Orrin Konheim is a freelance writer and journalist who writes about television for various publications in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. He has also written about The Sing-Off here and you can follow him on Twitter @okonh0wp.
Afro-Blue, the ten-member jazz a capella group from Howard University in Washington D.C., won over a large contingent of fans on NBC’s the Sing-Off with their unique take through several different genres. A front-runner to win it all at one point, they were the last group to be eliminated before the final episode much to the chagrin of the fans.
Behind the scenes, the group’s success is driven by faculty director Connaitre Miller who founded the group in 2002. The group was composed of three current students, four additional students who graduated around the time of the Sing-Off auditions, and three students who were in the ensemble during the 2009-2010 season.
This is the conclusion of a two-part interview between Orrin Konheim and Connaitre Miller.
Orrin Konheim: What was your reaction to watching the group on the show?
Connaitre Miller: I thought that everything that they did on the show was really high in quality. I just loved most everything that they did. The very first time they got any critical comments was “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” The comment was “I think you overthought the arrangement. It went over their heads,” I didn’t understand that, because I loved it. But maybe, [it was] because I was looking at it as a jazz musician.
Orrin Konheim: There was some controversy on the blogosphere about the group being tripped up by contradictory critique. Did the group get tripped up in all that?
Connaitre Miller: I think they were trying to do what was requested of them. What they did with the arrangements during that period that Ben refers to as being unfocused. They were trying to do their best to give what was requested of them. I think that maybe in some instances [with] the music [being] ‘over our head’ what they meant were some of our arrangements meant cluttered. Whatever it was, I don’t think they understood [it] exactly what the judges wanted them to do, but they did it anyway. They tried to make it more user-friendly or take some of the stuff out, but they didn’t like that either. But the thing is they never, ever sang badly. Even the week they sing the country song, when I heard “American Girl,” it doesn’t sound like that but it still sounded good.
Orrin Konheim: What was their reaction to being eliminated?
Connaitre Miller: The whole experience to them, [as] they have described [it] to me, as kind of like being in camp and they have [been] becoming so close and so friendly that in their own way, it’s a competition and not a competition. In some ways, it’s such a showcase of your talent. In some ways they were so supporting of the people who remained on the show, and in that case, it makes it easier to deal with. I know that sounds like Alice in Wonderland, pie in the sky, sugar coating. There’s something about that a cappella world that has that love of the art form and the love of the people doing it. They were at peace, they knew they did the best as they possibly could and I agree. Eveything they sang that night was flawless, and when you’ve done that, what more could you ask than putthat?
Orrin Konheim: Although one danger is that without getting the record contract, the group could split apart.
Connaitre Miller: We’re talking about that now. We’re talking about ways to keep the group together and performing. I’m getting a lot of requests for them performing so we’re going to find a way to work it out.
Orrin Konheim: What was the arranging process like? You had six people that were capable of arranging so how did it all work.
Connaitre Miller: Reggie took the lead. Most of the arranging was done by Reggie, John, and Mariah.
Orrin Konheim: What is the Afro-Blue approach to arranging?
Connaitre Miller: The way I did the arrangement of “American Boy” was first of all I listened to it several times on YouTube and then I bought the recording on iTunes. I transcribed the chords and transcribed the melody then I look at the lyrics of the song and come up with an idea of how I bring my own personality and ideas to the song. “American Boy” was about a girl who wanted to come to the U.S., and for me jazz is the American music, so I started it with a 12-8 or what we call an Afro-Cuban feel because the African polyrhythms are the roots of jazz, then we went to a 4-4 big band jazz feel, because those are things that are uniquely American. The idea is if she wants to come to America to experience the things that are American, you can’t get any more American than jazz.
Orrin Konheim: Wow, that does seem very complex.
Connaitre Miller: Yes, so when they made the comment on “Grapevine” that it was overthought, I thought hmmm, that’s interesting because I put a lot of thought in what I do.
Orrin Konheim: I noticed Danielle has most of the solo but at one point Eliza has a line.
Connaitre Miller: I had picked Danielle to solo for the whole song. The producers must have switched that. Sometimes you switch the soloists on a certain line or a certain portion to change the timbre. Eliza’s voice has a really sultry soul to it. Eliza’s voice on that one line changed the tone color in an effective way.
Orrin Konheim: How were the soloists chosen in general?
Connaitre Miller: I had chosen Christie to do American Boy. I think everybody agreed that Trent would be a great soloist on “Heard it Through the Grapevine.” From then on, sometimes the group would decide and sometimes it would be the producers of the show.
Orrin Konheim: What was the arranging process for “Put Your Records On” like?
Connaitre Miller: That one was a little more simple. It was a song about a girl who just wanted to be accepted for who she was. She talks about having some insecurities and the way that you want to be judged or whatever. For her, she would just put her records on and enjoy life. So a little bird just sat on the window and told her that everything should be ok. Just enjoy life, you’ll figure it out, everything will be ok. And so I just wanted to write a feel good song. That feel good is such happy music and latin jazz is like that.”
Orrin Konheim: Which of the group arrangements do you feel best embodied that philosophy?
Connaitre Miller: I feel like Killing Me Softly had that version to it. It just had such passion to it. The lyric that the other person is singing and killing me softly. And they just built it and built it and built it to erupt and show that overall passion that you’re hearing.
Orrin Konheim: You previously have not had much experience touring with other a cappella groups or entering a cappella competitions?
Connaitre Miller: We previously had not done any of that. We’re a jazz group and all of the groups we did things with were in the jazz world. We just did a collaboration at the Kennedy Center with the University of North Texas jazz singers. It was accompanied with a master class.
Orrin Konheim: It seems though that some of the groups on the show like Brigham Young Vocal Point, though, have a very large following. They’re well-known throughout the state of Utah and people on the East Coast know about them.
Connaitre Miller: The jazz world is definitely much smaller and we have groups in jazz who do a cappella music and the a cappella singing thing is an entity of its own and it’s not an entity that I’ve ever been involved with.
Orrin Konheim: But will you expand your range now by touring with other a cappella groups like the ones who those singers from your group have befriended on the show?
Connaitre Miller: There have been a couple of the other groups of the show who have mentioned it, possibly touring together. Someone from the group Delilah [has approached us] and there has been interest with the group doing something with The Yellow Jackets.
Orrin Konheim: What’s been the response at Howard University? Has it put the school on the map in a big way?
Connaitre Miller: I think there are a lot of people who never heard of Howard University before who now know of it, yes.
Orrin Konheim: Has the school shown much appreciation?
Connaitre Miller: The university is very proud of the group. They’re proud of the way they represented themselves. They carry themselves well. They always performed well. The university is very proud of them. I’m very proud of them.