When it comes to a cappella (literally “in the manner of the church/chapel” but meaning “unaccompanied by instruments” in the modern sense) singing especially of the “barbershop” style of music, the Americans are hard to beat. The tradition of the Whiffenpoofs of Yale, where senior male students sing together for a year, is almost as old as the quintessentially American art form of barbershop music itself.
We got a sizzling slice of barbershop heaven from the Whiffenpoofs of Yale 2014 at Calangute last Friday. Their restless energy was palpable as they bounded into the room and onto the stage singing two folk songs, one Czech (“Aj Lučka, Lučka Široká”), and the other Swedish (“Helan Går”). The medley has apparently been a tradition in the group for many years. Eastern Europe in particular has a rich treasure trove of repertoire for male voice choirs.
The Whiffenpoofs then sang a whole potpourri, from the barbershop, traditional folk, gospel and the popular repertoire: “I’ll be Seeing You” (Fain/Kahal, arr. Beck 1991); “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” (Elton John/John Bernie Taupin, arr. Goldsmith 2014); “The Boxer” (Paul Simon, arr. Mulligan 2011); the Manhattan Transfer classic “Operator” (Spivery, arr. Ishiguri 2010); Too Darn Hot (Cole Porter, arr. Priestley 1977); the American indie folk band Bon Iver’s signature song “Skinny Love” (Vernon, arr. Lloyd 2012); the traditional Irish song “Down by the Salley Gardens (arr. Kelley 1986); the evergreen gospel hymn “When the Saints Go Marching In” (arr. Lieblich/Ishiguri 2010); ending with their own anthem “the Whiffenpoof Song” (Rudyard Kipling/Galloway/Minnegerode/Pomeroy/2010), and encoring with “Just Haven’t Met You Yet” (Michael Bublé, Chang, Foster-Gilles, arr. Mulligan/Ishiguri 2010).
The Whiffenpoofs embodied the very essence of barbershop singing, singing a 40-minute programme from memory, skillfully negotiating the complex harmonies of jazz chord progressions, with spot-on collective intonation with seeming ease, ebbing and swelling at the behest of their leader at the left of their semi-circle, but keeping their irrepressible sense of humour through it all. The only time the intonation seemed to slip just a little was during “Salley Gardens”.
It is difficult to single out particular songs for mention, as all of them were so polished. Their programme fittingly included a work by the great composer/songwriter Cole Porter (1891-1964) who was himself one of the earliest Whiffenpoofs. The Whiffenpoof experience quite possibly contributed to influencing his life path and his style and genre of composition. In that sense, the Whiffenpoofs have through him a music legacy far beyond the ensemble.
The Whiffenpoof Song is also the stuff of legend, with its chorus derived from Kipling’s poem “Gentlemen Rankers” and has been covered by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Perry Como and Elvis Presley.
It was instructive just to watch how the Whiffenpoofs wove their magic web. The visual element adds so much to the experience, the overall “razzmatazz”. They were in their tuxedo “penguin suits” down to their “jazz hands” white gloves, which they would have to take off if the song demanded clapping of hands or the snapping of fingers. It all happened with practised slickness and interspersed with glib comedy routines.
They’ve probably said and acted out their punny lines to different audiences a thousand times, but they still manage to make it all seem spontaneous and fresh. A particularly nice touch was the holding aloft of their spectacles by two Whiffenpoofs as the ensemble sang the line “glasses raised on high” in the Whiffenpoof Song.
Goa was the twenty-second pit stop and India the eighteenth country on their punishing 30-country world tour spanning three months. It can’t be easy, having to sing almost daily in a different venue in another part of the world, with virtually no off-days. They have no substitutes in the entourage. All fourteen are on every night. Perhaps “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” also ought to feature in their programme. It would be apt.
The group is everything a university choir ought to be, comprised entirely of its students, with new dynamism injected into it each year by each successive senior batch. Despite their busy and diverse academic schedules, they are able to find the time to meet regularly round the year to make music of the highest calibre.
I was told by one of the singers, Ben Lewis, that each batch of Whiffenpoofs handpicks the next batch. The fourteen members of the Yale Whiffenpoofs 2015, including their leader, have already been anointed.
The evening ended all too quickly, perhaps because the Whiffenpoofs had a repeat show in the same venue exactly an hour after the first. But even with two back-to-back shows, they must have sung at the very most to a total audience of a hundred and twenty. A class act like this really ought to have been staged in a bigger venue, where it would have been more accessible and at more affordable rates. The high ticket prices kept at bay many music lovers, which is a crying shame.
That said, and to paraphrase a line from the Whiffenpoof Song, “the magic of their singing cast its spell”. I was happy to be among the bewitched few.
(An edited version of this article was published in the Navhind Times Goa India on 22 July 2014)