This weekend’s Los Angeles A Cappella Festival builds community around the human voice

By Bliss Bowen

Teen a cappella band Vocalight is on a hot streak

The mainstream success of Texas vocal group Pentatonix, NBC’s “The Sing-Off,” Bravo’s unscripted “Sing It On” and the three “Pitch Perfect” movies has thrust a cappella performance into the spotlight. But with musicians continually challenged to find venues hospitable to live music, and audiences conditioned to expect highly produced sounds, what has driven that success?

“People are conditioned to recorded music being so produced,” agrees Tom Keyes, executive producer of this weekend’s Los Angeles A Cappella Festival. “When they’re able to hear a stage full of voices, all of which are probably excellent singers technically just within their own right, performing at such a high level, I think that’s unexpected and also pleasant to realize that there are still great singers out there.

“With live music, you’ve got that energy exchange between the group and the audience. When you have singers, there’s no instrument in front of them; it’s just them. So I think it’s even more personal than instrumental music in that regard. A very human connection.”

Produced by the nonprofit Contemporary A Cappella Society (casa.org), the festival initially launched in 2009 as UCLA Bruin Harmony’s Los Angeles A Cappella Festival, and then, after the Bruins reached out for assistance, was officially taken over by CASA in 2011. Taken as a whole, the festival presents a multigenerational and stylistically varied view of a cappella, although beatboxing defines contemporary a cappella more than traditional doo-wop sounds.

“It’s primarily beatboxing,” Keyes acknowledges. “We are not exclusive to groups that use a rhythm section, so to speak, but that tends to be what we attract. We’ve had limited success with barbershop groups and classes, but the barbershop harmony society has their own thing, and it’s well-established; they’ve been around for over 100 years. Everything now tends to be vocal jazz-influenced, so even with pop a cappella covers, the arranger works in a little vocal jazz.”

Friday’s scholastic competition may offer a peek at a cappella’s evolution when three high school-age and three collegiate groups vie for “bragging rights” rather than cash prizes: Bare Rhythm (from Calabasas High School, women), Legacy A Cappella (Los Angeles-area high schools), Resonance (UCLA), Uniting Voices) (UC Irvine), Unstrumental (Calabasas High School, co-ed), and Voicebox (University of Central Florida). Keyes says that lineup was selected and winnowed down by a panel of judges from videos submitted by 10 to 12 groups. Young Sweet Adelines quartet LoveNotes (lovenotesqt.com) will emcee, providing a contrast to the pop and R&B styles of other groups onstage.

Saturday night’s professional show, which will be live-streamed by FloVoice, will be a splashier event featuring Colorado’s FACE Vocal Band (facevocalband.com) — a highly polished dad-rocker group that Keyes says he’s wanted to bring to LAAF for years — and sleek Ohio up-and-comers Vocalight (vocalight.com), whose dynamic cover of Andra Day’s “Rise Up” has racked up more than 38,000 views on YouTube since September.

“They’re kind of hot right now,” Keyes says of Vocalight. “It’s going to be a high-energy show. If anyone out there is a fan of Straight No Chaser or Pentatonix, they’re going to love FACE, and I think Vocalight are really going to surprise. They’re every bit as talented and entertaining as a group that’s been around for a couple of decades. Unintentionally, it’s a showcase for the old and the new.”

Performances will be complemented Saturday and Sunday by master classes with various artists as well as daytime classes addressing a broad range of concerns for a cappella artists: arranging, burlesque, chord balancing, diversity and gender (addressing the “age-old debate” concerning all-male vs. all-female vs. mixed a cappella groups), live sound, marketing, poetry, rehearsal techniques, songwriting, video making, vocal percussion, and whole-body singing.

While audiences may get caught up in the thrill of cheering for onstage favorites, Keyes says that a cappella fosters community: “A cappella’s not about competition; it’s about working together.”

And while it’s currently enjoying a “moment” thanks to mainstream TV and film exposure, how long its popularity will last is anyone’s guess.

“We’re expecting at some point our 15 minutes are gonna be up,” Keyes jokes. “Then we’ll go back to being the nerds on campus.”


The Los Angeles A Cappella Festival takes place Friday through Sunday (Feb. 9, 10 and 11) at El Segundo High School, 640 Main St., El Segundo. Tickets are $30 to $70. Call (714) 519-6222 or visit la-af.com for show times.

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