Patricia Silver’s a cappella picks for Edfringe 2023

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It’s just the voice – and there is the power!

A cappella – singing without instruments – has been around for millennia.  People sing to communicate, to express feelings of joy or sadness, to join in community, to pray, to entertain.  Everyone has a voice. Singing is universal and transcends language, cultural traditions, and demographics.

A cappella music covers all styles of music around the world, from contemporary pop, jazz, music from various global traditions to barbershop, beatboxing, live looping and more.

Singing a cappella is especially challenging.  There is no piano to provide the background music and ensure that singers stay on key.  Performers are often dancing while needing to stay perfectly in tune. And if one singer goes off pitch – watch out!  It can be like dominoes falling.

A cappella festivals are thriving worldwide. From Broadway musicals to TV shows to hit movies, a cappella has grown exponentially in the past decade in fans and productions.  Just look at the success of Pentatonix, the U.S. five-person pop ensemble with three Grammy® Awards, more than 10 million albums sold worldwide and 5.5 billion YouTube video views.

University is a fertile breeding ground for a cappella groups. Many of the singers who start in uni choirs have gone on to great success touring and recording. Chart-toppers Straight No Chaser, a group of men from Indiana University, quit their “day jobs” to sing full time when their YouTube success spurred them on to a life of concert tours.  Canada’s award-winning Countermeasure was created with college friends and is now releasing their fourth recording and performing worldwide. Perennial Fringe favourites the Magnets formed while singing together in a production of Guys and Dolls at University College London.  So keep an eye on the young singers.  They might be the next TV stars!

Edinburgh Festival Fringe has a plethora of a cappella on the schedule this year. From up-and-comers to experienced pros, the shows will make you laugh, cheer, dance in the aisles, and maybe even tear up.  Here is some of what’s on offer.

theSpaceUK venues sport the most number of a cappella groups, mostly uni students. Shows have fun themes. Newcomer Birmingham University’s A Cappella Groups ask what songs would be the soundtrack for your disaster movie in A-Catastrophe!.

The Rolling Tones, ICCA UK Finalists from Kings College London, bring an a cappella twist to the world of 007 with songs by artists including Rina Sawayama, NCT 127 and Rihanna in Aca-sino Royale.

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Returning with their new show, Aca-Ting Out, TikTok sensation Oxford Belles present an hour of feminist anthems, from Beyoncé to Britney.

Billed as “a whirlwind journey of romance”, two groups from Bristol are combining forces to produce a bit of musical drama in Aca-Villa: The Love Island Musical.

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Durham University’s top a cappella group is celebrating a decade of award-winning vocals as Northern Lights presents Northern Lights A Cappella’s 10th B’day Bash: Top of the Bops

UK National Champions Bristol Suspensions are back with a new production, SUSPS: The A Cappella ‘Friends’ Show, in a nod to the TV show Friends and the Pitch Perfect movies.

From Oxford University comes two groups that are standouts. Out of the Blue at Assembly George Square has enough polish to put them nearly into the pro category. Their show is a audience-pleaser, with funny routines and excellent harmony singing.

The Oxford Gargoyles at Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose forgo cute themes and choreography to concentrate on delivering outstanding jazz harmonies.

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On the pro side, experience wall-shaking beats at Assembly George Square from The Beatbox Collective with The Beatbox Collective: What’s Your Sound?, a team of the UK beatbox competition winners. You might even leave the show with some new sounds made by just your mouth! UK international touring artists The Magnets are paying tribute to legendary artists Queen, Stevie Wonder, The Beatles, The Jackson 5 and more. The energy output from these five singers is enough to power the whole of Edinburgh! .

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And for something completely different, The Kinsey Sicks handily combines top-drawer four-part singing with smart comedy and engaging entertainment in The Kinsey Sicks: Drag Queen Storytime Gone Wild at Gilded Balloon at the Museum. Described as “America’s most potty-mouthed and politically outspoken drag a cappella quartet”, they have artfully delivered clever, outrageous parodies for 30 years. 

Sample as much as you can.  Then go home and join a choir.  Singing is good for the soul and great fun.

Patricia Silver is the Co-Founder and Co-Manager of SING! The Toronto International Vocal Arts Festival, Canada’s premier a cappella festival. She has produced multiple shows at the Edinburgh Fringe.