Chinese a cappella hits the right note

It’s a typical weekend night in the purple bubble, and one has the option of either doing homework or donning heels and trekking through the sleet to find a “good” party.

The fledgling Chinese a cappella group performed at CASO’s spring festival dinner to very enthusiastic audience. The student group also performed at the International Club’s talent show. (Photo courtesy of Roxy Wang)

However, students involved in the Chinese American Student Organization (CASO) figured out a far more interesting alternative: hanging out together in Bronfman, or any room with a projector, and belting along with their favorite tunes karaoke style. Karaoke night is so popular that CASO schedules the event at least once a month for its members and any interested students. Two CASO members, Lucky Zhang ’14 and Roxy Wang ’14, have recently taken Chinese pop music to a whole new level by founding a Chinese a cappella group for the College.

The fledgling group, which was created at the beginning of January, does not yet have a name, but does boast nine proud members, including Adam Century ’12, Mai Okimoto ’13, Shirl Yang ’13, Wen Han ’13, Cecilia Ho ’13, Jared Hallet ’14, Heidi Chen ’14, Frank Zheng ’14 and Kai Wang ’15. “I was inspired to start the group after I saw the UPenn Chinese a cappella group perform,” said Zhang, who lived in Nanjing, China, until he arrived at the College. “It’s called Pengyou, which means ‘friends.’ It’s the biggest Chinese a cappella group – it’s huge on YouTube – and when I saw a performance I thought it was so cool,” he said.

Further inspiration came from Williams alum and Taiwanese pop music phenomenon Leehom Wang ’98. “He used to be a Springstreeter at Williams, and he came back to a Streeter concert a few years ago,” said Roxy Wang, who is from Nanjing. “I think [President] Falk went to one of Leehom’s concerts last summer, actually. His Williams reunion is coming up soon, so he should be coming back to campus in a few years. Not that I know everything about him … Our a cappella group is kind of a little fan club,” she admitted.

Finding songs to perform is a challenge the group faces, as a cappella groups do not exist in China. “All the a cappella groups on campus can pull songs that have been formatted for a cappella,” said Han, who plays the violin. “We have to format the songs ourselves, dividing them into six parts. We do have some members who are taking music theory, and might compose some songs for us.”

So far, the group has performed Leehom Wang’s “Kiss Goodbye” at the CASO spring festival dinner and the International Club’s “Spectacular Spectacular” talent show. Both performances were incredibly successful: A few Williamstown residents even brought their children to watch the spring festival dinner performance, and the performance has also made its way onto Facebook.

Like the other established a cappella groups on campus, getting into this group is not as easy as “A, B, C.” The group held auditions for a few new members last Sunday. “We are a quasi-selective group, because our members have to be able to pronounce the Chinese lyrics,” Roxy Wang said. “We hope to admit a few new people each year, like other a cappella groups on campus.” Thus, the applicant pool is narrowed down from the start to students who either already speak Chinese or who are studying the language at the College. “We’re looking for people who not only have musical talent [but] who are [also] committed,” Roxy Wang said.

She went on to point out that one of the important qualities of this group is that it brings students together through Chinese music and also attracts other students’ attention to Chinese culture. “Chinese music is a very important part of our culture,” Roxy Wang said. “As a Chinese student, I miss the music of my country – the way we want to sing it and the emotion we put in.”

Another Chinese organization that brings unity across campus is Panda, a Chinese literary publication that Zhang and Roxy Wang publish every semester. “The publication is founded on the same ideas as the a cappella group,” Roxy Wang said. “It’s about spreading awareness about Chinese culture.” The publication consists of student photographs and written submissions that are relevant to Chinese culture.

According to Zheng, who both a member of the a cappella group and co-chair of CASO, karaoke nights are another simple way for any student to get involved in music and culture, and not just of the Chinese variety. “We sing Chinese, Cantonese, Korean and English songs,” Zheng said. “It’s super easy. You don’t have to make the song fit different parts, and all you need is a room, microphones and a projector.”

Whether you speak some Chinese and think you have the voice to make it into the ranks of the Chinese a cappella group, or if you’re interested in listening to a different kind of a cappella music, or are just looking for something to do on a Friday night, keep your eyes open for more news about the group and its events. In honor of Asian heritage month, the group may perform on April 28 for the whole campus, and are considering inviting the UPenn a cappella group to the College to perform.

Looking ahead past the busy homework-packed months ahead, the group envisions a large-scale official debut concert next fall.