For the last 20 years, the growth of Jewish a cappella groups on college campuses across North America has been overwhelming, very similar to the virtual explosion of klezmer bands one or two decades earlier.
In the '60s, large collegiate- and community-based Jewish choirs were the dominant form of Jewish vocal musical expression. Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the smaller and more versatile a cappella groups began forming at Hillel houses across the United States and Canada.
"A cappella" is an Italian musical term meaning "without accompaniment." Famous male a cappella groups have existed on campuses for a long time, including the Whiffenpoofs at Yale University, established in 1909, and the Notes and Keys and the Kingsmen at Columbia University (my alma mater). These groups demand flexible and beautiful voices, superb intonation and endless rehearsal hours.
The Jewish a cappella groups are much more recent. They are co-ed, and their repertoires are drawn from classical Jewish sources and pop traditions.
The sounds coming from the singers in these ensembles are not just beautifully shaped vowels. A cappella group members frequently imitate percussion and bass sounds with their mouths and hands. On recordings and at live concerts, it is often impossible to differentiate the "dumm, tssst" vocal effects from real instrumental sounds.
Live From Israel …
Magevet — the Jewish, Hebrew and Israeli a cappella group from Yale University, founded in 1993 — will be returning to Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim in Wynnewood on Shabbat evening, Feb. 29, and will also sing later that week at Temple Shalom of Broomall and Adath Israel in Merion Station. The concerts are sponsored jointly by the Main Line Reform Temple and the Kehillah of Lower Merion.
At their Friday-night gathering, they will participate in Shabbat dinner together with high school students from the synagogue and the surrounding community.
"They [students] will have an opportunity to learn how you can be both a collegian and a committed Jew on the college campus today," said Cantor Marshall Portnoy of Main Line Reform Temple.
Magevet will participate in Shabbat evening services, singing a few of their original compositions to liturgical texts. At the extended Oneg Shabbat to follow, Magevet will present its set of Israeli, American and pop-based original songs, interspersed with comedy routines and creative narrations.
I listened to a few audio clips on the group's Web site and was impressed by the singers' meticulous intonation, energy and infectious good cheer, served up with "dumm, chik, dumm dumm, chik, tssst, tssst, tssst, tssst … "