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As someone who was in an East Asian a cappella group in college and someone who continues to arrange and record Chinese a cappella, I was ecstatic when I found out that China would be making its own version of “The Sing-Off”. I’m normally not much of a blogger, but since it seems that quite a few non-Chinese speakers are tuning in to the show, I thought it would be beneficial to provide some general comments and translations for each new episode.

So here we go. The Sing Off清唱团 (pronounced “Qing Chang Tuan” and literally means “a cappella group”) competition episode 1.

(In the wake of NBC canceling the US version, how lovely and bittersweet it is to hear that same old theme song and to see those lights and group boxes…)

Our host for the show is 赵屹鸥 (pronounced “Zhao Yi Ou”). [Note: Unlike in Western cultures, Chinese naming conventions are such that the last name comes first and is generally the first character (though there are some two character last names). Thus, in the case of our lovely host, 赵 (Zhao) is his last name, and 屹鸥 (Yi Ou) is his first name.]  He welcomes everyone to The Sing-Off and tells them that they are in for an unbelievable musical experience because 1) all sounds will be made by the human voice, 2) this kind of music is all about group work, and 3) they’ve brought together 16 of the best Chinese a cappella groups.

Now for the judges:

  • 韦唯 (Wei Wei) – The female judge. She is a well-known Chinese diva, and some have even dubbed her as “the Chinese Whitney Houston.”  For more information, check out her wiki page. According to the host, she usually never appears on any reality competition shows. Wei Wei says she was intrigued by the idea of a cappella, the idea that all sounds are made by the human voice.
  • 黄伟文 (Huang Wei Wen, English name: Wyman Wong) – The bald judge in the blue jacket and bow tie. He’s a well-known lyricist from Hong Kong and has written lyrics for Cantonese pop stars such as Eason Chan and Joey Yung. (His native dialect is probably Cantonese since he has a Cantonese accent when he speaks Mandarin Chinese.) He jokes that since these shows usually have three judges, he’s probably the extra fourth one. He says that he’s probably in charge of critiquing the lesser important aspects and that he represents the viewpoints of the audience.
  • 谷峰 (Gu Feng) – Judge in the blue shirt on the very left. He has been called China’s best jazz singer and drummer. He is also known for his vocal imitations of instruments such as the erhu (Chinese stringed instrument) and various percussion instruments. When it comes to music, he’s a self-described perfectionist.
  • 谭伊哲 (Tan Yi Zhe) – Judge in the white shirt and black jacket on the very right. He is a music producer from mainland China and has worked with singers including Wei Wei, Karen Mok, and Chris Lee. He loves the group aspect of a cappella, especially since much of pop music revolves around solo artists these days.

The first round of 8 groups bring us the theme song 《唱在一起》(Chang Zai Yi Qi / Sing Together) [composed by: 科尔沁夫 (Ke Er Qin Fu), lyrics by: judge 谭伊哲 (Tan Yi Zhe)].

Among the 8 groups, only 6 will move onto the next round. After each group’s first performance, the judges will critique and decide whether the group moves on or has to wait. The judges can only advance 3 groups based on their first performance. After all 8 groups have performed, one will be eliminated, and the remaining 4 will perform another song. The judges will then pick the 3 groups they liked best.

First round of performances:

1) 蚂蚁人声乐团 (Ma Yi Ren Sheng Yue Tuan / Ant Vocal Group)

  • Intro package – They’re singing a snippet of 庾澄庆 Harlem Yu’s 情非得已 (Qing Fei De Yi / Can’t Help Falling in Love). They’re all about youth and beauty. They love their group leader, and he refers to his group members collectively as ants. They hope that someday a cappella would be as widespread as apples.
  • Performance –  TV theme song medley: 周华健Emil Chau’s 《难念的经》 (Nan Nian De Jing / Difficult Scripture) , 罗文 Roman Tam and 甄妮 Jenny Tseng’s 《铁血丹心》 (Tie Xue Dan Xin / Iron Blood, Loyal Heart), 许镜清 Xu Jing Qing 《西游记》 (Xi You Ji / Journey to the West), 叶丽仪 Frances Yip’s 《上海滩》 (Shanghai Tan / Shanghai Bund), 左宏元 Zuo Hong Yuan and 张慧清 Zhang Hui Qing’s 《渡情》 (Du Qing / Love on a Boat?), 动力火车 Power Station’s 《当》 (Dang / When), 刘欢 Liu Huan 《好汉歌》 (Hao Han Ge / A Song to Tough Guys).
  • My thoughts – They crammed way too many songs into one medley. Thus, it seemed more about the novelty factor than the musical aspect. Their sound was a little too thin for many of the songs. I think it was probably an arrangement issue (seemed too top heavy) and the lack of a true bass/too high of a bass line. The soloists were pretty decent (especially considering the range of songs), and the staging seemed pretty good.
  • Judges’ commentsWei Wei: I applaud them for being the first group; there’s so much pressure. I liked their creativity, and I was really impressed with their Cantonese songs. Gu Feng: It was very creative but too busy. There were too many songs, and it’s like if you had several dishes but could only try a small taste of each. Wyman: It felt like when I ate spaghetti in Japan. Usually, if I heard a medley like that, I would have turned off the TV, but when you have non-native Cantonese speakers singing an a cappella medley of these theme songs, it all became very interesting. I anticipate your future performances.
  • Judges’ decision – Wait and see.

