There are probably few choir groups that have ever performed with such emotion that they evoked tears from their audience, but in December 2010, caroler Debbie Giallombardo remembers a woman almost brought to tears by what she was singing on the Pearl Street Mall.
She, along with others calling themselves the Boulder’s Bike Underpass Choir, was not singing “We Wish You A Merry Christmas,” she was singing an a capella arrangement of the Zimbabwean National Anthem.
“We go roaming on the mall for Christmas and we sing Christmas carols and African tunes,” Giallombardo recalls. “And a woman from Africa came up to us and she said, ‘I’ve been so homesick, then I’m walking in Boulder, Colo., and someone is singing the national anthem!’ It was really moving, she was really touched.”
Since 2009, this guerrilla choir has been performing unannounced, impromptu “singing attacks” in the underpasses and storefront recesses around Boulder. Their choice in music, their background and the preferred venue make this group one of the most distinctive choirs caroling in Boulder this holiday season.
Composed of eight to 10 regular bike commuters who met through the Colorado Coalition for African Music, Dance & Culture, Bike Underpass’ members are as eclectic as their repertoire. Among the regulars are physicists, paragliding instructors and the occasional Boulder High School student.
Only one member, Sara Green, grew up listening to songs with names like “Danna Kameme,” “Tiregererei,” and “Shosholoza.” Born in Swaziland, the tiny, landlocked African country bordered on three sides by South Africa and the other by Mozambique, Green moved from South Africa to Arizona 11 years ago. She arrived in Boulder in 2005 and has been singing regularly with the group for the past nine months.
“I got to know these guys through playing marimba, and it satisfies a homesickness for me to hear the harmonies,” Green says.
What draws other members to the music is the challenging singing that African music presents serious carolers.
Sam Richman, a physicist at Research Electro-Optics in Boulder, is a member and past president of the Boulder Chorale. He says singing the African songs helps to expand his music capabilities.
“It stretches me musically,” he says. “And there’s a little bit of an improvisational aspect; when we sing these songs, we tend not to perform them exactly the same way, and that’s different from a big score of sheet music.”
Members say that, unlike a traditional choir, Zimbabweans teach songs by ear, and in the underpasses only the newest members hold a binder filled with lyrics.
The vast majority of the songs they sing are traditional African songs, either from Zimbabwe or South Africa, although they occasionally mix in some traditional Christmas songs and can break into a jazzy a capella arrangement of “Blue Skies” by Irving Berlin at the drop of a scarf.
After performing together for three years, they have about 10 songs in their repertoire, and try to add three new songs each year. Besides African music, they’ve also learned an a capella version of a song by Crosby, Stills & Nash.
The group is so focused on South African music that it is regularly invited to Zimfest, a national Zimbabwean Music Festival.
What appeals to these musicians about underpasses is the natural acoustics.
Their favorite locations include the newly built underpass at Broadway and Euclid Avenue, the underpass that bridges the Hill and CU across Broadway and the underpass on campus at Regent Drive. Those present at the opening of the underpass at Broadway and Euclid Avenue in September might recognize Bike Underpass as part of the entertainment from that event.
“It sounds great, you can hear all the harmony and you don’t have to sing very loud,” says founder Lisa Seaman. “I really don’t like singing into microphones, and in the underpasses you can hear everything, and it’s not at the whim of how close the mic is.”
For a choir that is not exclusive to Christmas hymns and classics, Bike Underpass is surprisingly traditional. During a holiday season where images of Christmas carolers dusted with recent snowfall traveling door-to-door are seen in magazine advertisements and on television, very few formal choir groups perform exclusively in the streets without a tip jar at their feet.
With group members scattered across the country this holiday season, Bike Underpass does not have any scheduled performances before Christmas, but a small group said they may go caroling on Christmas Eve.