Life could be an empty hollow mess if the word “yes” were never uttered. The other night I was thinking that to myself as though it were a mantra, when my wife told me about the Prague a cappella Festival. I’ve loved music since my birth, but I’ll be honest here and say that I’ve always been a bit tense when it comes to white folk scatting and doing the jazz hands. That’s the image that is somehow burnt into my mind after one traumatic incident of watching Cats when I was a child. Though to think of it, every time I’ve seen Cats, it’s been a traumatic incident. I could never watch Thundercats again after Cats ruined Cat People for me. I could never put that fire out with gasoline, I'll tell you what.
the Prague a capella festival
But I knew this would be a little different. I’m in Europe now, where cultures are allowed to mix and borrow from each other. America’s got so sensitive that we’ve even changed the language, now appreciation and imitation have new words—we call them “cultural appropriation”. But if we don’t appreciate each other’s cultures, if we don’t take the little bits of sweetness that we like—and here it doesn’t even matter if you like the whole culture, but just that part—then we’ll never get on the train of understanding each other and making it to that final destination. If you stop mixing cultures, then you get a lot of the same old thing, as most of what is new and innovative is just an interesting concoction of things done before. Straight shots are for some, but others would prefer their fru fru drinks, pineapples, umbrellas, and all.
Hardly church time
A capella literally means “in the manner of the chapel”, and was a reference to the vocal style of church music before the introduction of electric guitars, jumbo trons, and evangelical rock concerts for the Lord. It brings us to a simpler time before electricity, when armies of monks would chant across foggy creeks and four guys would sit at the barber shop and doo-wop it out in epic battles of intrinsic laryngeal control.
A long time has gone since those days, but hipsters of late have been trying to revive the barber shop and their quartets. Indeed, the first group we saw, the local group Hlasoplet, was a definite nod to this, and a reminder to me that a capella is perhaps some of the most complex music there is.
Hlasoplet belting it out
As Hlasoplet was playing, I gathered from the way the audience kept laughing that they seemed to blend a lot of humor into their act. In all, they caught the attitude pretty well and it was a nice warm up to the genre. They had a great presence on the stage as well, all with suits, well barbered facial hair, active facial expressions and no jazz hands.
Check out this video from Hlasoplet:
The group we came to see though—and apparently, as the announcer described, the headliner—was the Georgian group the Quintessence. I was a bit surprised when I saw six people on the stage, since the name would have made you think it was a quintuple and not a sextuple, but the shining white suits and dresses, and their shy youthful smiles made me quickly forget about this mathematical debacle. The name is likely a Quincy Jones shout out, but that's the best of my guess. They opened with a slightly jazzed up version of a Georgian folk song which was quite terrific. If there’s any people that have an edge on a capella music because of their folk styles, it’s certainly the Georgians.
There’s one thing I often complained about when I was living in Georgia regarding their music. Many Georgians seem to have a hard core belief in the purity of form. That either something is folk or its rock, and there is very little if not any fusion in the styles. It really leads to a disappointing modern live music culture, since it’s basically just the repetition of European and American styles, if not just straight up cover bands of Oasis and Pink Floyd. It’s the fusion that makes things interesting, and it’s what modern Georgian musical culture has really lacked, and it’s a pity since they have such a deep well of amazing musical tradition.
The Quintessence—and indeed, whoever their instructor is—are certainly on the borders in an attempt to fix this. The way they handled the Georgian folk songs, the jazz standards, and the outright fusion of the two was phenomenal, and I truly had never seen anything like it. It was no wonder that the entire audience roared with applause after every song like it was the last, and then a true standing barrage of bravos when it actually was their last song. It seemed true that nobody in the audience had ever seen such a fusion either, and the effect was something quite lasting and memorable.
This is unfortunately the best video I could find on YouTube. But still, a good example of how they arranged the jazz standard, Senor Blues, with a touch of the Caucasus:
Just for that, I was glad I tempted fate and the jazz hands to make it to the a capella festival.
But as we were leaving, there was a filler group singing on the smaller stage in the bar room. As they finished their own fusion of genres—a song mixed from “All about the bass” and “Don’t worry be happy”, they did the jazz hands. It was a good time for us to leave, as the Jellicle cats were coming out that night.
The Prague A Cappella festival wraps up tonight, Friday the 30th, at La Fabrika in Holesovice.