2) 壮声 (Zhuang Sheng / Strong Voice)

  • Intro package – They’re comparing their group members to various Chinese pop stars; they have an A-Mei Chang, a JJ Lin, an Eva Huang, a Greeny Wu, and a David Tao.
  • Performance – Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” [apb. Peter Hollens]
  • My thoughts – I’m biased against this since this isn’t their own arrangement… It’s Tom Anderson’s. I’m guessing they transcribed it from Peter Hollens’ video. The performance isn’t bad though there are some tuning and rhythm issues. They’re not really hitting those descending arpeggios/bell chords. Bass and VP are decent.  (Also, is that Mr. Vocal Blog (Florian Städtler) in the audience?)
  • Post-performance comments – They quit their full-time jobs to sing a cappella. One of the guys became a part-time food delivery boy.
  • Judges’ comments – Tan Yi Zhe: You guys are too good. Bass and VP are phenomenal. Gu Feng: I loved the Bass and VP as well. Give us a special demonstration please. Wyman: Let’s talk about your clothing. Maybe you could all wear the same thing on stage and then halfway through the performance, take off a layer to reveal your individual styles.
  • Judges’ decision – Advance.

3) 新声驾到 (Xin Sheng Jia Dao / New Sounds Have Arrived)

  • Intro package – They are all freshmen from Beijing Contemporary Music Academy, and they just started this group about 3 months ago. They need music like they need food.
  • Performance – Tank’s 《城里的月光》(Cheng Li De Yue Guang / Moonlight in the City), opb. 许美静 Xu Mei Jing – The song is about separated lovers. It’s about thinking of the other person who’s under the same night sky and hoping to reunite someday.
  • My thoughts – The first verse sounded really promising, but after that, the chords became rather bland. The arrangement also could have used more rhythmic complexity. The performance is pretty good for a new group though.
  • Judges’ comments – Wyman: I liked their feeling of camaraderie and brotherhood. Tan Yi Zhe: If I were to produce something for you, it’d probably be a teen musical tv drama. Wei Wei: It sounded very good at first, but then it got a little boring.
  • Judges’ decision – Wait and see.

4) 麦克风 (Mai Ke Feng / MICappella)

  • Intro package – They’re a group from Singapore that focuses on Chinese music. Most groups in Singapore sing English songs, but since MICappella group members speak Chinese, they wanted to try out Chinese a cappella and inspire others to do so as well.
  • Performance – 卢广仲 Crowd Lu’s “OH YEAH”translated lyrics courtesy of the Northwestern Treblemakers who also recorded an a cappella version of this song
  • My thoughts – I’ve heard MICappella’s studio version, so I wasn’t surprised that I loved their performance… I love their arrangement and their sound, so I’m not going to nitpick the performance.
  • Post-performance comments – Since their Chinese name includes the word 疯 (which means crazy/wild), the host was like “it seems there’s a method to their madness.” At first, they’re sitting in the chairs. On the outside, they’re not moving, but on the inside… That’s called smoldering. Then at the end, it was “totally crazy.”
  • Judges’ comments – Wei Wei: When you came off the stage, you practically swept me off my chair. I really love your VP; he was so into it. Gu Feng: He’s the best VP we’ve seen thus far. He has so many different sounds with both the drum set and other percussion instruments. Host: Could you show me again? <VP demo time> Wyman: Your performance is so professional. It almost doesn’t seem like a competition to you. When you’re too professional, you don’t have the feeling of nervousness and anxiousness associated with being a competitor.
  • Judges’ decision – Wei Wei: Because they’re so professional, our expectations for them are also higher. We want to see them perform again. Wait and see. [Me: BOO.]

