NU Declassified: An inside look at Northwestern a cappella groups

Ilana Arougheti, Dan Hu, and Divitya Vakil

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DIVITYA VAKIL: Welcome to NU Declassified, a look into how Wildcats thrive and survive on Northwestern’s campus. I’m Divitya Vakil.

DAN HU: And I’m Dan Hu.

DIVITYA VAKIL: A cappella is a popular art form on Northwestern’s campus — the movie “Pitch Perfect” was based on a campus group, and the Northwestern A Cappella Community Alliance lists 14 groups this year. With such a big scene, some groups rely on special community interests to set them apart, while some search for a defining sound. For today’s episode, we uncover the happenings of two very different a cappella groups: South Asian interest group Brown Sugar and self-described ‘smoky’ R&B group Purple Haze.

DAN HU: First, let’s hear from Simran Deokule about her experience as president of Brown Sugar. Brown Sugar is a group that composes their own blends with ties to South Asian culture, and even produces albums every year. Here’s NU Declassified’s Ilana Arougheti with the interview.

SIMRAN DEOKULE: My name is Simran Deokule. I’m a sophomore. I’m from San Diego, California. I’m double majoring in theater and international studies.

ILANA AROUGHETI: So you are the president of Brown Sugar a cappella, is that right?

SIMRAN DEOKULE: Yes. I got involved with the group actually before I came to Northwestern — I was researching the kinds of South Asian interest things I wanted to do, and also the performance things I wanted to get involved in, and Brown Sugar, for me personally, was the perfect blend of two passions of mine.

ILANA AROUGHETI: Are all your songs medleys between contemporary music plus South Asian music?

SIMRAN DEOKULE: Not necessarily. Our arrangers are free to arrange what they want.

ILANA AROUGHETI: Does it usually end up being some sort of blend?

SIMRAN DEOKULE: Typically. Maybe 70 percent of our songs have a South Asian or are just South Asian. We have a lot of diversity within our group, which is so cool, ‘cause that’s what lets us sing a Rihanna medley and a Muslim-Arabic folk or religious song in the same show.

ILANA AROUGHETI: What are some of the songs you’re working on right now?

SIMRAN DEOKULE: I’m working on an arrangement of a Zayn song “Dusk Till Dawn” mashing that with the Bollywood song called Woh Baarishein.

ILANA AROUGHETI: How did you choose those two to go together?

SIMRAN DEOKULE: First of all, I think they were in the same key, which was wonderful. The vibes of the song are similar. My process is typically having one song on my phone and one on my laptop and playing them together. If they sound good then, yeah, we’ll use that.

ILANA AROUGHETI: How large is Brown Sugar right now?

SIMRAN DEOKULE: We’re smaller than we need to be. Fourteen.

ILANA AROUGHETI: That’s pretty small.

SIMRAN DEOKULE: Yeah.

ILANA AROUGHETI: In what ways do you think the size of the group affects the vibe — whether it’s easier to arrange, or it improves bonding?

SIMRAN DEOKULE: So last year, the group was a little bit bigger, and there were a lot more seniors, so that definitely affected the vibe. We were very close, and it helped us really get acclimated to the rigor of rehearsals and the rigor of Northwestern in general. This year we’ve had our newbies for a few weeks max now, so we’re, like, starting to get into the super bonded, close mode so that’s been really exciting. We plan bondings and hangouts at people’s apartments. That in turn influences the cohesiveness of our sound.

ILANA AROUGHETI: How many people auditioned this year?

SIMRAN DEOKULE: I think around 30. We took 8.

ILANA AROUGHETI: In comparison to other a cappella groups on campus, how competitive would you consider yours?

SIMRAN DEOKULE: It’s a little hard to gauge, because we get people who are only interested in Brown Sugar because of the South Asian fusion group, which might not be the case for some of the other a cappella groups. We like to keep a high standard in our sound quality as well. We have four albums out. We have a fifth album coming out. We meet three times a week, two hours each.

ILANA AROUGHETI: Does Brown Sugar accept exclusively South Asian members, or is it – ?

SIMRAN DEOKULE: No, absolutely not. We accept any and everyone. That is not a requirement. Neither is speaking Hindi, neither is knowing what Bollywood is. Just someone who’s willing and excited to learn about it .

ILANA AROUGHETI: How do you think the vibe of the group would be different if it was larger or smaller?

