Rockapella's harmony hits a groove

January 27, 1995|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Rock 'n' roll has seen many a cappella groups over the years, but none of them has ever rocked the way Rockapella does.

"When people think of a traditional male harmony blend, they think of either barbershop style or doo wop style, where the tenor is singing in a sort of sweet falsetto," Rockapella's Sean Altman says in a telephone interview. "But the kind of stuff that we write and arrange is rock 'n' roll, and rock 'n' roll material doesn't really lend itself to that kind of crooning blend."

So Rockapella takes a different tack, one which owes more to an instrumental approach. "We kind of have our own blend that we developed, that's kind of just automatic now," explains Scott Leonard, the group's first tenor. "There's the three of us on top -- myself, being the high tenor, Sean in the middle and Elliott [Kerman] being the baritone -- and then Barry [Carl] and Jeff [Thacher] are the rhythm section. It just happens to be voices."

It's that rhythm approach that truly sets the group apart. "We're writing contemporary pop and R&B stuff, and we need the grooves," Altman says. "When we were able to find people who could do that vocally, then we had the best of both worlds: we were able to maintain the purity of being an a capella group, and also have that rhythmic intensity. Hearing Carl carry the bass line vocally isn't that unusual, but Thacher's vocal percussion is a one-in-a-million sound.

"The Nylons did a capella, but they had a drum machine," says Leonard. "We wanted to keep it more organic, and think it's a different feeling when it comes from the mouth. It's definitely a sound you haven't heard before."

Finding Thacher wasn't easy, though. At first, the group had someone who used what rappers call "the human beatbox" approach. "You see a lot of guys do that on the street corner and in rap groups, things like that," says Leonard. "But it's tough to find somebody who could do the jazz and the Caribbean, all the different, various styles that we do. So Jeff has been a real find for us."

"He went to Berklee College of Music, and actually was a voice major," Altman adds. "So he's an all-around musician, and that really helps."

Still, taking an all-vocal approach hasn't made it easy for Rockapella to enter the mainstream. Although the group has five albums out in Japan, it is probably best known in this country for its work on the PBS educational show, "Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?"

"While we embrace the fact that our reputation in America is very much linked to the TV show, it's a little bit frustrating sometimes not to be taken seriously as a musical act because we have a lot of kids in the audience," Altman says. "Fortunately, we've never, ever felt the need to do anything different with an audience that might have kids in it; we just do what we do, and all ages seem to like it."


What: Family Concerts to benefit the Krieger Schechter Day School PTA

When: Sunday, 1:30 p.m. and 4 p.m.

Where: Kraushaar Auditorium, Goucher College

Tickets: $12, $8 for children

Call: (410) 244-1199

Hip harmony

To hear excerpts of Rockapella's music, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6141 after you hear the greeting.

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