August 30, 2005 > Keep the whole world singing
Keep the whole world singing
by Brian Carter
So, you like singing in the shower? If so, you are not alone. In fact, there are over 30,000 "secret singers" in the U.S. and Canada who have found an entertaining, harmonious and fun way to enjoy singing with others every week in an atmosphere of encouragement and camaraderie that's anything but a secret. The Barbershop Harmony Society (formerly known as the "Society for the Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, or "S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A.") offers men of all ages the opportunity to learn the "barbershop style" of singing in America and throughout the world. (Women who want to learn and perform this style of singing can join "Sweet Adelines International," which also meet every week throughout the Bay Area.)
What is the barbershop style of singing (or "barbershop harmony" as it's sometimes called)? It's four-part, close harmony singing without any instrumental accompaniment. (Music sung without instruments is called "a cappella" singing.) The melody is carried in the second part, called the "lead." The "tenor" harmonizes above the melody, the "bass" sings the low notes, and the "baritone" sings the "other harmony," sometimes above and sometimes below the melody. Sound complicated? It's not, and what's more, making this harmonious sound is a whole lot of fun.
If you'd like to try singing in the barbershop style and live in Fremont, Hayward, Union City, Newark or San Lorenzo, the "New Dimension Chorus" welcomes new and experienced male singers to its rehearsals every Thursday evening. Under the leadership of its director James Hall and assistant director Demaster Survine IV, the chorus learns how to sing in the barbershop style, as well as how to get the best sound out of their individual voices (called "vocal production").
The Fremont-Hayward chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society is "young," sponsored six years ago by members from the "Garden City Chorus" (San Jose chapter). In that short time, the New Dimension Chorus has grown from eight original members to 23 members, with some former and current members receiving regional and national attention.
In addition to having fun and sharing goodwill by singing in local performances all over the East Bay, the New Dimension Chorus also practices its motto, "Keep the Whole World Singing" by participating in community service events with global effect. For example, the chorus worked with eight other Bay Area chapters of the Barbershop Harmony Society to provide tsunami disaster relief by holding a series of "In Harmony for Asia" concerts at Chabot College and at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, along with "Clockwork," the a cappella group that achieved national stature as the 2004 National Harmony Sweepstakes First Runners-Up.
Most folks may not remember, but barbershop harmony singing has been a rich part of America's love affair with television. In fact, barbershop harmony quartets have been featured for the past 50 years on TV shows as diverse as "The Andy Griffith Show," "Frasier," "Friends," "The Flintstones," "General Hospital," "Happy Days," and even "The Simpsons."
Barbershop harmony singing precedes the invention of television, and although the overwhelming number of those who sing barbershop harmony style today are Caucasian, there is significant evidence to show that this unique American musical art form, like jazz, enjoys a rich African-American heritage. One of the Barbershop Harmony Society's noted historians, Dr. Jim Henry, has offered a plausible scenario of the African-American origins of barbershop music.
Starting in the 1880s and 1890s, African-Americans harmonized popular songs of the day as well as spirituals and folk songs. The idiosyncrasies of that sound made it ripe for imitation by white minstrel performers, who used blackface, Negro dialect and musical inspirations to parody the African-American culture of the day. It should be noted that "black minstrel shows," as they were then known, also included this unique musical style.
The sound became so popular that white professional quartets, often consisting of minstrel performers, brought the sound into the burgeoning recording studio scene. African-American quartets, on the other hand, were rarely recorded, and when they were, their recordings were not given the mass distribution enjoyed by white artists. These white close-harmony recordings included the old minstrel songs and newly written songs.
A hybrid form of the music arose from two main factors: whites were singing it and infused it with some of their own traditions; and the limitations of the recording process at that time forced quartets to shed inherent vocal traits and affectations that would not reproduce well on the early recording equipment, or, perhaps, might not have been acceptable to the public. As a result, certain so-called "low-brow" elements of the African-American version of barbershop music were lost. Due to the popularity of these recordings, people - especially those in the white communities - came to associate the peculiar close-harmony sound with the white quartets that recorded them, thus sealing the mistaken stereotype that the Barbershop Style originated as a white musical art form.
Paradoxically, few African-Americans sing in barbershop harmony choruses and quartets today. The reason for this may lie in the early history of the S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A. Barbershop music, both in African-American and white societies, had almost completely died out by the late 1930s. Its demise would almost certainly have been continued if not for the formation of the S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A., which preserved the style and helped to spawn and sustain barbershop clubs, first across the U.S. and eventually worldwide. Yet, because the S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A. - citing the pre-civil rights norms of fraternal organizations such as the Shriners and the Elks - disallowed African-American membership until 1963, only whites were benefactors of this resurgence. Barbershop music in African-American circles continued its decline to virtual extinction. What African-American barbershop groups remained eventually shifted their interest to various forms of vocal jazz and gospel, where they exhibit great musical artistry and continue to enjoy much success today.
The New Dimension Chorus welcomes men of all ages, races, creeds and nationalities to sing with them each week; the only requirement is a love of harmony singing, and a willingness to be part of a diverse, thriving chorus that's on the move.
Dave Rail, a tenor for the New Dimension Chorus, started singing when he was 5-years-old. He sang in his church choir for many years. One day when he was a teenager, a barbershop singer came to his church. When Rail heard about the chorus, he was immediately drawn in. "It's hard to be mad when you are singing; no matter how bad your day is, if you sing you will always feel better," Rail emphasized.
To give men throughout the Bay Area a chance to give this hobby a try with no strings attached, the Barbershop Harmony Society has created the UCANSING2 campaign. During September, men of all ages in the East Bay will have the opportunity to meet with the New Dimension Chorus for three weeks in a row and learn how to sing some barbershop songs. Then, in the fourth week, the Fremont-Hayward chapter will host a free "Open House," a kind of mini-show, where the audience will be made up of friends and family to cheer on these new singers as they perform the songs they've learned with the chorus during the past three weeks.
The audience will then be entertained by the New Dimension Chorus, who will perform some of their barbershop favorites. Afterward, there will be light refreshments and an opportunity for even more singing by chorus members, UCANSING2 singers and audience alike. The three weeks of UCANSING2 rehearsals, as well as the Open House are free.
The New Dimension Chorus will hold their UCANSING2 rehearsals on September 8, 15, and 22, at 7:00 p.m., with their "Open House" to be held on September 29 at 8:00 p.m., at Chabot College. For more information, please visit www.ndchorus.com. For answers to questions, or to arrange to receive a ride to any of the UCANSING2 rehearsals, contact call (510) 551-7907.
New Dimension Chorus UCANSING2
Thursdays, September 8, 15, 22
Thursday, September 29
Chabot College (Music Center Room #1232)
25555 Hesperian Blvd., Hayward