Last Sunday, the six a cappella groups of Amherst College combined their collective energies and talents to put on the first showcase of the year. The first-year a cappella showcase in Johnson Chapel was intended to give the entering class of 2018 a taste of a cappella at Amherst and what each group had to offer. From hip hop to R&B and jazz to contemporary, the variety of the performances presented both familiar sounds and bold departures from the norm. Each group (Route 9, DQ, the Bluestockings, Terras Irradient, the Zumbyes and the Sabrinas) sang three songs, which successfully showcased the variety and range of each group.
When I arrived in Johnson Chapel for the showcase, the seats were already full of excited students, including smatterings of experienced upperclassmen and excited first-years who were getting their first taste of a cappella. Though each group and each performance were hailed with loud whoops and storms of clapping, there were also a number of stand-outs.
The humorous antics of Route 9, the first group to perform, provided sincere laughs from the audience.
“[It] made me feel happy, joyous. I didn’t even realize I was smiling,” said Iris Zhang ‘18. “[It was] lighthearted and blissful.”
DQ, Amherst’s only coed, secular group, sang renditions of popular songs such as Bastille’s “Pompeii.” The Bluestockings sang slower songs with jazzy vibes, such as Alicia Keys’ “Fallin’, but it was their rapping that received a huge response from the audience. Each verse of the hip-hop numbers was met with a symphony of whistles and whoops, and deservedly so.
The Bluestockings’ performance was soulful and inspiring. Terras Irradient, true to their identity as Amherst’s only Christian a cappella group, sang reverent religious songs with meaningful lyrics and flawless synchronization.
However, it was the Zumbyes that left an especially memorable impression on the entire audience. Instead of walking gracefully out onto stage, they ran into the chapel. Their entrance involved piggyback rides and sliding down from the balcony, showcasing their unique energy and charm. Adding to the charisma of the group were the three love song performances (which were surprisingly sincere given the presence of banana suits and goofy hats), the mellow harmonies, the comic dances, and the particularly wide range of styles that were exhibited throughout the group’s performace.
“Our most important tradition is breaking away from the norm,” said group member Stuart MacKenzie ‘16. “We like to show what we’re capable of … jazz, funk, R&B, soul.”
“Isn’t she lovely/isn’t she wonderful/isn’t she precious,” crooned the Sabrinas, the next group to perform in the showcase. Stevie Wonder, who penned those lyrics in 1976, was originally describing his newborn daughter with the piece, but those adjectives could just as easily apply to the Sabrinas themselves. Their soft vocals and powerful solos were a treat for the ears. The brazen lyrics of Sara Bareilles’ song “Sweet As Whole,” performed last, garnered another huge storm of claps and laughs from the audience.
A cappella at Amherst has a long history, which is exemplified by its designation as the “Singing College.” For example, DQ, a small group of male singers, was formed in 1927. Though the group disbanded in 1966, 19 years later it rose from the ashes, this time inclusive of both women and men. Though the history of DQ spans nearly a century, the all-male Zumbyes claim the title of the college’s oldest continuously running a cappella group. “We have traditions that go back to the 1950s,” said member Samuel Korntner ‘17.
It has also formed an invaluable support system and community for its members. Between endless practices, cross-country tours, and the grueling process of producing albums, these a cappella groups have become some of the most tight-knit institutions on campus.
“I love it,” said Noel Grisanti ‘17, a member of the Sabrinas. “A cappella is such a great way to get oriented [to the school].”
“My best friends are in the Zumbyes,” said Stuart McKenzie ‘16. “We’re all very much a big part of each other’s lives … It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Being a Zumbye comes first.”
The chemistry and friendship in each of the a cappella groups, as well as their tremendous talent and hard work, were evident in the way they harmonized and supported each other’s beats and melodies throughout the opening showcase. By the time the show was over, the audience was full of nothing but smiles and the feeling that, for a moment, we had all been allowed to see and become part of something very special. As an entering first-year, I feel fortunate to know that I have four more years of a cappella concerts to attend. To quote a performace from the Zumbyes: when you listen to Amherst’s a cappella, “you better be ready/to rock steady.”