PBS' "GREAT PERFORMANCES" kicks off its 18th season tonight with a refreshing reach beyond its normal range, which is usually restricted to the traditionally circumscribed notions of high culture.
But tonight, instead of Zubin Mehta or Joan Sutherland, you get Spike Lee and Debbie Allen. And instead of symphonies or ballets, you get a sound as natural as a breeze in the trees, as gritty as the banging of a trash can on an inner city street -- a cappella music. "Spike & Co.: Do It A Cappella" will be on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, tonight at 9 o'clock.
This hour is sort of two shows in one. The first is a little movie that begins with all sorts of famous instrumental musicians begging to be included in the film, only to be turned down by Spike, who insists that everything you hear will be a cappella, exclusively produced by groups that use only the human voice without any instruments.
Then he takes Allen to various buildings, some occupied, some abandoned, all in New York, where various a cappella groups await them in settings that range from huge lofts to cramped restrooms.
The groups Rockapella, True Image, the Mint Juleps and the Persuasions perform in subtly stylized music videos as Allen's enthusiasm and Lee's self-conscious irony provide running commentary. There's a nice bit with a janitor in one of the buildings, a fan of Allen's who doesn't think much of Spike.
Then the scene shifts to an auditorium at the Brooklyn Academy of Music where the same groups, joined by Take 6 and Ladysmith Black Mambazo -- the wonderful South African a cappella group brought to this country by Paul Simon -- perform in concert, their sets punctuated by brief commentaries from some of their members about this style of music.
On a few occasions two of the groups join together -- none better than when the all-female Mint Juleps, a British group, sings "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" with Ladysmith Black Mambazo -- easy couplings as their instruments blend naturally, the styles and rhythms molding together without worrying about tunings and amplifiers and two sets of drums and such.
A cappella music is not really as old as the human voice as its complexities and sophistication are very different from the relatively simple sound of an individual singing. But you can say that some of the most important traditions in pop and rock music began when kids gathered on the steps of city buildings and learned that together their voices could make sounds that transcended the possibilities of what they could ever hope to make alone.
In a cappella, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts as elemental human drives for community and teamwork are expressed in a unique and beautiful way.
It is a great performance.