I am the only member that has graduated or has taken any sort of musical voice training,” says Jeff Magee, director of TBA.
Al Thai, the executive secretary of OnoScatopoiea, has his own ideas as to why music students are scant to be found in U of T’s a cappella groups. “I’ve heard rumours that music students aren’t encouraged to [perform] outside of the faculty. They don’t have that much time. Unlike us, where we come together once or twice a week, every day they’re singing, nine to five.”
Though they may not have links to the music department, Thai notes that the choirs are doing fine on their own. “We have a union of a cappella groups called the University of Toronto A Cappella Coalition.”
Magee adds, “the purpose of the coalition is to promote a cappella campus wide and to raise awareness of this awesome sub-culture we have at the University of Toronto.”
Once a year, the UTAC puts on a concert showcasing all of the a cappella groups on campus. The show’s obligatory pun name: Acappellooza.
Last year, OnoScatopoiea made their debut as a competitor in the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella, making it all the way to the semi-finals at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “We all had to stay overnight, and it cost a lot of money,” Thai says. “That’s a problem with Hart House. Hart House isn’t capable of funding the kind of endeavours that we get involved with.”
When asked if TBA might compete against their fellow coalition chums in the future, Magee firmly dismisses the suggestion. “[The competition] sucks the fun out of rehearsals, the music and ultimately, the performance. Our group has been, and will always be, a place where people who love to sing can come and sing without any pressure or demand. We love to promote having fun first, and singing well second.”
He also cites the cost as a deterrent. “It’s difficult to ask the group to give up their weekend of studying, pay $50-100, and perform under stress.”
Despite the many challenges tied to competing, Thai says, “we had a lot of fun, and we’re all hopeful for next year.”
Meanwhile, the Varsity Jews goals for the coming season are altruistic. “We raise money for charitable organizations through singing,” says Rachel Malach, the VJ’s executive director. They raised $6,000 last year, a number that she hopes they will exceed this year.
The VJ’s repertoire ranges from decidedly modern takes on classic Hebrew songs to broadly irreverent versions of pop songs with re-written lyrics. For instance, they’ve performed a version of Michael Jackson’s ‘Black or White’ under the title ‘Mandelbrodt’ – a Jewish dessert similar to biscotti, pronounced ‘mandel-broyt.’ The lyrics in the chorus would make Weird Al Yankovic proud: “You can be my bubbie just as long as you make mandelbrodt!”
“There’s a comedic element that runs through a lot of a cappella music,” notes Dylan Bell, a Juno-nominated musician and one-time conductor for OnoScatopoeia. “Some of that might be historical: for example, there was a German a cappella group from the ‘30s called the Comedian Harmonists, and a lot of German groups maintain a lighthearted, semi-comedic nature to their shows. A lot of a cappella music doesn’t take itself too seriously.”
Though the genre might not be inherently serious, producing good a cappella music is no easy feat.
“Singing a cappella is often called ‘singing without a net,’ since there’s no instrumental backing; this makes it both very challenging, and very rewarding,” says Bell. “When a song, or even a single chord rings true, I get shivers that I’d never get just playing an instrument…When everyone feels it in a similar way, it comes out in the music, even if you’re just singing ‘doon doon jegga-jegga jing jing jong’ or whatever.”