Given that collegiate a cappella groups have been around since the nineteenth century, it’s surprising that, at the University of Miami, with its renowned Frost School of Music, a cappella was only born in 2009.
That’s when UM’s all-male a cappella group, Above the Keys (ATK), was formed. Since then, UMiami Tufaan – a South Asian turned fusion a cappella group – and BisCaydence – UM’s most “traditional” co-ed a cappella group – have also taken the stage.
“We all cater to different people, and different styles of music,” said BisCaydence member Mattan Comay.
Although the a cappella scene on UM’s campus has not been as prominent as one would expect, according to Tufaan president Neil Kumar, that is beginning to change. Voices of UM emerged last year as a union of the university’s three groups, and it has helped foster a cappella on campus.
In addition, BisCaydence made UM a cappella history Saturday when it placed second at the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA) regional competition. Junior Alex Sommese of BisCaydence was also named Best Soloist out of all nine competing groups’ vocalists.
“I definitely did not expect to get that award at all,” Sommese said. “I was extremely honored and so proud of BisCaydence for what we accomplished at ICCAs.” (If you recognize that acronym, you can thank the hit film “Pitch Perfect.”)
The men and women of BisCaydence perform a range of popular music in the pop, rock and R&B genre.
“We like to do a lot of throwbacks. We also did ‘Let It Go’ before it got done to death,” Comay said.
They please audiences – and judges – with their vocal talent and creative arrangements. At the ICCA quarterfinal on Saturday, BisCaydence performed tidbits of several songs, earning the group 2nd place and sending them to regional semifinals in March.
“The judges like being surprised or when you do things that are out of the norm,” Comay said. “They like when you take an upbeat song and turn it into a ballad.”
Saturday’s out-of-the-norm set included Fall Out Boy’s “Sugar We’re Going Down” performed to a swing back.
“Since the line is ‘Sugar, we’re going down swinging,’ we decided to do a swung jazz rendition,” Comay said.
Above The Keys
For the men in Above the Keys, a cappella is more about fun than formality.
“We make sure we’re putting on a good performance, we use gimmicks, we play to the audience. That’s always how it’s been,” said junior Nate Ward, who has been in ATK since his freshman year.
ATK competed alongside BisCaydence at the ICCA regional competition in Orlando. The ATK performance formula involves starting off with a crowd-pleaser; transitioning into a slow, sensitive song; and ending on a bang with a big contemporary hit.
In the past, those big hits have included “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus and “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore.
“We don’t take it as seriously. We focus mostly on our audience,” Ward said.
At Saturday’s competition, ATK performed “Everybody” by the Backstreet Boys, John Mayer’s version of “Free Fallin’” and “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars.
ATK also performs in the community and likes to surprise people on campus, too. The group once rode the Stanford Residential College elevators and then sang to whoever walked in, according to Tufaan’s Kumar, who was also in ATK for two years.
As a fusion group, Tufaan carefully combines songs of different languages — from English and Spanish to Hindi and Tamil — whose chord progressions blend together and whose lyrics tell a cohesive story.
“The whole process of mixing two languages is all about the meaning,” Kumar said.
In the past, Tufaan has performed “Killing Me Softly” blended with an Indian song called “Tum Hi Ho” – both about an impossibly strong love.
“Their arrangements are exhilarating,” BisCaydence’s Comay said. “They use melody lines and rhythms you’re not used to.”
A little less than half of the group members are South Asian, and the rest of the members represent a diverse sampling of cultures — from Chinese to Italian. That means everyone gets to learn from each other.
“No one really understand how rewarding it is to learn about all these other cultures until you’re in Tufaan,” Kumar said.
This semester, Tufaan is aiming to make a name for itself across Florida, starting with touring the state and recording music for iTunes and Spotify. Last semester, they sang at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale and University of Florida in Gainesville.
“‘Señorita’ by Justin Timberlake is a song we’re working on now. … Hopefully we can record that and the world can hear it,” Kumar said.
A cappella expansion
All three UM a cappella groups have always had a working relationship with each other, according to Ward. However, Voices of UM has helped unify the three groups.
“For a long time, we were really separate — all doing our own things, with our own informal advisers,” Comay said.
A representative from each a cappella group sits on the Voices of UM board, and they now also have the advantage of official recognition as a student organization and the ability to apply for funding.
Voices of UM has now resulted in single concerts with all three groups — the first was held last spring — and has even sparked interest in creating a fourth group for Jewish a cappella.
Freshman Eitan Snyder, a member of ATK, is leading the effort to start up a Jewish a cappella group at UM. With the backing of UM Hillel and interest from several Jewish students in the Frost School, progress is already underway.
Jewish a cappella groups generally perform a blend of American pop music, Jewish religious music and Israeli pop music. But Snyder envisions it being a group that also caters to Miami’s unique audience.
“Since we are a group from Miami, I think we should incorporate more Spanish into the mix,” he said.
Auditions are being held Feb. 1, and Snyder’s aim is to debut the group at the final Shabbat Shalala at Hillel, an annual Friday night dinner with President Donna E. Shalala as a special guest.
After six months of being active on campus, the Jewish a cappella group will be able to apply to be a branch of Voices of UM.
“Our ultimate goal is that when my freshman friends and I graduate in three or so years, the group will be stable and strong enough to continue and become a mainstay of not only the a cappella world on campus, but also the Jewish a cappella world across the country,” Snyder said.