[The music in this podcast is titled “Aced It” by Ketsa. It is licensed for use under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.]

Jade Thomas: Welcome to downtime, the podcast where Northwestern students discuss their hobbies, passions, and other cool things they do in their free time. I’m your host, Jade Thomas.

Most people know about a cappella because of cultural touchstones like Pitch Perfect and Pentatonix. Northwestern students, however, know about a cappella because in a way, they are a cappella. There are a total of fourteen a cappella groups on campus. You’d think that with so many groups it’d be hard to thrive and survive amid all of the noise.

But it’s not just noise. The sound of Northwestern a cappella is made from carefully-laid rhythms, staggering harmonies and close-knit friendships. In today’s episode you’ll hear from members of two different a capella groups. You’ll hear about the courage it takes to try something new, blends and deceptive chords. You’ll learn that the human voice is an instrument and that coming together can create the world’s greatest orchestra.

Thomas: Communications first-year and Soul4Real member, Seun Ayeni says she’s been interested in music ever since she was younger, so much so that it used to make her emotional.

Seun Ayeni: I started singing in church when I was really little, I want to say, 5 years old. Yeah, for me, it was just something that I was naturally interested in. There’s a whole little story about how, when the children’s choir used to come up, I would start crying. I’d be like, “Mom, I want to join!” And at the time, my mom was already like, taking my older sisters to church for other stuff. But like, I mean, when I cry, I mean, it struck something in her heart, I guess. And so, she started taking me and that's how I started.

Thomas: Weinberg third-year Sarika Rao, says like Seun, she always wanted to pursue singing, but it wasn’t until she got to Northwestern – and encountered Brown Sugar – that her dreams could come to fruition.

Sarika Rao: I grew up playing classical piano since I was like, 5 or so years old. And I did it up until my senior year of high school. As for singing, I kind of went through phases where I really wanted to be good at singing. I actually auditioned for a cappella in high school, didn’t get in. And it wasn't anything I was planning on doing but I got here and Wildcat Welcome, actually, my PA was in an a cappella group, which I thought was really cool. And I went to Aca-fest like the performance during Wildcat welcome, like for all the new freshmen. I thought it was so cool. So I ended up auditioning just on a whim because of that, and I ended up making it then and so now it’s a part of what I do just randomly.

Thomas: Medill first-year and Brown Sugar member Pavan Acharya and Seun say that it’s not just the musicality that drew them to their respective groups, but culture as well.

Pavan Acharya: Also, the culture, it’s a South Asian-oriented group, which was also very appealing to me as well. Being a part of the group has definitely helped me be more in touch with my South Asian roots as a young, South Asian person at Northwestern. So definitely the community was a very important aspect. And it’s been great, getting to learn many different arrangements that draw from Western styles and from South Asian styles as well.

Ayeni: Oh, I guess for me, Soul4Real also connects to a part of my identity as a Black woman. Of course, Soul4Real is welcome to people from all different backgrounds, but from our very first rehearsal, they, they made the note, they made it note that Soul4Real is Northwestern’s premier Black a cappella group, and when it comes to the issues going on in the world, that’s the experiences we’re going to center, and so that is something I don’t think you'll find in any other group.

Thomas: While members of a cappella groups like Brown Sugar and Soul4Real find harmony in shared experience and background, SESP fourth-year and Soul4Real member Glory Aliu says singers simultaneously have to navigate the diversity of that collective sound.

Glory Aliu: I mean, technically, when you are singing with an accompaniment, you’re supposed to be kind of vibing with the other parts of the performance, but I feel like there’s definitely like this major focus on just doing your part and just kind of like contributing your part. Whereas when you’re in a cappella, there’s just this – you need to actively, like be blending with the people within your own part, but also understanding balance with the other people that you’re singing. Because it’s not something you’re doing on your own, it’s something you’re doing together with other people.

Thomas: Sarika was previously the music director for Brown Sugar. Music directors deal with sorting out arrangements and polishing blend. The twenty-year-old says that part of having a successful performance is meeting one another halfway.

Rao: It’s not just like yourself and an instrument that will never go out of tune or not never. But you know what I mean? Like in like a piano, assuming it’s correctly tuned is going to be correct. But when you're singing with like, in my case, 18 other singers, all of whom have like a little bit of human error. And like, none of us are perfect. And it’s a lot of, just being in sync with one another and understanding, like listening really carefully.

Ayeni: In school my teachers used to always be like, your voice is an instrument; teach it, treat it like an instrument, and I used to be like, okay, yeah, whatever. But in a cappella, your voice is truly your only instrument. So you get to add in elements of like, beatboxing elements of like, making sounds that you would hear in the background of a song that you didn’t really think too much of that are again, so prominent in a cappella it really brings those to light.

Thomas: It’s interesting how dozens of different voices can come together to create one unifying sound, and through that sound, amplify elements that might remain unheard. Yet, no performance will sound completely whole. But isn’t it during those moments of incongruity, of silence, clash and when the blend just didn’t make it that the music finally fills us completely?

Weinberg second-year Rakin Hussain is one of the current music directors for Brown Sugar. During the 2022 winter quarter, Brown Sugar performed a medley, arranged by an alum, from the film “Baahubali,” which was popularized in Hindi, but originally produced in Telugu. Rakin says after practicing the piece separately, Brown Sugar members came together to rehearse it for the first time. The result? Magic.

Hussain: There were a lot of Sanskrit-based elements, which is like the sacred language of Hinduism. And so it was a very, like, cultural song. And it was not at all like the type of music we had been singing in the past, which was more like pop and fun. And because of that, when we finally put it together, I was like, “Yeah, this is exactly why I’m here.”

The way that this chord works is, it’s called deceptive because you think that there’s going to be more –

(Winter 2022 Brown Sugar Baahubali Medley ending)

Hussain: –  but there isn’t. And so it ends on this deceptive chord. And you could hear it like when we were singing that it just kind of resonated throughout like the chapel. And it was so beautiful and it was like the culmination of everything we had been working on, for the whole like quarter, the past two quarters.

Thomas: Though the chords may be deceptive, Rakin says that the love is real.

Hussain: I think there’s so much more to an a cappella group than meets the eye. It’s more than just the music that they make and more than just the performances that they put on because behind that, like there’s so many, great opportunities to make lasting friendships and relationships, which I definitely believe that I had made.

Thomas: Rakin is right – extracurriculars are good, but they’re even better when you share them with incredible people. Thank you so much to Seun, Sarika, Pavan, Glory, and Rakin for sharing your experiences with a cappella. And of course, thank you all for listening and please let me know how you spend your downtime. For NBN Audio, I’m Jade Thomas.