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Barbershop strikes chord with NJ teens

Originally posted at www.northjersey.com

Barbershop harmony is as old as your father’s mustache. No, wait — your great-grandfather’s mustache.

It’s so old, in fact, that spittoons, mutton-chop whiskers, “Police Gazette” and all of the other 1890s clichés it used to evoke are barely known to 21st-century kids.

What today’s barbershop-singing teens are referencing, more likely, are those four singing busts that crooned “Down by the Old Mill Stream” to a freaked-out Eddie Murphy in the 2003 Disney film, “The Haunted Mansion.”

Yes, you heard right. Barbershop-singing teens. And they’re the cool kids.

“When people ask me ‘What is barbershop?’ I say, ‘Remember those four stone heads from the movie?’ ” says Josh Arcilla, 19, of Bergenfield, who joined the Woodland Park-based Tri-Star Chorus last year. He’s one of 30 singers, ages 12 to 24, who come from as close as Bergen and Passaic counties and as far away as Pennsylvania and Ithaca, N.Y.

“I get high off the chords,” says Arcilla, now a Montclair State University student. “It feels good.”

This is not some young fogey talking. Arcilla was an athlete all through his grade school years. At Bergenfield High, he was playing video games and listening to techno music. And he’s not atypical.

“In the high school group I was part of, there were wrestlers, football players,” says Joey Servidio, 19, of Woodland Park, another Tri-Star singer who took up barbershopping at James Caldwell High School and is now also at Montclair State.

“We would have kids who came late to rehearsal because they had a track meet,” he says.

Something about a cappella harmonizing gets to these guys. It could be the ringing chords and overtones that have been prized by generations of singers. Or it could be just the fact that it’s so old it’s new. Whatever the reason, a small but savvy group of young folks are bringing a touch of boy-band glamour to the tradition that goes back to African-American choral groups of the 1880s.

Barbershops, back then, were prime gathering places for men. What started out as musical skylarking between shaves had developed by the early 1900s into a national craze.

“Most people think barbershop is four guys with striped vests and skimmers singing ‘Sweet Adeline’ and leaning against a lamppost,” says Michael D’Andrea, the retired public school music teacher from Woodland Park who put together the Tri-Star Chorus five years ago.

“This is not your grandmother’s barbershop anymore,” D’Andrea says. “It’s totally different.”

One thing that’s different is the music. “I Will Go Sailing No More,” “This is the Moment” and “You Don’t Know Me” are among the tunes in the Tri-Star repertoire, though all of the members are familiar with the “polecats”: the 12 ancient staples of the barbershop repertoire, including “Wait ‘Til The Sun Shines, Nellie,” “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and of course the inevitable “Sweet Adeline.”

Knowing the old tunes is more than a matter of nostalgia. It is barbershop Esperanto — the universal language by means of which strangers from Kenosha, Wis., and Kennebunkport, Maine, can meet in a hotel lobby anywhere in between and immediately, effortlessly, begin to harmonize.

“When I was in Vegas, I bumped into a guy who looked like he was in his late 70s,” Arcilla recalls. “We sang a polecat with this guy. He was able to sing with a guy who is 19. No one was thinking what the year was, or what the ages were.”

Timeless harmonies

Barbershop guys (barbershop singing is still segregated by sex, though for musical rather than social reasons) do tend to run into each other in far-flung places. That’s because a great deal of barbershop activity revolves around competitions that happen as far away as San Antonio and Las Vegas. Tri-Star Chorus is no exception. While its members sing occasionally in public venues, their main business is prepping for the Midwinter Convention of the Barbershop Harmony Society, held each January. They’ve won twice at the Society’s Youth Chorus Festival in their division — most recently this year.

“They really represent their region very well,” says Sean Devine, spokesman for the 73-year-old Barbershop Harmony Society, based in Nashville. “They have a very unique style and personality. These kids put on a show.”

It was Devine who, inadvertently, began this teen reboot of the barbershop franchise eight years ago, when he launched a youth group called The Westminster Chorus. The California-based group, average age 19, caused a sensation by winning the society’s International Contest in 2007, stealing the spotlight from their elders. YouTube videos quickly spread their fame across the U.S., and youth groups began forming in their wake. “There’s really a youth movement going on,” Devine says. “We’re watching the torch being passed right in front of us.”

Classic Chords

Want to be a barbershopper? Tri-Star Chorus is always looking for new members, ages 12 to 24 (male). Contact them at tristarchorus.org. Then brush up on your “polecats”: the 12 songs that every barbershop singer needs to know in case he runs into another barbershop singer.

* “Down by the Old Mill Stream”

* “Down Our Way”
* “Honey/Li’l Lize Medley”
* “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”
* “My Wild Irish Rose”
* “Shine on Me”
* “The Story of the Rose” (“Heart of My Heart”)
* “Sweet Adeline”
* “Sweet and Lovely”
* “Sweet, Sweet Roses of Morn”
* “Wait ‘Til the Sun Shines, Nellie”
* “You Tell Me Your Dreams (I’ll Tell You Mine)”
— Jim Beckerman