There’s an obscure old song from 2006 that starts like this:
There’s a funky bass line
Could really tear the roof off the place
But it would sound much funkier
If you played it with a bass
They’re singing all of the background
Rocking as hard as they can
The harmonies are tight, the rhythm is alright
The only thing they need is a band!
The song is called “I Hate A Cappella,” and the joke is that it was composed and performed by an a cappella group, The Richter Scales.
The group, comprised largely of Ivy League tech workers in San Francisco, is now defunct, but their pointed parody lives on. “Here Comes Another Bubble,” their 2007 satire of Silicon Valley’s excesses set to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” not only predicted the tech-stock collapse of 2022, but anticipated the antics of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk with the rhymed riposte, “Build yourself a rocket ship, blast off on an ego trip.”
For its part, “I Hate A Cappella” is both a hilarious send-up of the genre’s conventions and an apt encapsulation of the challenges facing vocal music in the mainstream. “Nine Inch Nails, Frank Sinatra, Prince, and John Coltrane—they’re singin’ songs in every style, but they all sound the same!” Without instruments to vary and enliven the production, lesser a cappella risks feeling repetitious and homogeneous.
At its best, though, the genre is a gateway to vocal virtuosity that spans communities and continents. Take one of my favorite Irish folk groups, The High Kings, who typically include an a cappella track on each album:
Or listen to this contemporary spin on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” by Pentatonix:
Or this arresting performance by the Finnish group Rajaton:
Still, the genre can be a tough sell outside the college-campus context, where student groups proliferate. But when it comes to the Jewish community, a cappella has a built-in competitive advantage.
To begin with, many observant Jews do not play instruments or use electronics on the Sabbath, which means that their synagogue music is a cappella by necessity. The term a cappella literally means “in chapel or choir style” in Italian, hearkening back to the form’s religious roots in churches, synagogues, and mosques. Some of the best a cappella groups today come from faith communities, like the six-man Mormon ensemble Eclipse, whose work ranges from choral hymns to dance-pop reimaginings of Christmas standards.
Beyond the Sabbath, the Jewish calendar offers an additional boost to a cappella aficionados. Over the centuries, many observant Jews have adopted the custom of abstaining from instrumental music during two periods of mourning. The first, Sefirah, covers the days between Passover and the holiday of Shavuot. The second is happening right now, and spans the so-called Three Weeks before Tisha B’Av, a day that commemorates historical tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people. For some, instrumental music is seen as overly celebratory for such a solemn time, leading many to avoid it during this period.
Given this background, one would think that the Jewish community would have a thriving a cappella scene. But for a long time, this was not the case. There were some notable forerunners, ranging from simple yet elegant religious music albums to Beatachon, a more modern group founded by the artistic overachiever Jordan Gorfinkel, a DC Comics editor known today for his exceptional Passover Haggadah Graphic Novel. By and large, though, the Jewish a cappella scene had not caught up to the contemporary one.
Until relatively recently, that is.
Ed Boyer is not Jewish, but he has had a front-row seat to this Jewish vocal renaissance. You may not know Boyer’s name, but you know his work. He has produced, arranged, and mixed music for the biggest names in a cappella, from the Pitch Perfect movies to NBC’s The Sing-Off to Fox’s Glee to groups like Pentatonix. Hailing from Ohio, he told me that he “grew up in a place where there were some Jewish people, but not very many.” But in the early 2000s, he was approached by a recent college graduate who wanted to change the Jewish a cappella world.
Mike Boxer had been a star soloist for the Binghamton Crosbys, helping them win the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella in 2003. He was also the musical director of Kaskeset, the Jewish group on campus. Upon graduating, he and his friends hoped to carry their a cappella enthusiasm into the Jewish world. “Nobody had really brought the contemporary style and its production techniques to Jewish a cappella just yet,” Boxer told me. He and his collaborators set out to change this.
They founded a six-man group called Six13, a play on the number of commandments in the Torah, and enlisted Boyer to help craft their debut album. Released in time for the Sefirah season, the album’s printing quickly sold out, and the group soon produced a sequel. Both received rave reviews from the general a cappella music press, with one critic dubbing Six13 “the most accessible, enjoyable and talented Jewish a cappella group I’ve ever heard.”
This was only the beginning. Jewish a cappella would soon be catapulted from a fringe fad in its own community to the halls of the White House.