5) 山麻雀 (Shan Ma Que / Russet Sparrow)

  • Intro package – They’re a group of six women from Shangri-La. They sing Lisu ethnic and Tibetan folk songs. They want more people to experience Lisu culture. One of the women has never seen the sea before. They sing a snippet of 郑绪岚 Zheng Xu Lan’s 《大海啊故乡》 (Da Hai A Gu Xiang / The Sea, Homeland).
  • Performance – 《木刮斗》 (Mu Gua Dou) – Not sure what the song title means. According to the running subtitle, the song is about how after measures combating poverty have been implemented and the homeland has taken on a new appearance, the people are very happy.
  • My thoughts – I don’t know anything about Chinese folk music, so I can’t really critique this.
  • Post-performance commentsHost: This is their first time venturing out from their homeland. They’re nervous. How many of you are mothers? Do you miss your children? Will one of you speak to your children through the camera? One of the mothers: Baby, Mama has come to the big city and seen lots of tall buildings. Mama misses you. One day, Mama will bring you here, let you see the tall buildings yourself, and buy you lots of toys.
  • Judges’ comments – Wei Wei: As an ethnic minority myself, I’ve really been looking forward to seeing representation from our various ethnic minority groups. I was really touched by your performance, and it brought me back to my childhood when I first heard a folk song. Wyman: It’s as though I was trying to pick an outfit for a hip party, and among my grandfather’s old clothes, I found the best and the coolest outfit.
  • Judges’ decision – Advance.

6) 小鬼人声乐团 (Xiao Gui Ren Sheng Yue Tuan / Little Devils Vocal Group)

  • Intro package – Little Devils self describe themselves as funny, free, real, silly, and happy. They’ve been around for 3 years, and they mainly sing classical music. (They used to be a choir.)
  • Performance – 《命运贝多芬》 (Ming Yun Bei Duo Fen / Destiny Beethoven) – derived from Beethoven’s 5th symphony
  • My thoughts – Eek. Intonation. Classical music is pretty unforgiving when it comes to pitch.
  • Judges’ comments – Tan Yi Zhe: I really liked the tall guy in the back. His eyes are small but during the performance, his eyes were wide open and looked bigger than everyone else’s. I want to write you guys a musical. Gu Feng: You’re pretty impressive considering how hard classical music is. But I can tell that you don’t feel super connected to classical music, so if you want to get further in this competition, you should pick music that you feel a greater connection to.
  • Judges’ decision – Wait and see.

7) ET

  • Intro package – They’re telling us about the different planets they’re from. Everyone has strong personalities, so there are occasional arguments. A group is not just about singing together but also about living together.
  • Performance – Katy Perry’s “E.T.” [apb. Pentatonix]
  • My thoughts – They’re called ET… 4 guys, 1 girl. Reminds me of Pentatonix. Oh look, they’re singing Pentatonix’s arrangement of “E.T.” I can’t judge this seriously. It doesn’t sound bad, so obviously they have talent. But it’s not their arrangement, so I can’t help but compare them to Pentatonix…
  • Judges’ comments – Tan Yi Zhe: The girl is a really really important part of your group, and her pitch is great. Wyman: If you want to sound like an American or British group, then your English pronunciation needs to be really good. You sounded like a Japanese/Korean group singing English. Wei Wei: I liked how you said it wasn’t just about singing together but also living together.
  • Judges’ decision – Wait and see.

8) Hey Boy

  • Intro package – They’re all from the same school in Hunan. They’re singing 宋祖英 Song Zu Yin’s 《辣妹子》 (La Mei Zi / Spicy [meaning: Feisty] Girl). The group leader talks about how some people prefer singing songs from other countries rather than singing Chinese songs and how he doesn’t care for that. He hopes that in the future, there will be more focus on Chinese style music rather than copying Western pop music. [Me: I’m curious why their group name is Hey Boy then…]
  • Performance – 《等到花儿开满山野》 (Deng Dao Hua Er Kai Man Shan Ye / Wait Until Flowers Bloom All Over the Mountain) – Song is about a boy waiting for his dream girl to appear.
  • My thoughts – I like their unique sound. I really liked the middle section although I think a few different chords would have made it even better.
  • Judges’ comments – Tan Yi Zhe: Their audio and visual presentation felt very different to me. The soloist had a really bright timbre. Wei Wei: Body movements were great. The body rhythm was different than the rhythm of the song. I’ve only seen this kind of quality in Michael Jackson. [Me: Lol what?]
  • Judges’ decision – Wait and see.

Since the judges only advanced 2 groups so far, they get to advance one more, and that’s MICappella [Me: Ohh Yeahhh!]

As for the group going home, it’s the Little Devils. The group representative says they actually haven’t been singing a cappella for very long. [Me: I guess the 3 year thing was about their old choir?] They’ve met so many awesome people and learned so many new things via The Sing-Off. She thanks their group leader and their teacher. Their swan song is 《夜曲》 (Ye Qu / Nocturne) [I’m not familiar with the song, so I have no idea who the composer is. My guess is Chopin?].

Second round of performances:

1) 蚂蚁人声乐团 (Ma Yi Ren Sheng Yue Tuan / Ant Vocal Group)

  • Performance – F.I.R’s 《我们的爱》 (Wo Men De Ai / Our Love) – The song is about someone who’s having a hard time letting go after a breakup.
  • My thoughts – Ack, intonation. The bass line is really not working for this song. The chorus of this song is supposed to be very emotional and powerful, and the arrangement is really not bringing that out.
  • Judges’ thoughtsWei Wei: That was not the best song choice. I didn’t really hear anything new.

