Meet New York’s a cappella ‘ambassador’By Cristina DC Pastor
A cappella music has come a long way. It’s no longer the boring, one-dimensional music played on our parents’ LP records. The 15th century choral music, which started in Europe, has adopted some elements of hip hop’s beatboxing and is enjoying a resurgence in campuses across America.
It sounds like a combination of cheerleading and chanting, and I mean it kindly.
Go to YouTube and type ‘a cappella’ and you will find a long lineup of collegiate choirs singing without any musical instruments. Many of them are interpreting Lady Gaga’s hits in their unique all-vocal kind of way. Young students are singing in the genre and forming groups without spending tons of money on musical instruments. As a matter of fact, NBC has created the reality show “The Sing-Off” for a cappella competition, and the Anna Kendrick flick, “Pitch Perfect,” about aspiring cappella coeds became a mild hit early in the year.
Jim Diego, 28, of Jackson Heights is in the middle of the current a cappella craze. He founded an a cappella group in New York within five months of moving to the city from Michigan in 2007. The Red States released its first album, “The Red States: No Political Affiliation,” on the same year, garnering nominations and awards from the Contemporary A Cappella Society or Casa, the Grammy’s of the a cappella music world. Now renamed Restated, the group of about 15 members has performed in colleges, community centers and at private parties.
“This 14-strong group is dedicated to bringing its repertoire of rock, dirty pop and R&B hits all over New York City and beyond,” he writes on Facebook.
In June, Jim released his solo album of Whitney Houston songs called “The Whitney Project.”
More than just a singer, Jim is also the Casa ambassador in the New York area. He provides coaching, guidance or advice to newcomers, and has judged numerous a cappella competitions. He is set to produce a new single with a video track slated for release in the spring.
“A cappella is starting to get recognized again,” Jim said in an interview with The FilAm. “It’s uncanny what you can do with the human voice.”
Jim found himself hooked on a capella music as an architecture student at the University of Michigan. A pop tenor, he had been doing conventional choir singing around the Midwest at the time until he came across the Gimble, the university’s official a cappella choir. He auditioned and became a member. “It was my outlet for sanity during school,” he said.
Soon, “pure” music has taken over, although he still sings Karaoke for recreation. Rockapella of 20 years ago and the more contemporary Straight No Chaser are just two of the mainstream groups he listens to.
“There’s a certain authenticity to a cappella. Also a lot of creative license to reinterpret a song and change the arrangement. With Karaoke, it’s more manufactured (music), and there are drinks involved,” he said, accepting both forms of music as part of his life.
Jim said not many people realize how versatile a cappella can be, especially if it incorporates contemporary beatboxing. The mouth can recreate the sound of the drum or any percussion instrument, and still provide background to the lead singer. “You can pretend you’re a drum, a trumpet or violin and get your inner nerd out,” he said.
As Jim – as well as Beca of “Pitch Perfect” — will tell you, the secret to impeccable a cappella is being able to hold your own, sing as an ensemble, and sound like one. “Sing with a solo voice.” Some YouTube choirs are not quite there yet, and blending as a group is hard to wing especially without an instrument to oil the little squeaks.
When he’s not singing – and dancing — Jim works as senior portfolio planner for the City of New York’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services. He landed the job shortly after completing his Master’s in Urban Planning from Hunter College.
He believes his musical talent is genetic, although his parents are not professional musicians. His mother is a doctor who worked at the McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kansas and his father was an accountant at Boeing.
“We are a community of performers, we’re very musical,” said Jim. He believes Filipinos will grow to love a cappella the way he warmed up to it and made it the center of his life.