VocaPeople are Israeli performers
by Lisa Traiger
Who are these bald characters, their faces painted clown white, their lips bright red? Wearing matching white sharkskin suits, they sing multipart harmony, doo wop, beebop, pop, disco, and R and B as if a full orchestra is playing behind them.
Rumor has it they come from Israel, but Shai Fishman, a Los Angeles-based composer, arranger and choreographer, insists they are “aliens from another planet.” Yes, aliens.
Fishman calls this group he created along with Israeli compatriot Lior Kalfon VocaPeople. The story, or shtick, goes like this: These white-faced singers come from the distant planet Voca, situated somewhere behind the sun. There they communicate only through song and sound. They’ve landed here to bring their music to us earthlings.
And wherever they came from, they’re certainly going places. The eight-member a cappella singing group, spiced up with a healthy dash of beat box, has taken the world by storm since Tel Aviv native Fishman loaded a YouTube video of a rehearsal back in 2009. In less than five minutes, that clip succinctly and creatively traced the history of Western music from Gregorian chant through Bizet’s “Carmen” to Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean.” It took only a month to garner a million hits. Fishman knew then that he had something big on his hands.
How do they sound? Take the vocal dexterity of Bobby McFerrin and the multipart harmony of a cappella groups like Take Six, then add in the rollicking antics of Blue Man Group. Stir in an eclectic mix of Hit Parade, American Bandstand and Billboard chart-topping hits and you get the picture. VocaPeople sounds like a fully tricked out cover band, but they “play” all instruments using only their voices, and along with Fishman’s sometimes silly choreography it somehow works.
These days, the multi-instrumentalist spends much of his time in the air, flying across continents overseeing five different international touring companies of VocaPeople. In addition to a U.S. company, VocaPeople has troupes performing throughout Europe, South America, Japan, Germany, and for 18 months straight at a theater in Paris – longer, Fishman claimed, than Les Miserables Parisian run.
Next Thursday, VocaPeople touches down at the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, bringing its lively 90-minute show filled with Fishman’s imaginative arrangements of close multipart, harmonic singing to the region’s best-sounding acoustic concert hall.
As a kid growing up in Tel Aviv, Fishman began his music studies with flute at 8 or 9. He moved on the next year to French horn (they needed a French horn player in the orchestra that year), then he picked up trumpet, followed by saxophone, drums, and finally piano. By the time he was out of high school, he was arranging for and working with the Israeli air force’s prestigious band. “I got to travel to all sorts of military bases in Israel,” he said. “Which was a great experience for me. I got so much experience working with people, at 21 I was a veteran of working with” almost everyone in the Israeli music industry.
But Fishman had his sights set on working in the film industry. “My favorite genre was music for films, music for television: John Williams, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, Bernard Herrmann. … That kind of composition that works well with media and is so descriptive and bigger than life and basically enhances a visual was fantastic to me.” He realized that the Israeli film industry wasn’t large enough to support his desire to compose for movies. It took a decade, but at 28 Fishman set out for Los Angeles. “I said to myself, you studied enough music, if you don’t leave now to at least try to live in the States, how are you ever going to find out if you’re good enough?”
Since he’s been in L.A., Fishman, 37, has been a musical director for Broadway-style shows, including the Hebrew Hairspray in Tel Aviv; composed for commercials around the world like T-Mobile, Dannon and Tic Tac; and created major scores for museums, planetariums and even NASA, where he serves as head composer. But these days VocaPeople takes up about 80 percent of his time. He personally oversees and trains each cast, and though the performers are known as aliens for publicity purposes, a quick check of their given names – Vered, Adi, Boaz and Alona – suggests most are Israeli singers. The show, which runs like clockwork, works across cultures and languages because, Fishman said, it relies not only on the best music, but the most recognizable, while offering elements of surprise, little tricks and gimmicks that keep audiences engaged.
“This show is so quirky and funny,” he said, adding that the music – mostly the American pop songbook – is universal. “The reactions we get from people around the world are identical. It could be a kid in China or a grandpa in Turkey. It doesn’t matter, they respond in the same way. Because there’s no text, you don’t actually have to get the language. All the songs are so recognizable that it makes the show so international.”
VocaPeople will perform Thursday, April 18 at 8 p.m. at the Music Center at Strathmore, in North Bethesda. Tickets, $25-$65, are available by calling 301-581-5100 or visiting www.strathmore.org.