The World of A Cappella Music

By Welles Goodrich

In almost every corner of the world somebody is singing, right this moment. The music may be rooted in tradition. It may be a spontaneous expression evoked by natural surroundings. Perhaps it is imitating instruments heard from recording. Discovering the variety of vocal expression throughout the world is an endlessly fascinating undertaking. The beautiful, the unusual, the downright weird will keep an educated ear enthralled as continued listening expands the horizons of the listener.

Often it is children who most appreciate music from all around the world. The adult necessity to attach meaning isn't as important as the shear joyous exploration of making new sounds. It is a spirit liberating type of play. Who cares that you don't understand the words? It is the sounds which are important, which carry the spirit of the singer. That is why, I suspect, that a cappella music is so appealing. Any one who has ever hummed a tune can appreciate the songs of humanity for they have participated in making them!

Where would be a good place to start? Anywhere really, but how about going back in history to find the origins of our songs. Much of the vocal music with which we are familiar can find roots clear back in the traditions of the Jewish Cantillation, particularly the unrhythmical elements which go clear back to the original temple in Jerusalem. In historical terms this is one of the oldest living continuous a cappella traditions. There is however a type of music that is much older in spirit. The Inuit of northern Canada have a song which hearkens back to the time in history when humans were becoming different than animals and discovering the possibility of song rather than just making animal noises. Talk about roots!

Let's follow the evolution of Hebrew Cantillation. Early Christians were moved by a sense of ecstasy and expressed this personal connection to divinity, not by singing perfectly formal arrangements based on number but striving for the moment when rapture surpasses the conscious and allowing their spirits to respond to the vibration. Sister Marie Keyrouz is a scholar and singer of these ancient songs of worship which might rightfully be considered sounds of worship rather than songs. We are also fortunate to have Ester Lamandier singing the ancient songs of the "new" Christian tradition when the roots can still be directly traced to Judaism. It is good to remember these songs were from a time when Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Latin and Aramaic influences were mixing together just as all those people mixed together in cities and churches such as the Imperial Byzantine Church.

As the Christian church grew, the desire of organizers to structure and establish central authority was advanced tremendously by Pope Gregory who established schools of codified worship within which the only sanctioned the musical style was plainchant. This came to be known as Gregorian Chant and dominated the occidental musical world for centuries. In time of course the restrictiveness of such dominance chafed. Composers began to return to polyphony and the rich vocal tradition of the religious music was carried over into the secular where greater freedom awaited the creators and performers. Thus in a real sense Hebrew Cantillation is the parent of our western musical genealogy.

Another direction your a cappella fascination might find lyrical wings is in the discovery of musical varieties in a certain geographic location. It was the evolution of religious musical worship and royal sanction which caused the flourishing of a cappella composition yielding the tremendous vocal tradition found in England. The secular result of this tradition is found in the body of work of the internationally renown King's Singers and the Swingle Singers who of course began in France in the early 1960s but have now become an English institution. If we look beyond England just to the British Isles, there are Celtic traditions, Mouth Music, the music of Robert Burns whose lyrics are now chiefly recognized for their poetic cadences and on and on.

Another vast repository of vocal traditions is from the Balkans and central Europe. So many conquering peoples have come, left their traditions and departed that this is one of the richest areas of a cappella variety in the world. Most of us were first introduced to these beautiful songs by the work of Philip Koutev who brought concert hall presentation to the traditional rural music of Bulgaria and is the founder of the Bulgarian Women's Choirs, in fact and spirit for now there are numerous wonderful Women's Choirs following his lead. You will find remnants of songs which the women singers originally learned to throw their voices for miles over the plains to warn of invasion. Not only is the music beautiful but the history is fascinating.

What other a cappella odyssey might we take? How about the yodel? Obviously is Swiss yodeling where the singers learned to bounce their voices off rock walls. Then in recent years we have been introduced to the fabulous yodel style of the Pygmy women of central Africa. There is a wonderful yodel found in Georgia in the Caucasus Mountains. Or perhaps you didn't know that a flourishing school of country music yodel exists in Australia.

One of the fascinating discoveries varied vocal cultures throughout the world have made is the possibility of singing overtones. One singer will sing a primary note and the overtone at the same time. The throat singers from Tuva have brought this to our attention for their culture fosters many varieties of overtone singing. Then the question arises what is the connection between the Guyoto Monks and the Buddhist chants,with it's strong use of overtones. It is known that there was a monastery in Tuva at least as early as 1920. Did the Monks learn from the Tuvans? Who knows. We do know that the fascinating concordu, a harmonic resonance in an ancient song style found in Sardinia is curiously similar to styles found in northern Morocco and in Northern Syria as well as Tuva. Then there is David Hykes. David has been studying the use of the human voice to create vibration and harmonic resonance with The Harmonic Choir for well over twenty years in France. He has become so adept that he can have the primary voice and harmonic overtone singing entirely different melodies!

There are dynamic styles and traditions to be found everywhere. Scandinavian countries produce some of the best jazz a cappella in the world. Just think of the Real Group. From frozen Lapland, to tropical islands in the South Pacific, from South Africa to the Ainu people of Northern Japan all around the world, singers expressing the human will to harmony. And we must not overlook those who practice extended voice techniques and are constantly pushing the limits of vocalization, thereby preparing us for tomorrow by their explorations.

As I sit here on the coast of Northern California the world has been made accessible to me through a cappella music. The human voice has been turned to every variety of music which has ever existed and many exist only for the voice. Should you find yourself captivated by a fascination with the world of a cappella music, it will reward you with an introduction to all the peoples of the earth.

Welles Goodrich

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