There’s an old A. B. Chase piano in practice room A of the Cesar Chavez Student Center, where Berkeley’s premier performance groups and musical ensembles convene to forget their meticulous obsessions over GPAs and focus instead on beautifully arranged melodies and steps.
The piano’s sharp and flat keys have either lost the lacquered finish that tends to give them the look and feel of something other than wood — or they just never had it at all. A “C” key has utterly lost its white surface, sticking out like a sore, dulled-beige wood thumb. The body’s insides are exposed, allowing the dust to accumulate upon every string and hammer — any pianist’s worst nightmare.
But the University of California Men’s Octet — Berkeley’s 70-year-old, premier a cappella group — can replace every key of the piano with its musical “doos” and “doo wops.”
Austin Wangyu counted out the instruments of an acapella group: “Basically (our) instrument is either ‘bah,’ ‘dah,’ ‘dim’ or ‘bim’ — any variation of those.”
From the side of the practice room, Akarsh Vaidyanathan — or AK, as his team likes to call him — corrected him: “Or ‘doh’!”
Immediately afterwards, Carl Bello, the music manager and one of the longest-standing members of the octet, signaled the end of their break and gathered everyone into their rehearsed formation.
The octet — technically a nonet, with the addition of a ninth member this semester — lined itself up in a slight ‘V’ formation in front of the room’s mirror. Bello pulled out a pitch pipe and blew a note to prime the group (known as “picking up your key”) for its barbershop arrangement of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.”
For the UC Men’s Octet, a unique range of songs is just one advantage that helped the group bah-dah-dim its way past the quarterfinals.
“Our brand,” as Bello put it, “is kind of zany, … very high-performance.” Through its brand, the octet surpassed two of UC Davis’ a cappella groups and Stanford’s The Stanford Mendicants, qualifying for the semifinals of the Varsity Vocals International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella, or ICCA. The octet will be competing in Oregon this Saturday.
“People expect for us … kind of quieter songs, where each person sings together. They just don’t expect us to all be able to kind of, at least almost match what a 16 group — 16-person group — sounds like,” Vaidyanathan added. He paused to readjust his statement with a little more humility. “Well, close. We try to do what we can.”
Sebastian Jeon — or Seby, as the group calls him — wholeheartedly agreed, pointing to an ability to surprise the judges with an unexpected volume and dynamism in the octet’s performances.
After rehearsing “Baby Got Back,” the group showcased its touted brand and energy — as if it hadn’t enough already — with a rendition of “Pink Elephants on Parade” from Disney’s “Dumbo.”
Wangyu, whose thin and long frame is incongruous with his resonant bass vocals, performed a maniacal solo, topping it off with a sinister laugh. Then, Vaidyanathan immediately picked up the solo, with his vocals morphing into something reminiscent of an evil Mickey Mouse — “Awful fright / What a sight!” he interjected
The song closed but not before Maneck Palkhivala mimicked the form of an elephant, swinging his arm like a trunk, and the octet flexed some of its own comedic songwriting chops — “Look out. Look out! / They’re coming to Berkeley too, just for you (hippety-hoppety) / Kiss, goodbye, your GPA / Come and join the Pink Parade!”
At this point in the set, two statements began to ring true. One, as Andy Bernard said in season five of the “The Office” — “Literally every song is better a cappella.” And two, there certainly is something “magical,” as Palkhivala described it, about the world of a cappella.
In trying to fish out “Pitch Perfect”-style contention between groups within the ICCAs, Bello was reluctant to support that cliched image of rivalry among other schools or groups. “Every single singer there is just there to listen to beautiful music and support each other. It’s somewhat competitive … the point of the (ICCA) isn’t to destroy each other but to push each other to be better,” he said.
“Our sole purpose isn’t just to compete. There are groups that dedicate their entire semester for these four or five songs they do for ICCAs. We don’t just do competitions. … I’m just stoked that we’re going to semifinals to be honest,” Bello added.
Bello’s sense of ease was consistently visible among the group during rehearsals, where at times, they would laugh at each other for any missteps while also providing constructive criticism.
During an arrangement of the Strokes’ “Reptilia,” Bello suggested to step and walk with intention. And in the rehearsal of R&B and soul singer XamVolo’s “Down,” Jonathan Nagel reminded the team, “Commit to sexy!”
Officially, the UC Octet is a professional group, but Bello had another way to describe the team. “It’s more of a brotherhood; that’s a better way to say it.”
Vaidyanathan openly repeated, “I hate everyone!” — the pinnacle ironic statement that reveals a special kind of camaraderie and bond between individuals.