10 joyous days of human voices

May 25, 2008|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun music critic

Among the memorable, music-related moments in Mayberry, on the classic TV sitcom The Andy Griffith Show, is when a jealous Deputy Barney Fife tries to talk a golden-voiced bumpkin-type named Rafe Hollister out of entering the town's singing contest.

Barney: "They're liable to ask you questions only a trained musician understands.

Rafe: Like what?

Barney: Well, suppose they was to ask, "Can you sing a cappella?" Would you know what to do?

Rafe: No.

Barney: There you are. Why get up and embarrass yourself?

Andy: Hey, Barn, suppose they ask if you can sing a cappella. What will you do?

Barney: Well, I'd do it. (He begins to sing jazzily, snapping his fingers.) "Ah-ca-PELL-ah, ah-ca-PELL-ah, dah-dah-dah-dum-dah-dah ... " I don't remember the rest of the words.

The goofy deputy could get straightened out with a visit to a 10-day, mostly free festival at the Kennedy Center opening on Wednesday called "A Cappella: Singing Solo." Well, maybe not entirely straightened out, since some of the performers will be warbling with instruments behind them - unaccompanied singing is the most widely understood definition of a cappella.

Still, the festival is predominantly about voices operating on their own, and it promises an exceptionally wide sampling of singers and repertoire, including music from the 15th and 16th centuries, when the term a cappella came into wide usage.

Some scholarship points to the Vatican's Sistine Chapel - Cappella Sistina, in Italian - as the probable source for that term. A cappella literally means "in the style of the chapel" (or church), and a lot of early church music, far beyond the Vatican, was sung unaccompanied. By the 19th century, any kind of unaccompanied vocal music was described as a cappella.

Most of the Kennedy Center festival will be free, with performances held on the Millennium Stage in the Grand Foyer, which can cram in 4,000 people. Large video screens will bring the performers closer to those away from the stage area. (A ticketed event in the center's Concert Hall featuring vocalist Bobby McFerrin and several a cappella groups is sold out.)

"The impulse behind the festival is something that [Kennedy Center president] Michael Kaiser had taken note of," says Garth Ross, director of the center's Performing Arts for Everyone program. "It's the way that connectiveness to style has begun to diminish, as artists take styles across national borders."

Today, the dancing done by ballet companies in one country may not differ substantially from that done by companies in another. Orchestras that used to have distinct aural identities - a "French sound," for example - are more likely now to sound pretty much like most other orchestras.

"Thinking about this led us to the idea of programming a cappella music," Ross says, "because performance styles of a cappella tend to be very closely related to the region and the people - this kind of singing is unique to those who are singing it."

Certainly no one could mistake, say, Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares, a female ensemble dedicated to Bulgarian folk song, for anyone else. Same for the South African folk group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Or the Paschall Brothers, the Virginia gospel quintet, and Aqsarniit, an Inuit ensemble.

One of the quintessentially American forms of a cappella singing, barbershop harmony, will be included in the festival, too, both in male (Max Q) and female (Four Bettys) versions. The tight harmonies of bluegrass gospel will get a workout from Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver. Vintage a cappella doo-wop and pop will come from The Persuasions.

Middle Ages and the Renaissance music will be sampled by a D.C.-based group called Suspicious Cheeselords. The name comes from a lighthearted mistranslation of a Latin motet, Suscipe quaeso Domine. From England comes another a cappella enterprise with an equally delicious name, I Fagiolini ("small beans," in Italian), and a similar emphasis on repertoire 500 or so years old.

Opening the festival will be a female group with a 35-year track record of a cappella singing, Washington's own Sweet Honey in the Rock.

"We'll do many different styles at the concert," says Carol Maillard, "a little bit of everything to show how the voice can be maximized in each genre."

Whether in 19th-century songs, early gospel, or even rap, Sweet Honey is all about unaccompanied singing.

"The human voice can do anything," Maillard says. "The voice was touching you before there was a lyre or a lute, before anyone struck a piece of wood to make a sound. In modern times, everything is so digitalized, electronically enhanced with all kinds of effects. A cappella uses the natural instrument, music that just touches the air. It's straightforward, pure, and amazing."

The festival's closing act will be Manhattan Transfer, known for its close harmonizing in a variety of styles, especially those of the Big Band era and jazz.

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