SIMRAN DEOKULE: Right now we are a little small, which means one or two people are singing each part.
It’s just more taxing. You have to sound fuller all the time, you have to put in a little more effort. The sound has to be very precise. There’s no instrument, nothing to fall back on. Around 15 to 20 people is a good number to have because it facilitates a big family and social support. That being said, what we have right now, it’s amazing. I’m so impressed at how the newbies are doing. They’re picking up on music amazingly. We actually have three gigs that are gonna be the newbies’ first gigs and we’re gearing up for it. We’re performing at the festival of lights, the SASA – SASA’s the South Asian board on campus, they’re celebrating the festival of lights during Family Weekend. Then also there’s Acapallooza which happens every Family Weekend. There’s going to be this big South Asian entrepreneur/business conference where they’re asking us to perform. It’s in Chicago. We often do gigs in Chicago, usually for South Asian things. I know we’ve done weddings in the past; we go to schools if they have international days, or, like, on campus we sometimes pair with different South Asian groups.ILANA AROUGHETI: How many times do you perform in a quarter?

SIMRAN DEOKULE: For the fall, we’ve limited it to these three gigs so that we can work on the show itself, and then we’ll see what happens in the spring. In the winter we’ll definitely hav, also be doing more recording stuff for a future album. We appreciate the people who come out and listen whether they know about South Asian culture or not.

ILANA AROUGHETI: Not many of the other a cappella groups are linked with a specific community. What does it mean to you to kind of represent that type of a cappella?

SIMRAN DEOKULE: It’s special. It’s not something that people get to see or experience all the time. Especially where Northwestern is so big but our South Asian community is relatively small in comparison — it’s nice to have certain interest groups and people who know a little about what you’re going through, and also share a passion. It’s special and it’s something we’re really lucky to have.

DIVITYA VAKIL: While Brown Sugar is sweet, Purple Haze brings a different flavor to the a cappella scene, using six voices to create new sounds.

LORENZO PIPINO: We do a rendition of “Holding Out for a Hero” that’s kind of an old standard Purple Haze does, and that one is one of my favorite arrangements. It just, like, slaps. It’s great.

DAN HU: Here’s Ilana again talking to Lorenzo Pipino, one of two musical directors for Purple Haze.

LORENZO PIPINO: I’m from Columbus, Ohio. I’m a junior. I study music and psychology. And musical theater. I auditioned for Purple Haze the winter of my freshman year, ‘cause they were doing winter auditions that year. I only auditioned for Purple Haze, and I got in and I’ve been in ever since.ILANA AROUGHETI: Are you involved in the audition process?

LORENZO PIPINO:Yes, I run auditions.

ILANA AROUGHETI: Can you talk me, start to finish, how that works?

LORENZO PIPINO: Yeah, so Monday through Wednesday, we hold auditions. people come in and sing a short solo, we kind of get to chat with them, get to know them, see how they’re doing. We compile a callback list, and it’s usually like 15 to 20 people who we’ll call back. we talk about every single person who came in. Basically how they blend with us, how their personality fits in, if they’re interested, like, it’s honestly any host of things. We look at the complete package. There’s not one element that we specifically focus on. Purple Haze doesn’t ever get going into auditions, like, ‘We’re going to take this many people, we’re going to take these specific people.’ We always wait and see, because we never know who’s going to come through the door and blow our minds.

ILANA AROUGHETI: So you don’t have, coming in, an idea of how many you’re going to take?

LORENZO PIPINO: We’re never not going to take someone who’s amazing because we already have that quote-unquote ‘niche’ filled. We always want to take the best people and take people who are going to make our family bigger, and people who we vibe really well with.

ILANA AROUGHETI: So this year you have — how many new members?

LORENZO PIPINO: We took seven new members this year, which is the most Purple Haze has taken in a while.

ILANA AROUGHETI: How large is the group right now?

LORENZO PIPINO: Right now, there are 20 of us [reporter’s notes][cq]. There are 19 here and one is abroad.

ILANA AROUGHETI: How has your experience in the group changed year to year?

LORENZO PIPINO: The group itself is so dependent upon both the senior class and the freshman class, because the senior class really sets the tone. But then the freshman class — especially, like, the size of it and the makeup of it, really sets the expectations, I think. I mean, it’s always Purple Haze and it always has the things that make us us, but it’s a different environment every year.

ILANA AROUGHETI: How do you think the vibes might be different if your group was bigger or smaller?

