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By Susheel Gokarakonda
On the Oxford a capella scene the Gargoyles offer something a little different. Instead of the pop beats of Out of the Blue or the Oxford Belles the Gargoyles scat their way to sweet jazz melodies. Rehearsals are full of ‘shoo-bopping’ and feet tapping – they just can’t keep still.
They call it ‘the Gargoyle groove’ as they all bop, sway and shimmy to the music. In New College’s Long Room most start by kicking off their shoes and this free, chilled out vibe continues – as they rehearse it’s hard not to notice how much they, not just sway, but dance to the beat. The group’s tour director, Gitanjali Joseph, describes how over the year each member develops their own rhythm.
This vibrancy is steeped in tradition. Founded in 1998 the group remain the only jazz a capella group in Oxford. Since 2006 they have performed at the Edinburgh Fringe annually with that first run reviewed as ‘sheer brilliance’ and ‘altogether perfect a capella’ by ThreeWeeks and Edinburgh Guide respectively. Over the years they have won numerous accolades most recently winning Voice Festival UK in 2010 giving them the chance to support one of the world’s best a capella groups – the Swedish ‘The Real Group’ whom the Gargoyle’s Musical Director, Euan Campbell, describe as simply ‘incredible’.
Beneath these bright lights of fame and success lies the real nitty gritty of rehearsal time. Putting together a song can take anything from a single rehearsal to weeks of consolidation. Currently the group are working on ‘It don’t mean a thing (if you ain’t got that swing)’, using an arrangement of ‘The Real Group’, which, for them, is the hardest piece the Gargoyles have ever done.
It’s not hard to see why – the piece is incredibly quick and complex with a subtle jazz background and break through individual voices. The group tried it a few years ago and it apparently took them months to put it together whereas this time around they’ve only had around five rehearsals and it’s already almost there.
This level of performance requires intense concentration and hard work but the atmosphere of the group is far from serious. As well as their constant grooving they descend into chatter and laughter, swinging around arm in arm and this is perhaps what makes their sound – they really work together as a team.
A stipulation of joining the group is taking part in the Fringe but also touring the USA over the Easter Vacation. Fresh off this year’s tour some of the group were proudly sporting their Harvard hoodies, having lived the American College dream. ‘It was like something out of American Pie’ Euan described as they attended frat parties and played beer pong touring Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton.
Across the pond a capella is a much older and embedded tradition. At Yale there are fifteen a capella groups encompassing around three hundred undergrads – as a phenomenon it’s effectively the size of an Oxford college on campus. There the group is the life of most of its members with Yale’s a capella ‘rush’, where wannabe singers are auditioned over a month with their personalities assessed at dinners and parties. Gitanjali Joseph, the Gargoyle’s Tour Director, recognised that ‘for some it is how they find their niche’ but what the Gargoyles love about Oxford is how they can sing jazz and have a life outside of it too.
As they switch from rehearsal laughter to the first note of a song it is instantly evident how full of energy and soul the Gargoyles are. Singing jazz needs emotion and a bit of fun – no more is this evident than in their lighthearted approach to warm ups. Being part of the Gargoyles is something special. A capella frees its members, as Euan says, ‘you can just go anywhere and sing with anyone’.