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Award-winning a cappella group "Business Casual" opens UCCA season

Article by Roberta Werdinger On Saturday, Sept. 15, at 7:30 p.m., the Ukiah Community Concert Association will present the award-winning a cappella group Business Casual at the Mendocino College Center Theatre. The concert will inaugurate…

Article by Roberta Werdinger

On Saturday, Sept. 15, at 7:30 p.m., the Ukiah Community Concert Association will present the award-winning a cappella group Business Casual at the Mendocino College Center Theatre. The concert will inaugurate the 71st season of this important all-volunteer Mendocino County institution. Free admission for this concert is offered to high school and college students with ID, space providing.

Beatboxing and Big Band

All five members of Business Casual live in Silicon Valley and work in the tech industry, fitting in rehearsals on evenings and weekends. The group’s line-up currently consists of Roshun Alur, tenor; Michael Wang, beatboxer; Leslie Baker, soprano; Cassie Greene, alto; and Jacob Chamoun, who is the bass singer and provides other miscellaneous sounds. Greene, the only original member of the group, and Chamoun are married to each other.

“Fundamentally, we are a pop group with a twist,” Chamoun states. “We will take a pop song and render it in big band style. We are evolving constantly in response to the group members, our audience and their interests.” Their concert might feature pop, jazz, Latin and rock, along with audience participation, “an amazing sound system,” and lights.

The six years since the group has formed have been eventful, with frequent gigs at community and corporate events in the Bay Area and the release of their first single, “Ain’t No Way,” in March of 2018. They have also been named National Champions of the Harmony Sweepstakes a cappella competition, and will travel to New York City next month to perform at Carnegie Hall as part of the International Championship of A Capella Open Finals.

The earnest yet fun-loving tone Business Casual achieves when performing classic songs such as Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star” has a solid base (no pun intended). Since in this genre “a member’s voice is their instrument,” as Greene notes, every change in the group’s makeup creates a major adjustment and also discovery, as the new member’s unique sound is incorporated into the collective’s existing blend. Comments Chamoun, “We are getting musicians to gel enough in pitch, tone and timbre to imitate the sound of a guitar. It shouldn’t be understated how much work goes into this illusion.”

Imitating instruments

“A cappella” describes a style of musical instrumentation in which the human voice plays all the parts of a song–including those often played by other instruments. Translated from the Italian as “in the manner of the chapel,” it is a vocal style with deep roots in Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions. Praying and singing without instruments arose early, having been noted approvingly by the Jewish philosopher Philo, born in 20 BC. Polyphonous chanting and music, in which melodies and rhythms play with and against each other, were developed in the Catholic Church in the 15th century, giving way to a multitude of singing styles in religious settings since then. Some churches, synagogues and mosques still ban musical instruments in worship, while others encourage them.

Since its early roots, a cappella music has moved out of the chapel and into the wider world, incorporating influences from jazz, soul, pop and other genres. The effect on listeners, however, is much the same: As singing is an attempt to raise the human spirit, hearing several skilled singers lifting their voices together can be uniquely moving, even if their subject matter is now more lighthearted. In the contemporary a cappella style, groups like Business Casual employ a “beatboxer” (vocal percussionist) to keep the rhythm while another member will “play” (sing) the bass. The group’s vocal imitations of string–and sometimes wind and brass–instruments are meant to stretch the limits of the human voice, while acknowledging the artificiality of the medium at the same time.

71 years of community service

It is no small thing for a community-run organization in a rural area to have been active since 1947. But that is just the case with the Ukiah Community Concerts Association, a concert-producing organization affiliated with Live On Stage, Inc., a national organization of concert producers. The UCCA chooses from Live On Stage, Inc.’s artists’ roster as well as its own musically knowledgeable board members’ connections to artists worldwide to bring widely recognized acts to the community such as Italian Saxophone Quartet; The Jeremy Kittel Band; Broadway stars Susan Egan and Christian Knoll; and jazz musicians Christian Jacob and Tierney Sutton. The UCCA has recently partnered with local concert impresario Spencer Brewer to coproduce the annual Professional Pianists concert, which benefits UCCA and other worthy community organizations. This season’s concert will take place on the weekend of January 11-12, 2019. The event features as many as 10 pianists, and often sells out.

Other concerts in the UCCA’s new season are: “Guitars Without Borders” on Nov. 11, featuring local guitar whiz Alex de Grassi, accompanied by Grammy award-winning classical guitarist Andrew York and National Fingerstyle Guitar champion Muriel Anderson; the Frisson Ensemble on Feb. 2, 2019, a six-piece classical music ensemble chosen from the country’s top music schools; and a multimedia presentation by whiz-bang concert pianist Ilya Yakushev on April 13, 2019.

UCCA President Gina Marie Lindsey has been assiduous in building up a strong board, which includes some of the area’s most stellar musicians along with newcomers Sheridan Malone, Susanna Janssen and Jim Dowcett, all dedicated to bringing high-quality live music to Mendocino County. The organization is collaborating with Mendocino College students to record the events for airplay on the County’s public radio station, KZYX.

Lindsey, who grew up in an even smaller town in Alaska and has now retired with her husband to Ukiah, muses that even the losses and stresses of the recent fires have brought home the importance of the places we call home. “We make the fabric of our own community. This is one of those things that hasn’t changed for decades. That’s pretty rich.”

Tickets for the Business Casual concert are $30 general and $15 for youth under 18 in advance, and $35 and $15 for youth at the door. Admission is free for high school and college students with ID at the door, depending on available seats. Tickets may be purchased at Mendocino Book Company, 102 S. School St. in Ukiah, and online at www.ukiahconcerts.org. For more information, please call (707) 463-2738.

UCCA thanks Schat’s Bakery, Black Oak Coffee, and Rivino Winery for donating treats during intermission.