One thing I love about a cappella is its versatility; how groups can take any song of any style and adapt it for voice. Although I love to hear a cappella versions of current pop songs, I am more excited to hear songs that are a bit more obscure. Song choice, at its best, is about sharing a song you love with your group and the audience. For many of us, we love a cappella because we love to sing together — and we want to sing our songs: songs that are part of our culture and history...part of us.
We all have songs that remind us of different people, places and times. Although this is an individual experience, it becomes more meaningful when you know others have a similar response. Many songs provide the opportunity to reconnect to a shared knowledge. There are times in life when you may feel the need to stay connected to a culture; certainly, college is one such time. The right song can at once satiate a yearning and simultaneously make you yearn for home all the more. Such an experience is all the more meaningful when you can experience it with others going through the same thing. There are many college students that feel connected to multiple cultures and have found a way to fuse them together in song.
Fusion a cappella is the product of adapting popular or traditional songs from diverse cultures for a cappella singing, often by combining (mashing) them with popular Western songs.
When you visit an admissions page on a college website, you expect to see certain pictures: the one with students relaxing under a tree, the one with a professor in a lab coat giving individual attention to a student, the one with students meeting in front of an old-looking building, and technology and sports pictures galore. Although these pictures may be staged, they nevertheless demonstrate to potential students that the school believes in supporting campus life, maintaining small class sizes, investing in technology while maintaining traditions, etc. Each picture may have its own narrative, but when you look at them in succession, a clear theme should emerge...the diversity of the students.
As you scroll down a college webpage, you are likely to see statistics about the student population including information about the number of countries represented at the school. Why? Because the best colleges attract students from across the globe - the best colleges are also the most diverse colleges. The schools with the best engineering and premed programs (i.e. MIT, Stanford, U.C. Berkeley, U of Washington) tend to attract students from around the world. They also tend to have South Asian fusion a cappella groups on campus. Some of these groups compete at annual fusion contests held by Indian student organizations such as Berkeley’s Anahat or the University of Iowa’s Gathe Raho.
I sat down with the members of Case Western Reserve University’s Dhamakapella at SingStrong 2012 to learn more about the group and about fusion a cappella. Of the 18 current members, about 1/3 were born outside of the U.S., all but two were raised domestically. Dhamkapella is more diverse than most fusion groups with several non-Indian members including members with German, Korean, and Turkish backgrounds. Manager Sahaana Sridhar attributes the diversity of the group to the diversity of the Case Western campus. Other members think it is a result of the group’s habit of stalking singers.
Mayank Prasad: “We started in fall 2005: The Indian culture show is one of the biggest events on our campus...I was on the executive board for that organization. The show had a ton of dance acts but there was very little music. The organization’s president asked me to form a group because I was in another a cappella group, so I and two other guys grabbed Indian students...we knew from other a cappella groups (most of our members are in more than one group)...and we held auditions...we got a really good response from our first show and we all decided to just keep going.”
Sahaana Sridhar: “The point is to just have fun and bring in both styles and cultural influences and make it so that people can relate to it whether they are Indian or not...when you look at us, you see that a lot of our members are not Indian. Many of us are forced to struggle between two cultures. The music exemplifies how we can, through music, incorporate Indian and American culture — the way we do in life.”
Navaneeth Krishnan: “One of the things that is cool about this group is that it has allowed me to stay in touch with my Indian culture. Having been born here and raised here, it’s easy to forget about our culture — just simply the act of learning and singing Hindi songs has helped me stay in touch...I can relate to like the movies and things my parents do at home.”
Samir Shah: “Even though I don’t speak the language, it’s an opportunity for me to learn words, so when I go home and practice in front of my parents, they get really happy: ‘Oh, he’s singing in Hindi, [puts his hands over his heart] My Child!’ But in all seriousness, it really touches them because they like to see that their cultural roots are being preserved in their own children.”
Jeff Wexler: “I got to hear the group my senior year of high school when I was checking out the colleges I was admitted to. I heard them and I loved the sound...and my family hosts a lot of exchange students, so we know that learning about cultures is important. I wanted to keep up with that when I came to college. I mean, [jokingly] I can’t host exchange students, but it’s like I have 17.”
Alyssa Fledderjohn: “I joined when everyone in my other a cappella group graduated. I am in another group as well, but Dhamakapella opened my ears to the music, the food, and Bollywood, which I just love now. This is now my family...my a cappella family.”
There was a time when the most educated were expected to have “high-class” tastes in music, meaning a preference for opera and Western art music. However, musical and sociological research from the last 50 years has shown that those with the most education also have the most inclusive tastes (see cultural omnivorisim as termed by sociologist Richard Peterson). In this globalized economy, those that will do best are those that can relate to myriad cultures.
College may be the perfect time to learn about other cultures and broaden musical tastes — fusion music can give a cappella singers an opportunity to do just that. Fusion a cappella is a wonderful way to introduce audiences of any age to music of diverse cultures. To learn more about fusion a cappella, check out some YouTube videos from the Anahat a cappella competition at UC Berkeley. Dhamakapella recently released their first album Pehli Nazar – First Look (available on iTunes and Amazon.com).
About the writer:
Tom Burlin is a choral music educator teaching at the University of North Texas. He specializes in the sociology of music and democratic and informal music learning. His dissertation is on the phenomenon of contemporary a cappella in high schools across the United States.