The simplicity of a cappella— singing without instrumental accompaniment—is in the midst of a revival, spurred on in part by reality shows that celebrate unadorned vocals. And the added attention has helped inject energy into an unlikely candidate: the traditional unaccompanied harmonies of barbershop.
“With shows like Glee and The Voice, the focus is that singing is cool,” said Steve Armstrong, musical director of Toronto Northern Lights chorus. “Shows like the Sing Off, which is a cappella, has been great to develop interest in barbershop.”
Barbershop quartets originated in the late 19th century, when African American men socialized in barbershops and began to sing folk songs and spiritual hymns in four-part harmony. The style was adopted between 1900 and 1919 by minstrel singers, who recorded their performances and sold them. The musical tradition’s four-part harmony is still commonly associated with striped suits, mustaches and boater hats, but proponents say the modern form is nothing like that sung in the early 1900s.
“It’s an unknown entity to a lot of people,” explains Erin Howden, associate director and choreographer to North Metro chorus. “People’s perception comes from years ago with four guys standing around a barber pole singing ‘Down by the Old Mill Stream,’ but the foundation of the art form has expanded in ways that allow younger generations to enjoy the music as well.”
These groups of men and women have adapted the classic nature of barbershop to make it more appealing to younger generations. Along with old-fashioned barbershop songs, they add their own twists to jazz, soul, Broadway, rock, and pop. Some groups sing Elvis or the Beatles, while others work on mash-ups of top 40 hits. Comedy is often encouraged.
What often attracts people to the genre is its rich, full sound. When four parts work in perfect harmony, the chords are meant to ring, and in some instances can create an overtone, a fifth note that exists when chords are locked together. This type of sound is rare among other types of music. “I started barbershop in 1967,” said Judy Comeau, musical director of A Cappella Showcase. “The first note they sang, I knew my life had changed.”
The barbershop community in Toronto and the surrounding regions of Hamilton, Oakville, Mississauga, Newmarket, Barrie, and Milton are known worldwide as a centre for a cappella in Canada. Some attribute it to the sheer size of the Ontario’s population, but others credit the active arts scene and the fierce competition that exists among musicians there. “People know of Toronto around the world and identify it as a hub for barbershop,” says Howden. “So much so that our region, which is the largest and includes Toronto, the GTA, and upper New York State, has grown to be the largest region in the world.”
In the last two years, three Canadian choruses have won titles in different international competitions. Earlier this month, the Toronto Northern Lights chorus beat out 29 other groups to claim a gold medal in the Barbershop Harmony Society International Convention, having outdone 202 other would-be competitors in the qualifying contests. It was the first time a Canadian chorus had won internationally since 1980. “It was and still is surreal,” says Armstrong. “After years and years and years of striving for this, we were stunned.”
North Metro chorus is no stranger to the international stage. Founded in 1967, it was the first Canadian women’s chorus to win internationally in 1995. The chorus, made up of 164 women ranging in age from 21 to 89, won their fourth international championships last year.
A Cappella Showcase has won internationally twice, most recently in 2012. The chorus from Milton, Ont. was even invited by the Russian Ministry of Culture to come overseas and perform, and participated in the World Choir Games in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Both the men and women’s organizations produce high-quality coaches and musical arrangers who travel the world teaching and educating others. All of this has helped build a reputation for Canada’s barbershop scene internationally.
“Other countries have come to know our chorus and what we stand for, not just excellence in singing but how we are as competitors and how we are as people,” says Jacqui Baron, a member of North Metro chorus.