Red walls. Sheer glass walls that allow an almost panoramic view of the darkness outside. Listeners flowed in, lining the walls, then the central staircase filled to accommodate the audience. Swarthmore has many expansive performance spaces, from the beautiful view of the Crum provided by the Lang Concert Hall to the higher capacity of the Lang Performing Arts Center Cinema. However, an often overlooked performance space is the Alice Paul Lounge, where gatherings and concerts are sometimes held. The lounge’s dual nature as a regular hang-out place and as a space for more formal events gives it a cozy, even intimate feel that lends itself well to the comforting notes of a cappella renditions of familiar songs.
Last Saturday evening, students and other members of the Swarthmore community gathered in the Alice Paul lounge to hear Essence of Soul’s fall concert. The audience filled the lounge, overflowing to the doors, and the surprising acoustics of the lounge lent a deep quality to the group’s tones. Essence of Soul’s first concert of the year was an hour long and was well-received by new listeners and old fans alike. “We put a lot of work into preparing the best concert possible — it’s the first fall concert we’ve had for at least four years — so I hope that people saw that,” Andrew Cheng ’12, a member of Essence of Soul, said. “With five very talented [a cappella] groups on campus, there are lots of shows every semester, and I’m just glad that our fans and our audiences don’t get sick of it.”
Essence of Soul specializes in soulful music, in particular R&B, jazz, pop and music influenced by the African Diaspora. The group performed a variety of songs, from “Can You Stand the Rain” by Boyz II Men to a mashup of Beyoncé’s “Halo” and “Dangerously in Love.” More recent hits were performed as well, including a mash-up of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and Gnarles Barkley’s “Crazy.”
“My favorite song on Saturday was definitely ‘Can You Stand the Rain’ — it’s been my favorite song in our repertoire forever,” Mark Chin ’12, a member of the group, said. “It was the song that made me want to join Essence in their spring concert my freshman year and thus holds a special place in my heart … The background voices work together and mesh perfectly, the bass line booms, and the lyrics are sad and wonderful. Though the members of Essence have changed since my first semester singing … every semester we have new voices to adapt to the arrangement, and each semester it sounds as beautiful as ever.”
Although the first a cappella group at Swarthmore was Sixteen Feet, and Essence of Soul is the newest a cappella group on campus, the group’s performances often feature classics by Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. “My freshman year I tried out for a few a cappella groups, but I didn’t try out for Essence until the fall semester of my sophomore year. I heard them perform for the first time the past spring in the Friends Meeting House. What compelled me to try out for Essence was that, from that one concert, I could tell that the members of the group were incredibly talented. The harmonies and the arrangements were incredible, and the blending and quality of the voices together sounded amazing,” Chin said.
With at least five a cappella groups on campus, including an all-male group, Sixteen Feet, an all-female group, Grapevine, a co-ed group, Mixed Company, and a tri-college group that specializes in world music, Chaverim, what makes Essence of Soul unique? “Essence of Soul is the only a cappella group on campus that sticks to a certain genre. Chaverim, a Tri-co a cappella group, has the theme of singing songs in various languages from various cultures, but we tend to stick to R&B, soul, and pop. We tend to gravitate toward artists who are part of the African diaspora, although in recent years we’ve applied that less as a rule and more as an inspiration,” Cheng said.
Members come into Essence of Soul for many different reasons. Prospective a cappella singers also have varying levels of experience with a cappella or even with singing in general. “The first time I heard live a cappella performances was, I think, when I came to Swarthmore for Ride the Tide as an admitted high school senior. I thought it looked fun and sounded great, and really wanted to make it a part of my college experience,” Cheng said.
The shared experience of the group also creates close bonds between members. “I was in choir in high school but I never sang in an a cappella group until I joined Essence. I got interested because I think singing a cappella teaches you musical skills that you don’t necessarily have to worry about when you sing with instruments. Also, because a cappella demands reliance on other voice parts, you really build a lot of connections with everyone in the group,” Cathy Park ’12, the group’s manager, said.
The songs that Essence of Soul perform are always carefully considered, as less than a dozen songs can be presented in a single concert. Newly arranged songs are presented every concert, including a mashup of “Rolling in the Deep” this fall, but all concerts begin with a circle sing. Essence of Soul is a great group if you want to explore music and grow as a musician,” Sarah Gonzales said. “Our willingness to take risks and be adventurous musicians is apparent in our signature feature — the circle song. In a circle song each individual chooses a creative rhythm or melody which builds into something impressive. We all start at different levels of skill and help each other out so that we may improve individually and grow as a group.”
“Essence has always been a talented group, and I’m just really glad to expose that to the Swarthmore community whenever I can,” Chin said. “We love to perform and we love to sing, and hopefully that came out in our performance — that we enjoy what we do and have fun doing it. In the end, for anyone who loves singing — like myself — that should always be enough.”