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But as Vocal Sampling proceeds through its repertoire of Cuban classics, pop-flavored son, and rumba originals -- energized by a surprisingly credible "virtual band" created solely with their voices and hands -- spectators inevitably suspend their disbelief and give in to the music.
"The immediate response is that people can't believe they're really performing without instruments," says record producer Rachel Faro, president of Ashe, the New York label that has just released the a cappella group's first live album. "They're so precise the audience thinks there must be some kind of playback, a recording, something. After a while it all starts to click and you forget they're not a band. They have so much swing, everyone gets up and dances even though there are no instruments playing."
The group's new album, Live in Berlin, offers proof of Vocal Sampling's effect on a crowd. It captures an audience wildly applauding "upright bass" riffs and skittering "trumpet" solos, cheering the "cymbal"-crashing crescendo of a driving percussion jam, and clapping along to the clopping rhythm of the "claves." When not simulating an entire band, the vocalists make the sound of a locomotive and turn the theater into a train station before performing Rafael Cueto's "El Tren," then let loose a barrage of birdcalls and deliver high-spirited stage patter in English and Spanish. The album ends with a rousing version of the Benny More theme song "Que Bueno Baila Usted," spiced up with the aggressive rapid-fire percussion typical of contemporary Cuban dance music -- in this case executed not with congas and traps but with pursed lips and puffed cheeks.
While the band's vocal gymnastics are certainly a major part of the appeal (merely trying to imagine how they do it is enough to keep you entertained), Vocal Sampling's music transcends novelty. They are masters of rhythm and harmony as well as being spirited showmen. Performing crisp, intricate arrangements by bandleader Rene Banos, they prove to be serious musicians.
Vocal Sampling's original members (of the founders, only Banos and Abel Sanabria remain) had all played various instruments since childhood, and were training to become professional musicians when they got together at Havana's high-school-level music school Escuela Nacional de Arte in the late Eighties.
"We started by joking around," says Banos, on the phone from his apartment in Havana. He began playing violin when he was eight, and by high school had switched to piano. Now 27, he is completing a college-level degree in composition. "We made the instrument sounds for fun, then we started doing it at parties for our friends."
The response at those high school gatherings encouraged the teenage musicians (the current members now range in age from 24 to 27), and the idea of using their voices as instruments grew from a party game into a professional goal. The art of electronic sampling -- recording sounds or snippets of music, reconstructing them, and playing them back as the basis for a new composition -- arrived in Cuba in the Eighties, inspiring the name of the band. Banos explains that once they had settled on putting their actual instruments aside in favor of their voices, they started "looking for ways to make sounds."
Vocal Sampling follows a centuries-old tradition of performers using their voices and body parts as instruments. Musicologists call it "voice-instrument interchange." Concert audiences may know it simply as body music. Bobby McFerrin's percussive vocalizations, the basis for his ubiquitous 1988 hit "Don't Worry, Be Happy," were a guiding light for Banos, who says the band's main challenge is to break down standard orchestral arrangements into six parts, then figure out how to "play" them. The rhythmic foundation of the music is the percussion, created most often by Abel Sanabria, and the bass, performed by Oscar Porro. Banos says the piano is the most difficult to re-create, requiring several voices at once. While the key instrumental parts are sustained, the remaining band members sing lead and background vocals.
Banos's preferred singers, not surprisingly, are golden-throated crooners such as Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand and Cuban vocal groups such as the Sixties quartet Los Zafiros. The harmonic stylings of street-corner doo-wop, gospel, Afro-Cuban chanting, and rap have also been influential. But Banos and his group are most interested in reproducing instrumental arrangements of Cuban music and international styles, particularly jazz. "We want to take the voice to anything that can be instrumental, to do any kind of instrumental sound with the voice," Banos says. "From classical to pop to jazz."
This global approach to a cappella music may be forthcoming, but thus far the group has concentrated on Cuban son, rumba, and romantic ballads. Indeed, the tracks on Live in Berlin offer a small sampling of the history of Cuban music, from the Afro-Cuban standard "La Negra Tomasa" to Benny More to Silvio Rodriguez's "Fabula de los Tres Hermanos," an idealistic folk ballad passionately sung in deep harmony.