Sunday, August 30, 2009

Ambassadors of joy

We get so jaded these days. At every turn we’re disappointed and hardened by opportunists and mountebanks, rat bastards and fools of every shape and kind. It’s gotten easy, too easy, to adopt cynicism as a kind of baseline reaction to everything; people are “suspected murderers” instead of “murder suspects,” guilty until proven innocent. It’s a sour world, and the gray clouds never seem to lift.

But they do lift, more often than maybe we think. They lifted on July 3, when the Ambassadors of Harmony, a 160-member men's barbershop chorus based in St. Charles, Mo., sang at the 71st annual Barbershop Harmony Society's convention in Anaheim, Calif., and blew the roof off the joint in a rousing vocal and musical performance that flirted with nothing less than Perfection. The Ambassadors won the gold in the chorus division.

The award-winning group belongs to SPEBSQSA, the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Singing in America. But don’t be confused by the quaint, spats-and-corsets label of “barbershop singing.” This isn’t your grandfather’s barbershop sing, with men in straw boaters and striped vests crooning “Sweet Adeline.” This is barbershop on steroids.

The group won the competition almost two months ago, and somehow it escaped our attention all this time (credit Robert J. Eilsberg, a columnist and screenwriter, for writing movingly about the performance on Friday in The Huffington Post). The group’s performance was contrary to the times we live in, all big and gooey and sentimental and Harking Back to an Earlier Time. And guess what? It works, maybe more now than at any other time.

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First, there’s the performance itself, a physical act that deserves exploration.

Put simply, singing can be hard work. The righteous positional marriage of the diaphragm, the lungs, the palate, the teeth and the mouth is a tricky one, and any partner in that marriage can file for divorce at any moment. And singing is difficult enough when you’re standing still, with a sturdy center of gravity.

Watch the video. You’re witnessing a special kind of singing taking place. Everyone on that stage is in constant motion, from virtually the first moment to the last, and there’s not a note, not a phrase out of place.

Another thing: This isn’t a rock & roll extravaganza. This isn’t a hip-hop battle, with everyone on stage brandishing a live mike, throwing his voice to the cheap seats.

The Ambassadors of Harmony, all of them, share one strategically placed stage microphone, but that’s it. That’s all. That sound you hear ringing against the rafters is amplified mostly by the machinery of the human voice impressively displayed by humans singing, paradoxically, in one voice.

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Then there's the song that clinched the win. “76 Trombones,” the timeless showstopper from Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man,” is not an easy tune to sing. Its phrasing, its measured but relentless lyric multisyllabic style are nothing for the lazy, complacent vocalist to try. But the wondrous simplicity of its message — witnessing an American parade by the light of a dazzling morning sun — is its own reward with the right people to sing it.

And the Ambassadors of Harmony were the right people to sing it last month. They brought their A game. You can see it. You can hear it. Even through the distancing of a YouTube video … you can feel it.

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We get so jaded these days, so inured to the world around us. We think we know everything.

But sometimes, we encounter those moments that trump our smug attitudes, breach the walls of our cynicism, demolish snark and irony, and send us into the streets, shivering and in tears of joy unconfined, shouting “you gotta see this!” … marveling at just how good human beings can truly be.

This is one of those moments.

Image credit: Ambassadors of Harmony: From their Web site.

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