LORENZO PIPINO: Having a small group does make it more intimate, and you get to know people in a different way, But then when you have a big group there are so many people you get to know, and the sound is bigger, and you get to spread Purple Haze love to all the other people.

ILANA AROUGHETI: There’s a lot of a cappella groups on campus, obviously —

LORENZO PIPINO: Yeah.

ILANA AROUGHETI: And I think some of them have a clearer niche than others. For example, earlier I spoke with Brown Sugar, and they are a South Asian interest group. How would you describe Purple Haze’s niche on campus?

LORENZO PIPINO: We’re not necessarily any kind of interest group, but I think what really we can say about Purple Haze is the type of arrangement we do. We try to, with the songs that we do, reinvent them a lot of times, and give them new life, and not just do a straight-up cover of them but try to imbue them with a new style.

ILANA AROUGHETI: Kind of compared to other a cappella groups on campus, would you describe your vibe as more competitive? Less competitive?

LORENZO PIPINO:I don’t think we’re particularly competitive. I also wouldn’t say any of the a cappella groups are particularly competitive. I mean, we’re competitive in the sense that we compete every other year in the ICCAs competition, but, like, we as people, and between groups, are not as competitive. Just this past weekend, we had a show with an a cappella group from Vanderbilt that was visiting, and we invited a bunch of other groups from Northwestern to come, and we had a lot of fun.

ILANA AROUGHETI: You collaborate, I guess, then, on concerts and stuff frequently?

LORENZO PIPINO: We always are looking to do things with other groups. Last year, last spring — because the a cappella groups always do a senior show in the spring, to feature the seniors’ singing solos, and our show is the same weekend as one of the other groups’. So we had them come to our rehearsal so we could sing some of our songs for each other, because we knew we weren’t going to make it to each others’ concerts.

ILANA AROUGHETI: I just want to backtrack a bit. What are some of the traditions that Purple Haze has?

LORENZO PIPINO: We just have certain words that we say. A word we use is the word ‘schmee.’ I don’t know where it comes from, but if you’re a ‘schmee,’ that means you’re in Purple Haze. That’s like our noun. We call them ‘schmees.’

ILANA AROUGHETI: Awesome. How would you describe the sound of Purple Haze overall?

LORENZO PIPINO: The sound of Purple Haze — I think what distinguishes our sound is our arrangements, because our arrangements are all very specifically us. A word we always use to talk about our sound is smoky, it’s kind of like an R-and-B-influenced pop sound would be the closest thing. But we do all genres, we do all types of music.

ILANA AROUGHETI: Can you run me through some songs you’ve done in the past couple of years that you think embody your sound?

LORENZO PIPINO:Yeah! Ok. That’s great. We’ve done “Angels” by Khalid, “Creep” by Radiohead, “Alibi” by Lawrence, “Good Kisser” by Lake Street Dive. We did “Call Me” by Blondie a few years ago, which was really fun.

ILANA AROUGHETI: Love that song.

LORENZO PIPINO:We do a Lady Gaga medley of some of her songs off of ARTPOP, which is really awesome. We cover songs by Fitz and the Tantrums, we do this song called “The Motherlode” by The Staves. We do everything from super-popular music to super — I don’t want to say indie, but super-less-well-known music, too. It really is just if somebody who likes to arrange for the group hears a song they like, they’ll arrange it and bring it in.

ILANA AROUGHETI: And you describe your sound as smoky.

LORENZO PIPINO: I mean, that’s one word we use to describe it. We talked about, like a smoky quality of voice. Not in every song, but in certain moments of certain songs that seems to be a word that resonates with the group.

ILANA AROUGHETI: Perfect. I want to kind of close by wrapping it back to you. How have you chosen your songs?

LORENZO PIPINO: Everyone kind of decides. We bring it in, we talk about the arrangements.. But for me, when I hear a song, it’s kind of like an indescribable thing. I’ll be like, ‘Oh, this would sound really awesome in our group. It would be really cool to hear this sung by X person.’

ILANA AROUGHETI: Good vibes. Well, is there anything else you want to add about anything we’ve talked about today?

LORENZO PIPINO: I love Purple Haze. It’s great.

ILANA AROUGHETI: Thank you for coming on the show.

LORENZO PIPINO:Thanks for having me.

DIVITYA VAKIL: This has been Ilana Arougheti, Dan Hu and me, Divitya Vakil. Much thanks to Simran and Lorenzo. Thanks to all of you for listening to NU Declassified. We’ll see you in the next episode.

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