BY LAURA RICHARDSON
Florida Weekly Correspondent
Thanks to movies like “Pitch Perfect” and TV shows like Fox’s “The Sing-Off,” a cappella music, once just a hobby for music-loving nerds with too much time on their hands, is cooler than ever. But way before Anna Kendrick ever picked up a red Solo cup and even before college a cappella groups started recording epic mash-ups of Top 40 pop songs, the barbershop tradition had the four-part harmony game on lock. As early as the 1800s, American barbershop groups (in the form we recognize today) started to arrange classic songs for vocal performance — without the crutch of background music to bolster their sound. But it wasn’t until the spring of 1938, when the Barbershop Harmony Society’s first meeting took place at the Tulsa Club, that the barbershop sound was defined and standardized and a true genre was created.
According to the Barbershop Harmony Society (whose members number in the tens of thousands across the world), “Barbershop harmony is a style of unaccompanied vocal music characterized by consonant four-part chords for every melody note in a predominantly homophonic (the same word sounds at the same time) texture. The melody is consistently sung by the lead (second tenor), with the tenor (first tenor) harmonizing above the melody, the bass singing the lowest harmonizing notes, and the baritone completing the chord.”
All that to say that barbershop harmonies are tighter than your Great Aunt Bernice’s yoga pants after Thanksgiving dinner. Not only must barbershop singers have beautiful voices, they must also be able to blend with their ensemble to create a full, expansive sound. Toss in striped jackets, straw hats and oversized mustaches and you’ve got a bona fide sonic phenomenon on your hands. (OK, the outfits are optional, but they are pretty darn cute.)
And this Saturday, Key West is hosting its very own barbershop music festival. Largely a result of the efforts of Joe Tripp, a lieutenant in the Key West Police Department and all-around good guy who also happens to have an affinity for synchronized singing, the Key West Barbershop Music Fest takes place at 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Duval Street.
Headlining the fest are The Miamians, a euphonious South Florida outfit dedicated to the promotion, performance and perpetuation of a cappella four-part barbershop harmony music.
Founded in 1948, The Miamians are the official chorus of the Miami Chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society. By 1951, the Miami chapter was the second largest in the country and in 1965, the Miamians Chorus won the gold medal at the International Championships in Boston. In 2013, the Miamians merged with the Broward-based Sunshine Chordsmen, creating the region’s largest barbershop performing ensemble, now serving South Florida from Palm Beach County to the Florida Keys.
“About four or five years ago, I was working on Duval Street during Fantasy Fest and I heard the sound of barbershop in the distance,” Joe begins. “I had been involved in barbershop singing in Tampa before I moved to Key West, so I followed my ears. I had to find these guys! It turned out that it was an ensemble from Fort Lauderdale called The Beetlejuicers. They were all dressed up in matching Beetlejuice outfits and everything. I asked them to sing a song with me, so we sang together and I’ve seen them down here during Fantasy Fest every year since.”
The Miamians are donating the proceeds of Saturday’s concert to two local charities that have a massive impact on the Florida Keys’ neediest residents — the Sister Season Fund and Star of the Sea Outreach.
“When The Miamians decided they wanted to put on an event here, I was a good contact to help them decide which charities to donate to,” Joe says. “I haven’t done any barbershop singing myself since I lived in Tampa. There isn’t any here, so I think this will be a real treat for Key West residents. And who knows? I may even pop on stage for a song or two.”
Though the Barbershop Harmony Society was created to preserve the music of the age, barbershop choruses of today aren’t limited to American standards and songs that are older than your grandma’s dusty rotary phone. We can’t promise anything, but Saturday night’s show could hold tunes from artists as diverse as Sam Cooke and Wham.
“All the songs used in competition used to have to be old songs,” Joe says. “All that has changed. Although arrangements still have to meet barbershop standards in their chord structure, you can hear modern songs in competition. Groups have also seen a lot more younger people coming in, possibly because of different music being sung.”
I don’t know about you, but my fingers are crossed for a barbershop version of “Despacito.”
Tickets to the show run $30 and can be purchased at the door. And if you’re rabid for all the a cappella your ears can handle (and down to do a little stalking), you could be in luck.
“Keep your eyes out and ears open on Friday and Saturday,” Joe hints. “Some of The Miamians may divide up and walk around in small groups for impromptu pop-up concerts along Duval Street.
“And you didn’t hear it from me, but they might even end up on a Conch Train on Saturday afternoon.” ¦