America’s oldest musical choir regales with classics

July 4th, 2008 - 10:59 am ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, July 4 (IANS) What happens when a Yale man meets a roomful of cheering Indians on the eve of American Independence Day? They make music, sip Coke, dig into pizzas with a slice of American scholastic heritage. The Whiffenpoofs, America’s oldest all-male cappella band of the Yale University, bowled over a select group of listeners with their repertoire of classic numbers at the American Centre here Thursday evening to celebrate the 232nd anniversary of American independence.

As part of the US Independence Day bouquet, India and US also inked a fresh Fulbright Scholarship pact doubling the number of scholars and support.

Cappella refers to choral music sung without instruments. Founded in 1910, the free-wheeling band upholds one of the most celebrated musical traditions of Yale, where music is a way of life. It has 13 choirs at the sophomore and senior levels. The choir was brought to India by the American Embassy.

The 14-member band comprises mostly students of humanities, politics and arts in their final year and graduates, barely a year out of the university. Dressed in traditional long black coats with calf-length tails, satin lapels, white cravat, starched white dress shirts with pleated bellies and white gloves, the band, for an uninitiated and curious Indian audience, brought back a whiff of pre-war America. It represented early 20th century with its culture of “gentlemanly bonding” at the great seats of learning - Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Stanford.

The songs, which have altered a little over the years to include some new scores, were mostly a mix of old American folk melodies, popular university ditties, classic rhythm and blues numbers from the beginning of the last century, old jazz and Irish ballads.

The Whiffenpoofs stood in a semi-circle and sang mostly in old-fashioned harmony using their voices and finger-taps as rhythm beats. The concert was interspersed with wisecracks and jokes about the fabled rivalry between Yale and its high-brow adversary, the Harvard University.

The recital included old favourites like the “Down by the salley gardens”, “Gentlemen rankers”, “Steppin’ out with my baby”, “Bye, bye blackbird”, “Between the devil and the deep blue sea”, “The Whiffenpoof song” and new compositions like the “Midnight train to Georgia” and “I have been everywhere”.

The songs were simple melodies about everyday life of college gentlemen-of the pubs, the beers, girls and contemporary global issues. For instance, “Gentlemen rankers”, one of the Whiffenpoof’s early compositions talks about the “godforsaken troops in her majesty, the empress of England’s service during the world war in the colonies”.

The “Whiff” lyrics are laden with underlying humour - like spoofs on the themes they are based on. The Whiffenpoof has just come out with its new album, “We meet again tonight”, the earlier being the “Song of Yale”.

According to troupe member Michael John Murray from Wisconsin, a major in East Asian Studies, the Whiffenpoofs go round the world once every summer to sing their songs. This year, the group is on an Asian odyssey of India, Nepal, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Japan and China - and later to Egypt.

“What binds the 14 of us in Whiffenpoof is our passion for music. I personally love classic rock’n’ roll of the sixties and seventies,” Murray said. The aspiring diplomat, who would love to work in any of the east Asian countries later, says his tenure with the band is for a year. “I joined Whiffenpoof last year.”

“Whiffenpoof” Adam Johnston calls himself the rookie of the group, though he is credited with a “passable baritone”. “I have been into music for the last two-and-a-half years and intend to hang on it for sometime,” says the thick-set youth.

Johnston loves to travel, listen to music, sing and teach. “But I wouldn’t like to do that for ever,” he says.

Getting a berth in Whiffenpoof is a feat for Yale men. “Only 14 out of 35 contenders are selected after a rigorous audition. But all Whiff aspirants have to be attached to a choir in the freshman year to qualify as a wannabe,” Murray said.

Whiffenpoof, according to its members, is the “toughest and stuffiest” musical platform in Yale, where “life in itself is tough when compared to the airy Harvard University”, as a popular classroom snipe proclaims.

Whiffenpoof is also associated with causes. This year, it is promoting children’s education and plans to donate proceeds from its world concerts to educate poor kids.

History cites that the Whiffs, as it is popularly known, began as a university quartet in 1909 that met for weekly concerts at Mory’s Temple Bar, the famous Yale tavern.

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