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Home / Brunch / Are you ready for a cappella?

Are you ready for a cappella?

Digital apps are making the music style that focuses purely on voices increasingly popular

brunch Updated: Sep 13, 2020 08:17 IST
Karishma Kuenzang
Karishma Kuenzang
Hindustan Times
Artistes Unlimited (AU), one of the first a cappella ensembles in Delhi gave the style a boost in India
Artistes Unlimited (AU), one of the first a cappella ensembles in Delhi gave the style a boost in India(Shiv Ahuja)

Ten singers stand in a circle and hum different notes, building up in the perfect crescendo. The different textures of their voices blend together as they weave into harmony.

Similarly, the singers of a cappella groups build and support one another too. I know. I am one of them and I swear by the mental healing powers of such a group, whether they come from the vibrations that resonate when you sing, or the sense of belonging that the group engenders.

The first wave

Delhi musician Prabhtoj Singh was introduced to a cappella by his music teacher Chayan Adhikari of Advaita. He honed his skills during his years in Delhi’s Kirori Mal College and, just recently, the 26-year-old received the highest accolade possible when his a cappella cover of Jacob Collier’s Moon River was appreciated by the English musician himself on Instagram.

Vocalist and educator Annette Philip learnt the capabilities of coming together of human voices at a young age
Vocalist and educator Annette Philip learnt the capabilities of coming together of human voices at a young age

But the previous generation of a cappella singers, like Yeashu Yuvraj, now 36, started by discovering layered vocals in songs. Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy was Yeashu’s first “voice song”. “I wasn’t exposed to a cappella while growing up,” he says. It was only when he started training formally with Situ Singh Buehler that he discovered the term. Today, he has brought together students and singers from across the world for two a cappella renditions over the lockdown.

“Being able to sing without instruments and consistently being in pitch and harmony with ‘n’ number of people is hardcore!” —Tyesha kohli

Vocalist and educator Annette Philip, who discovered the wonders of harmony at a young age, learnt the capabilities of the coming together of human voices by accident, she tells us from Boston, where she’s founded the Berklee Indian Ensemble and is singing with Women of the World.

But it was Annette’s first a cappella ensemble, Artistes Unlimited (AU), which she founded 17 years ago, that gave the style a boost in India – or at least in the Delhi University circuit. “AU was about building a community of musicians who could work together, be exposed to a cappella and global influences, and figure out how to change the conversation about the arts being a viable professional career,” says the Lady Shri Ram graduate.

Clockwise: For Grace Lalkhawngaihi, (inset) who grew up in Mizoram, a cappella was nothing new; Grace performing with The Acabellas; Delhi musician Prabhtoj Singh; His cover of Moon River
Clockwise: For Grace Lalkhawngaihi, (inset) who grew up in Mizoram, a cappella was nothing new; Grace performing with The Acabellas; Delhi musician Prabhtoj Singh; His cover of Moon River

With a little help from the NE

By the time Grace Lalkhawngaihi, now 31, joined Lady Shri Ram, many colleges were putting together advanced a cappella sets and taking them to college festivals. But for Grace, who grew up in Aizawl, Mizoram, a cappella was nothing new. A cappella choirs have been around in the North East since the 1980s and ’90s – two a cappella-only albums had even been released back then!

Grace had grown up listening to the church choir, joining it herself at the age of 11. “My Sunday school teachers encouraged me to start experimenting,” says the assistant professor in the department of psychology at St Xavier’s College. 

In college, Grace was introduced to the modern version of a cappella, which incorporates a rhythmic section via styles like beatboxing.

“Today, beatboxing is taking on a much larger role in India. Also, many people are arranging and singing in regional languages,” says Annette.

This modern form was what Delhi vocalist Tyesha Kohli, now 24, was introduced to when she joined Jesus & Mary College in 2017. “Being able to sing without instruments and consistently being in pitch and harmony with ‘n’ number of people, that’s hardcore!” says the former president of her Western Music Society, who has trained multiple college choirs since.

Delhi vocalist Tyesha Kohli has trained multiple college choirs
Delhi vocalist Tyesha Kohli has trained multiple college choirs

Rhythm and beats

What’s also aiding this vocal experimentation is the easy availability of simple apps and technology. “It is visually appealing and harmonically pleasing to watch more than four singers come together to sing on digital platforms,” says Prabhtoj. There are also a lot of people trying out looping, also based on the concept of a cappella.

But it will take a while before a cappella goes mainstream, even though practitioners Penn Masala and Voctronica are quite popular. “It’ll only go mainstream if Bollywood introduces it,” Prabhtoj explains. For example, Hollywood has movies like Pitch Perfect (2012) whose sole focus is a cappella. “If we have something like that in Bollywood, people will become more aware of it,” adds Grace.

“If we have movies solely on a cappella in Bollywood, people will become more aware of it” —Prabhtoj Singh

There’s also a need to take the physical ensembles beyond DU, says Yeashu. Apps are just a medium to experiment. The real deal is when you’re standing together, instinctively working with one another and feeding off one another’s energies to create. “Because one of the biggest aspects of performing arts is the ability to bring people together, which helps the learning process in a cappella,” he adds.  

That may be about to change, if Tyesha has her way. “Almost every day I see five videos of inspired/original cover arrangements without little to no use of instruments, but with harmonies.

So a cappella will never die in India,” Tyesha says, confessing that she’s always dreamt that someday she will open a school which would focus on teaching life skills through music. And a cappella will be a huge part of it.

Follow @Kkuenzang on Twitter

From HT Brunch, September 13, 2020

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