2) 新声驾到 (Xin Sheng Jia Dao / New Sounds Have Arrived)

  • Performance – Britney Spears Medley (“Oops!.. I Did It Again” / “Toxic” / “Hold It Against Me”) [apb. Pentatonix]
  • My thoughts – This is sounding really good… But oddly familiar. Oh wait. Another Pentatonix arrangement. Gah. The execution is pretty good – still can’t compare with the original though. The soloists aren’t great, but I suppose they’re passable.
  • Judges’ thoughtsTan Yi Zhe: Your performance was so incredibly cool. I was moving with you the entire time. Near the end, the beatboxer did a really low bass sound; could you show that? [VP demonstration] [Me: I’m guessing that was lip buzz?] Wei Wei: That was amazing. You left it all on that stage.

3) ET

  • Performance – Lady Gaga, ft. Beyonce – “Telephone” [apb. Pentatonix]
  • My thoughts – Hm, which Pentatonix song are they going to sing now? Oh, “Telephone”… Lovely. So are they going to sing Pentatonix arrangements during their entire run on the show?
  • Judges’ commentsGu Feng: Even though we often imitate instruments with our voices, most people still feel there’s an invisible wall between singing and playing instruments. Even though you mostly sing dance music, you could include a little something like [imitates a horn] to give the audience a little shock. [Me: I don’t quite understand what he means by this…]

4) Hey Boy

  • Performance – 叶启田 Ye Qi Tian’s 《爱拼才会赢》 (Ai Pin Cai Hui Ying / You Must Work Hard In Order to Win) – Taiwanese/Hokkien dialect song
  • My thoughts – I liked this better than their first performance. I thought the arrangement was more interesting/contemporary-sounding, but that was probably made necessary by the song choice.
  • Judges’ commentsWyman: You’re the music world’s Shaolin monks. After hearing this, I really wanted to do kung fu and drink wine.

New Sounds, Hey Boy, and ET advance to the next round, which means Ant Vocal Group is going home. The group representative says even though they can’t continue in the competition, they’re still going to continue working hard and singing together. Their swan song is 汪峰 Wang Feng’s 《飞得更高》 (Fei De Geng Gao / Fly Even Higher). They hope that the other groups can “fly even higher.”

——————–

Some general thoughts on my part… I’m really not liking the use of other people’s arrangements on this show. I understand that Chinese a cappella is a new thing, and one of the best ways to learn/get better is to transcribe and sing other people’s arrangements. I also understand that not all groups arrange their own stuff, especially in the course of this competition. But it’s one thing to have someone else arrange a song for you; it’s another thing to have someone’s recording of the arrangement from which you can just directly learn how to imitate. Just look at the big difference between New Sounds’ two performances. Their first performance was a song that I assumed they arranged themselves, and their second performance was a Pentatonix arrangement. These guys are music students! Shouldn’t they be able to apply some of what they’ve learned from transcribing a Pentatonix song to their own arrangements? I’m also hoping that in future episodes, groups will sing more Chinese songs. I tuned in to hear Chinese a cappella, not covers of a cappella covers of English songs.

ETA: After some discussion with Deke, I realized that I was a bit harsh on these groups. Given that it’s the first ever episode of The Sing-Off China, it’s understandable that most groups are extremely nervous, and so it would be wise to stick to something in their repertoire that they are extremely comfortable with, even if it’s originally a Pentatonix or Tom Anderson arrangement. These are not easy arrangements, and if we’re just talking about the execution aspect, their performances have been good. The talent is there, and I’m looking forward to seeing their growth. [Big picture-wise, the general public is now being exposed to (and hopefully inspired by) arrangements from the greats, and that is a very good thing for the future of Chinese a cappella.]

To further clarify my thoughts on the Chinese vs English songs thing… I’m not against groups singing English songs; I’d just rather hear them sing Chinese ones. Any English song that they’d be inclined to cover is most likely a mainstream hit, and those songs usually have multiple a cappella versions already. Also, most of their English pronunciation isn’t great, and there’s generally not enough enunciation, which tends to bother me more than the actual pronunciation aspect. Anyways, Deke says there will be more Chinese music in future episodes, so I’m really looking to hearing how these groups reinvent some of my favorite songs.

——————–

Next week, we’ll see the second bracket of 8 the top 6 in bracket A compete for 4 spots! [Thanks for the correction, Deke!]

Feel free to leave any comments or questions, and let me know if you want anything else translated.  Also, since I’m familiar with a lot of the original Chinese songs, I probably have a different perspective than someone who doesn’t know the source material, and I would love to hear from some of you who don’t know the original songs.

 

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