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music: Look No Hands

Rockapella goes beyond the predictable with original a cappella arrangements and a sense of humor.


Maybe their close harmonies came drifting from a room where kids watched the PBS-TV show "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?"

For the past decade, Rockapella has insinuated its modern a cappella styling into the background music of American life. They will bring their unique approach to purely vocal music to the fore in two concerts at the Modlin Center on Friday, Jan 17.

A second concert was necessary because of the popularity of a cappella on campuses; many colleges and high schools have several groups, some with long traditions.

"It's quite a cult, really," says the group's high tenor and principal arranger, Scott Leonard. "People want to sing because it feels good."

Rockapella started in 1989 as a street-corner spinoff of a Brown University all-male ensemble. A 1990 appearance in a PBS special called "Spike Lee & Company: Do it A Cappella," led to their five-year association with "Carmen Sandiego."

"We wrote the music and performed every day," Leonard says. "When it was over, we got a lot of offers to do kids records.

"We're songwriters and our goal was recording, but we wanted to get beyond that niche, but it was a tough sell. We were too different from what was on the radio." Using his contacts from his pre-Rockapella career in Japan, Leonard helped the group land a contract with a Japanese label, which resulted in 11 records and helped spark an ongoing craze.

"Now it's the hottest thing in Japan; it's amazing," says Leonard. "There are top-10 hits, and the number one TV show is an a cappella version of 'American Idol.'"

The Folgers commercial reintroduced them to the American audience and got them an offer from an American label. "You can't deny that kind of exposure," says a bemused Leonard. The band has six current domestic releases, including one live and two Christmas CDs.

There is something quixotic about taking on a marketplace defined by electronic production, sweetening, sampling and digital magic with nothing more than physical talent. Rockapella aren't purists — the CDs use multitracked layering to build sonic depth — but all of the sounds, including the convincing percussion, are the products of the human voice.

While most a cappella groups cover familiar material, Rockapella includes a lot of original composition. The key, according to Leonard, is the right mix of method and material. "At first we tried to shoehorn in angst-ridden rock songs; they just didn't fit. The music is lighter, cleverer, with a sense of humor. What works for us is a combination of styles, the Beatles and XTC with lots of R&B, blue-eyed soul and straight-ahead pop."

The arrangements are straightforward. "Think of them as songs," says Leonard, "vocally driven, but there might as well be instruments. There is still the bass — although it uses elements of singing — the drums and the melody lines. The backup vocals are crafted so you don't miss the rhythm guitars and pads in regular songs; they aren't just a bunch of stupid 'oohs' and 'ahhs' all the time.

"The challenge is to keep it interesting. If it isn't new and inspired, it isn't worth doing."

While Leonard credits fellow a cappella visionaries like Bobby McFerrin and The Nylons, he said the group's key inspiration is The Persuasions, an all-vocal soul group that has survived three decades on magical talent and minimal fame.

All magic is best experienced live. "The songs are right there; the voices are right there," says Leonard. "Just five guys with microphones and nothing between ourselves and the audience." S

Rockapella plays the University of Richmond's Camp Concert Hall Friday, Jan. 17, at 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Tickets cost $28 adults, $26 seniors, $22 faculty/staff, $14 children, $5 UR students. Call 289-8980.

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