Friday, February 06, 2009

embarrassingly close to home

Some of you know that I grew up in small-town Illinois and was a choir nerd (and yes, I still live in not-a-big-city Illinois and am a choir nerd). This means that I have witnessed my fair share of one of America's most ridiculous yet earnest pastimes for young people: show choirs. I wasn't actually in one - my town had had a show choir in years past, but by the time I was in high school there weren't enough boys who could dance, so we had converted to a "jazz choir" (but still had to use their outfits because the school district had paid for them, so gosh darn it we were going to wear them, itchy silver lamé and black lace be damned) - but I often encountered them at regional contests. Even at 14, I knew there was something creepy about the plastered-on smiles and jazz hands, and the quality of vocal talent often suffered at the expense of dancing, but at the same time it was hard not to be a little charmed by their eager attempt to entertain - plus, you know, sparkly! So you can imagine my joy when a friend told me that while waiting for her niece's show choir to perform at a recent competition, she saw a suburban Chicago school do a Bollywood-ish (heavy on the -ish) routine.

I hate this, and I love this. From cultural and musical perspectives, they're really missing a lot. I hate the fact that they seem to communicate no understanding of the grand traditions, past and present, from which these songs come. The "namaste" moves are stereotyped. I'm disappointed at how uninteresting and weak the vocals are (the arrangement is as much to blame as the performers). But on the other hand, show choirs have probably always dreamed of Bollywood without even realizing it. Big song productions, the jam-packed generosity of lavish 50-backup-dancer, glitter-clad numbers, are pretty much right in line with what show choirs seem to try to do. And can't you imagine how the minds of some of these kids would have been blown - in a good way - when they saw "Chaiyya Chaiyya"? And I love that they tried! I love that somebody thought "Hey, Bollywood movies are awesome! Let's play with a few ideas!" Obviously Farah Khan and Hrithik Roshan have nothing to worry about, but it still looks like a lot of fun, despite its flaws. Which is exactly how I feel about a lot of the less-than-great films and song picturizations.

For readers who have never seen a show choir, try some videos of the local-ish Mt. Zion Swingsations here or here (go to 1:45 to skip the pre-show chatter), which is what show choirs looked like in my day.

12 comments:

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

wow

I am flabbergasted by the video- I cant hate it or love it just yet - im just amazed :)

ajnabi said...

Noooooo. I just can't make myself click play. I'm almost positive that it will make me embarrassed to be from the U.S.

Beth said...

Shweta - Understandable!

Ajnabi - Do it! It's not that much different some of the less good international interpretations of, say, hiphop. We all borrow elements of each other's cultures without understanding. It's human nature.

Jenna said...

I'm with you "I hate this, and I love this." I'm also with ajnabi - slightly embarased to be from America at their performance. It's not a bad performance really, but I wonder how much of the culture was lost on them in the process of learning this routine I also wonder if the one girl in front during most of the routine (the solo at the beginnin) is a desi and if she pushed to create this routine. Nevertheless - interesting.

Banno said...

Wow, I saw something similar in a small village 20 kms away from Cherrapunjee in Meghalaya. I did not understand their language, but they were all Catholic boys, and the person who ran the small resort had taken this initiative to get the boys to come and perform every evening for the guests. Yes, they wore silver lame and black outfits and hats to boot. I just didn't know they were called show choirs.

Banno said...

As for this particular video, hey, Hindi films have borrowed generously and mindlessly from jazz, tap dancing, African music and dance, hip-hop, rock, what have you, over the years, and adapted freely and fully. So some payback time, right?

Just that this particular choir doesn't seem very good, in terms of its song or dance.

MsP68 said...

I have to emerge from the lurk to confess that I am the friend who exposed Beth to this.

Jenna: actually, these choirs are very serious about the competition numbers and employ pros (try not to gasp to deeply in disbelief). Waubonsie's choreographer is Dwight Jordan, founder of Showchoir Camps of America and Broadway choreographer. I, too, was a little wary of the fact that the two Indian girls were featured so prominently in this number (there's a second girl singing the solo), but the girl in front stayed there for most of the rest of the performance. This leads me to think that she is actually a veteran of the choir (a junior or senior in high school) as it is customary in these choirs to put the upperclassmen/veterans in front. The girl who actually sang the solo though? She was in the back row. Must be a freshman.

I have to admit that I know more about the show choir culture than most and was very impressed to see the Waubonsie group at all. The goal of these competitions and performances is unity in movement while singing to create a unified visual, and usually that means everybody is white and the hair and makeup (on the girls at least) is exactly the same. This choir was heavily culturally/ethnically mixed.

But even my nascient Bollywood fandom was enough to make me disappointed in this. You never expect masterful singing from a show choir. In live performance, you can hardly hear them for the stomping or "foot noise" (to use the jargon), a category that is part of an choir's rating. But I was at least hoping for something that looked a little more authentic. This feels to me like a Broadway director's interpretation of a style he's never even seen before, let alone studied. I hope that the emergence of Bollywood as a new hip thing for Americans to enjoy will bring better versions of this, something along the lines of this.

Jenna said...

MsP58: Thanks for the added info. Like I say "the more you know!" It's probably something I won't get into, but it's always fun to learn something new! I also agree with you on the hope of Bollywood bringing more things to the US like the "Bollywood Dance" that Josh and Katie did on SYTYCD. I was very excited about that one.

desipolitan said...

lol! It is a perfect match made in heaven isn't it? Show tunes + Bollywood = a natural combination. In a way, aren't filmi songs really just show tunes? Aren't bolly flicks melodramatic musicals at heart? :)

adriana said...

Interesting mix of songs... and yeah, the choreography was so off it's not funny.

I never danced on risers in show choir, ever. Is this something they are doing these days? Maybe I'm just old ;)

Anonymous said...

There is no reason or excuse to dislike this video or be embarassed by it. Waubonsie Valley was the best Show Choir in the nation this year, and this song was one of the best openers of the year. Go to a Show Choir competition sometime, you will see the most fabulous high school activity that there is. Far more interesting than football or anything else.

Sujoy said...

For what its worth, its a beautiful tribute. Of course technically it needs to be polished quite a lot. Too many dancers, not vocally good at all, and I can hear the heels way too much louder than I want it to..

But Chaiiya Chaiiya and Dhoom in the same track with a choir twist, applause for that. I really think Bollywood should churn out such stuff soon...its high time for showtime