HomeReport: A Cappella in China

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As anyone inclined to reading this website knows, a cappella is an international phenomenon.  With vocal music traditions common to cultures all over the world, it’s no surprise that people everywhere have a tendency to get together and sing.  Despite this ubiquity of unaccompanied music, contemporary a cappella still only thrives within certain, mostly western, countries.  I’m writing this from my current job in China, where, like most members of the collegiate a cappella community, I’m going through my annual two-month summer aca-withdrawal (withdrawalappella?).  The immediate transition from many hours of rehearsals and gigs per week to no (non-shower related) singing got me wondering if I could find some like-minded singers here.  I’m living in a city with dozens of universities, the most common natural habitat of US groups; I’m even working on campus at one.  Between Fork, Rajaton, all the groups at Oxford, etc., there’s plenty of overseas a cappella.  This should be easy, right?

Wrong. After my attempts to explain the concept to both students and professors alike, no one seems to have any clue what I’m talking about. Usually the conversation goes something along the lines of:

“What do you do in your spare time?”
“I’m in a singing group. We perform what’s called a cappella music where we don’t use any instruments”
“Like a band?”
“Yeah, sort of, but without instruments”
“Like a choir?”
“Yes, a little, but we sing songs you might hear on the radio”
“Oh…like a band?”

The idea needed a better explanation if anyone was going to get it (my Chinese is terrible).  My opportunity came when members of the English club at the school I’m working at asked me and my fellow Anglophone colleagues if we’d be willing to give a short presentation to them and their friends about American culture and our daily lives as US colleges.  Naturally, during my talk about what I do all day, the subject of vocal percussion came up and once I was able to communicate what it was, they excitedly asked for a demo. I did a short example, maybe 16 bars, and they went nuts.  Seeing this reaction, I decided to show them another call-and-response exercise that my group does whenever we teach workshops as schools.  We start with unmodified spoken English syllables and slowly transition into an easy bass/hat/snare VP beat that we affectionately refer to as “boots the cat”.  Little kids especially love it because it reminds them of Shrek 2. The Chinese students looked at me like I had three heads (not that they weren’t before), but they slowly got into it.  By the time we finished, they thought I was nuts, but they were having a blast.

Having seen these first time converts in action, I started thinking more about why contemporary a cappella hasn’t really taken root here, at least that I’ve seen.  Certainly there would be a market for it; the Chinese LOVE to sing.  KTV (Karaoke) places are everywhere, though they consist of a series of small private rooms available for rent where one sings only with one’s friends instead of in front of the usual large bar setting found in the US.  I explained the difference to someone and mentioned how American karaoke is relatively rare compared to its Asian counterpart and he replied, “But where do you go when you want to sing?”  Similarly, some friends and I were walking around the Temple of Heaven Park in Beijing when I heard what I thought was the sound of a large chorus recording piped through a discreet PA system.  I headed towards the source, only to find a throng of at least 100 people clustered around a man standing on a bench waving his arms.  Their collective sound floored me; beautiful and perfectly tuned harmonies flowing from a crowd that, I later discovered, consisted entirely of people who just happen enjoy meeting in the park to sing together.  They have no organization beyond that, and the conductor’s role is determined solely upon who gets up on the bench first.  If I’d had a clue what any of the songs were, I’d have been down there in a heartbeat.

There’s so much potential for a Chinese contemporary a cappella scene to burst forth, and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before one does.  Certainly a nascent movement has already started in the surrounding areas of Macau and Hong Kong, as described by CASA Ambassador Kwok-tung Fung in a recent blog post.  In an era when globalization makes it possible for me to grab a Big Mac anywhere from Cairo to Kashgar, the People’s Republic of China has seen a huge series of new cultural influences streaming in from around the world. I can’t wait to see what happens when contemporary a cappella climbs its way over the Great Wall into the world’s most populous country.  With 1.3 billion voices out there, who knows how big the community could grow?  Stay tuned…

[photo: Temple of Heaven Park]

About the author:
Nick Hamlin is the former Musical Director and General Manager of the University of Rochester Midnight Ramblers.  As a member of the Ramblers, he has toured both across the US and internationally and helped preach the gospel of vocal percussion to thousands of students, most recently in New Orleans schools still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.  His solo on Ben Folds’ “Army” is featured on the singers’ recent release, Ben Folds Presents: University A Cappella album.  After four years of singing with the Ramblers (oh yeah, and doing all that other undergrad academic stuff), he’s returned to UR for an extra year to study ethnomusicology and world religion as part of Rochester’s unique “Take 5” program.



Ah, what a great time (for me personally) to come across this article!

The previous music director of my group left this summer to study abroad in China--naturally I became more curious about the goings-on of a cappella there.  My only real exposure to Chinese a cappella is the work of PennYo (and their endearing YouTube videos), and I've wondered if there are native groups akin to them.

A cursory search through the RARB forum brought me to this old (2006!) thread that has interesting insight on how piracy and karaoke has affected Asian pop music (and consequently Chinese a cappella, I presume).  Not to mention there's a small anecdote about Beijing University's first a cappella group.  Seems relevant, so thought I'd share!

Thanks for the article, Nick--can't wait to hear more news from overseas.

I've translated this report into Chinese

Hi!~Take a look at this~ Our vocal group in Shanghai~

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