PICTURED: Rockapella performs Feb. 11 at the Bank of America Performing Arts Center. Photo submitted

by Marina Dunbar

The 2010s saw a new phenomenon take over the entertainment scene. At least, it was new for mainstream audiences. With franchises like Pitch Perfect and Glee as well as YouTube sensations like Pentatonix becoming pop culture icons, a cappella arrangements (ie, without instrumental accompaniment) of pop songs were becoming unprecedented hits. While one might be tempted to believe this trend came out of nowhere, there was an undeniably trailblazing group that paved the way for the future of a cappella. It would be difficult to overstate the incredible influence that the renowned Rockapella has had over the last few decades.

Rockapella had humble beginnings, with the group’s first lineup getting its start playing gigs at the clubs and pubs of 1986 New York City. Its style and sound was so unusual compared to other music groups, leading to television opportunities. The first big break came when Rockapella landed a spot performing in a 1990 Spike Lee-directed documentary focused on the a cappella world. Then, in 1991, producers of the PBS children’s television show Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? were looking for a house band. After seeing Rockapella perform, they knew that they had found a musical treasure.

Jeff Thacher, vocal percussionist, would join Rockapella only a couple of years later. 

“I came in about halfway through [the gig on Carmen Sandiego],” explains Thacher. “At the time there weren’t many professional a cappella groups and it was a new idea for an a cappella group to have a beatboxer playing the role of a drummer. It wasn’t new for hip hop but it was new for the a cappella world . . . Now Scott [Leonard, high tenor] and I are the only two members who remain from that era and we’ve brought in three amazing performers to fill the other slots.”

As a vocal percussionist (also known as beatboxer or mouth drummer), Thacher’s skill is a unique one in the music world. “I went to Berklee College of Music, I grew up learning piano and I was in lots of choirs and similar things . . . back then, being a beatboxer white guy, you had to expect you weren’t going to get a lot of beatboxing employment. So, when this opportunity came along, I jumped at the chance.”

Rockapella offers listeners an exciting blend of original music along with original arrangements of popular soul, funk, rock and Motown classics. The practice of performing cover songs is a tradition in the world of a cappella. Members of the group will use only their voices to recreate every sound of an instrument heard on the original recording. But it is important not to mistake recreation with imitation. A cappella not only showcases the unique abilities of each musician, but also demonstrates their creativity when arranging and performing someone else’s music.

“Our philosophy for a long time has been ‘Why do a cover that exactly mimics the original?’” says Thacher. “We think it’s important to think outside the box, whatever that may mean for you . . . whether that means a different tempo or a different style or a mashup, there’s a way to do it that isn’t just rubber stamping the original.”

And of course, the human voice is the most authentic and powerful tool for music-making that exists. One might argue that all musical instruments aim to imitate or evoke the human voice. There is simply a different, more visceral response that people have to hearing the human voice as opposed to anything else. Vocalists are keenly aware of this, along with the unique struggles of being a vocal performer.

“Instruments are there for you but if your voice goes out, then that’s it,” explains Thacher. “It’s definitely a little more fragile. It’s an athletic activity as well as an art. At any moment something could change. Compare that to an instrument where if you tune it correctly, it’s pretty much always there for you.”

Rockapella performs on Friday, Feb. 11, at 7:30 p.m. at the Bank of America Performing Arts Center, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. For tickets and more information, call 805-449-2787 or visit bapacthousandoaks.com.