Collegiate talents: Yale Whiffenpoofs in Cairo

Photo courtesy: Yale Whiffenpoofs

The Yale Whiffenpoofs gave a concert at the Cairo Opera House’s open air theatre on Monday 16 July. Their performance was part of the annual Summer Festival held at the opera

Published in Al Ahram Weekly and Ahram Online

“Every year, 14 senior Yale men are selected to be in the Whiffenpoofs, the world’s oldest and best-known collegiate a cappella group. Founded in 1909, the ‘Whiffs’ began as a senior quartet that met for weekly concerts at Mory’s Temple Bar, the famous Yale tavern. Today, the group has become one of Yale’s most celebrated traditions.”- Thus the Yale Whiffenpoofs web site.

The tradition of the Yale Whiffenpoofs is unique and inspiring; it has endured for over a century. Since 1909, senior students from Yale University have formed a group to sing a cappella. “We are all the same age, all 4th-year students from the university, all of us 21 or 22 years old,” explains Benjamin Watsky, music director of Yale Whiffenpoofs 2011-2012 and one of the singers. “One of our members has a major in music but other than that we do not have any formal music education. Our interests range from political science to environmental studies, electrical engineering, geology, psychology etc. We study different subjects and the singing unites us.”

Watsky sang in a variety of groups before taking charge of this year’s Whiffs. A few of the singers share varying degrees of musical experience: some sing in choirs, others are members of bands or take part in theatrical performances. For a few Whiffs, this is their first on-stage experience.

In the spring of the third year, there is an audition process during which a new group is chosen to incarnate the tradition of the Whiffs. Every year, around the month of August, a set of 14 singers begin their musical journey, until they step down one year later, to pass the tradition to the next 14 senior Yale men. As such, the group turns over one hundred per cent every year. And so it continues over the decades…

The group is totally student-run and both the business manager and a music director are members of the group – singers. The Whiffenpoofs’ main driving force is their love of music, commitment to the college’s tradition and knowledge passed from one generation to another. Supported by a century-long tradition, the Whiffs raise funds by themselves, through performances and donations. “Every year, the new generation of Whiffs starts at zero and the idea is to end at zero. The only and in fact the biggest support we get from the university is the name,” Watsky explains. Some incarnations of the Whiffenpoofs release CDs and give benefit concerts.

The music director decides on the repertoire which includes mainly covers: songs performed by previous generations of the Whiffs along with new choices of the current group.  As per tradition, each year they perform The Whiffenpoof Song which is a humorous adaptation of a poem titled Gentleman Rankers by Rudyard Kipling. The same song has been recorded by Elvis Presley, Louis Armstrong, and many others.

The Yale Whiffenpoofs’ visit to Egypt was part of the group’s summer tour which takes 90 days (between end of May and August) and covers 30 countries. Their stay in Egypt was 24 hours long, as the Whiffs arrived from Madagascar in the early morning of 16 July, gave their concert at the opera in the evening and a few hours later took off to Dubai. The hectic schedule did not blemish their Cairo concert.

The current incarnation of the Whiffs has over 30 songs in its repertoire; they rotate them while performing in a variety of venues in the US and across the globe. In Egypt, the group performed 15 songs, among them: Bye Bye Blackbird, a popular American standard from the 1920s; September Song, a pop staple composed by Kurt Weill in the 1930s; Nature Boy from the 1940s, popularized by Nat King Cole; All in Love is Fair, Stevie Wonder’s well-known ballad from the 1970s; among many others. Pop hits from each decade, jazz, traditional songs, ballads and gospel music, topped with original compositions: the Yale Whiffenpoofs gave new dimensions to some compositions, raised eyebrows, put smiles on the audience’s faces and challenged the tastes of those used to specific interpretations of songs performed a cappella.

While Simon and Garfunkel’s The Boxer was not the strongest point of the evening, a gospel song Operator prompted well-deserved admiration, and When the Saints Go Marching In shone with original vigour. The Whiffs incorporated a simple mise-en-scene into a few songs – as was the case with If I Could Build My Whole World Around You from Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s 1967 album United.

Taking the short life span of each group into account, the coordination between the singers is truly astonishing. According to Watsky, this is due to the fact that the they spend a lot of time together and rehearse or performs on a daily basis – a very challenging task considering that their musical activity is on top of regular academic obligations. The musical understanding and interaction between those young men who are not professional musicians raises many chapeaux and permits us to turn a blind eye to what few musical flaws there might be.

The Yale Whiffenpoofs’ stay in Egypt was as brief as was their concert. What the evening lacked was a large audience as only the first few rows of the open-air theatre were filled by opera regulars. A pity that such an interesting and original event – different to many other evenings offered by the Cairo Opera House – was not sufficiently advertised.

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