The New Zealand Barbershop Scene

by Micah Hendler:

(Micah Hendler ’11 was in Calhoun College and majored in music and international studies.  He is spending the summer globe-trotting with the Whiffenpoofs and documenting their musical-diplomatic exploits for the Globalist.)

As of last week, whenever I thought of barbershop singing, I was brought back to my high school production of The Music Man. The most difficult yet most artfully written music in the show is the music for the barbershop quartet, which involves close harmonies and an even more intimate sense of tone, breath, and phrasing.  The barbershop quartet is an art form that evolved around the turn of the 20th century in the black South, but was later co-opted by white quartets who promoted it on the radio, popularizing it around the country.  The Barbershop Harmony Society was established in 1938 and has held competitions and conventions ever since.  In 1945, a parallel women’s organization called the Sweet Adelines was founded, creating a national community of female barbershop singers.  Barbershop harkens back to a simpler age. In its evolution, and in its setting in The Music Man, it is a quintessentially American art form.

So Imagine my surprise when the Whiffenpoofs arrived in Wellington, New Zealand, and were greeted by members of the Wellington City Chorus, an all-female barbershop choir that competed internationally at Sweet Adelines conventions!  Apparently, as I learned throughout the rest of the day, New Zealand is cuckoo (or is kiwi a better choice?) for barbershop singing.  According to the history of the New Zealand Association of Barbershop Singers, a 1979 visit of a barbershop quartet from Hawaii sparked the craze in New Zealand, and in the resulting three decades or so, many different groups—ranging in size from quartets to choirs—have been founded by kiwis and Americans alike (the Wellington City Chorus was founded in 1998 by a Sweet Adeline from the states).

New Zealand is full of stunning panoramas like this one at Castle Point — and full of great music! (Hendler/TYG)

Barbershop is a genre that has been transplanted to New Zealand from the United States, and began as an imitation of American styles and conventions.  However, it is clear that the kiwis have taken ownership of the genre and transformed it, both within New Zealand and in the international barbershop scene.  One of the members of the Wellington City Chorus told me how many choirs attend Sweet Adelines conventions with an ear towards acquiring the hottest new arrangements from the best groups.  But then she bragged that the Wellington City Chorus’s director, David Brooks, was so cutting edge that American groups have begun copying them!

What was most striking in this regard was the performance given by the Musical Island Boys, a barbershop quartet based in Wellington.  Their intonation, phrasing, showmanship, and blend were astounding, and they were declared international champions in the collegiate category of the Barbershop Harmony Society championships in 2006; they are the first group from outside the United States to win the title.  They have mastered the barbershop idiom, replete with its straight tone and idiosyncratic pronunciation.  But their penultimate song was a barbershop setting of a Pacific Islander folk song which they intend to premiere at the upcoming Barbershop Harmony convention.  The song began in English (like any typical barbershop tune), but then the native melody was overlaid, with corresponding words that will make it, as the quartet proudly announced to the audience, “the first song ever to be sung at an international barbershop harmony convention with non-English lyrics.”

The Musical Island Boys are a New Zealand-based barbershop quartet. (Courtesy Charamelody/Flickr Creative Commons)

The symbolism of the presentation was powerful: one of the central debates surrounding music in the 21st century is whether globalization has utterly homogenized music, or heterogenized it instead.  Examples of the former are easier to come by—American pop music is played on the radio and in clubs all over the world, and European marches are used by nearly all nations in their national anthems.  Yet the transplantation, flourishing, transformation, and re-introduction to the international community of barbershop in New Zealand is a prime example of the latter.

A young singer I met in Palmerston North at our concert the next day commented that Pacific Islanders tended to be particularly good at barbershop.  Taking his theory to be correct (the Musical Island Boys are of Islander descent), I investigated the cause for such a correspondence.  According to David Brooks, the Wellington City Chorus’s director, the Pacific Islands had their own homophonic singing tradition before the arrival of Europeans in the South Pacific.  Children grew up immersed in spontaneous harmony, and learned by osmosis how to harmonize themselves.  Such an intuitive sensitivity to intonation within group singing is a critical part of what makes barbershop lock so tightly and ring out so brightly.  When barbershop was brought to New Zealand, the Pacific Islanders may have found it to have been an art form that called for skills which they had already perfected in an intuitive way, and at which they subsequently excelled.  When they premiere their new song at the upcoming international championships, the Musical Island Boys will take a huge step at establishing Pacific Islander Barbershop as its own unique tradition, a synthesis of barbershop structure with Pacific Islander sensitivity, applied to a mixture of melodic and linguistic content.  What an unexpectedly perfect combination!

Today, the barbershop scene in New Zealand is perhaps more mainstream than it is in the United States; it has even been incorporated into the public school arts curriculum since 1990 through the National Young Singers in Harmony program.  David Brooks, who is an integral part of this effort, told me how much the television show “Glee” has helped make group singing cool for teenagers.  But the most successful result of the program could be perhaps none other than the Musical Island Boys, who have gone beyond imitation to crafting their own unique form of expression. They show that the distinct paths that globalization brings together can sometimes create the most incredible syntheses.