When University of Pittsburgh freshman Pramod Jacob sang his first song in Hebrew last fall, it was, admittedly, “a little uncomfortable,” he said. “I’m pretty much a devout Christian.”
Jacob is one of five freshman members of the Vokols, the Jewish a capella group that was founded back in 2006 as an affiliated group of the Hillel Jewish University Center. He is also one of four non-Jewish members, making this 13-member group about 30 percent non-Jewish.
“Of all the a capella groups [at Pitt], they seemed the most opened minded,” said Jacob. “I knew it was a Jewish group, but it didn’t bother me.”
If anything, though, its diversity makes the Vokols such a unique a capella group in Pitt’s musical landscape.
The group, which performs its spring concert this Saturday, March 26, at Pitt’s Public Health auditorium, is the area’s only Jewish a capella group among the many on Pitt’s campus, and sings a mix of contemporary pop songs and traditional Jewish tunes.
“They’re beautiful songs, and still fun to sing,” said Jacob. And not too hard, he might add — the Hebrew songs are transliterated on the page.
The Vokols first started gaining momentum in 2006, founded by a handful of Pitt alumni and former Hillel employee Deb Jacoby, by singing all around the city — at synagogues, Hillel events and, really, anywhere in the Jewish community where they were invited.
Five years later, though, the Vokols have watched all founding members graduate, and a new generation of the group emerge. Five Freshmen joined this year after auditioning for the group.
Pitt senior Amanda Russell, who is also the music coordinator at Temple Ohav Shalom in the North Hills, has watched the Vokols grow and develop for the past four years.
“The quality of our musicality has definitely increased, as have our standards for who we take into the group,” said Russell. “The musicians we have now were musicians before joining the Vokols.”
The leadership of the Vokols, which comes from a student board, is also fresh — every member this year is new to the board, said Vokols President Mike Zilberman, a Pitt junior.
“I was looking to join an a capella group for the first time,” he said. But amidst the loud chaos of Pitt’s activities fair, where so many new students sign up for groups and organizations, “I didn’t even know they were Jewish.”
Saturday’s concert will feature songs including “Such Great Heights” by the Postal Service, “Kiss from a Rose” by Seal and “Don’t Know Why” by Norah Jones, as well as more traditional Jewish songs in Hebrew. The Originals, an a capella group from Carnegie Mellon University, will open the show.
Several Vokols members refer to a trip last year to New York as the group’s greatest achievement; for their first time out of Pittsburgh, the Vokols performed at the 20th Annual Jewish Collegiate Festival of the Performing Arts amidst groups that were far larger, and older, than they.
“Being that we were a new, small group, off the map a bit, we were nervous that we wouldn’t be as good,” said Russell. “But we got onstage and had one of our best performances. It showed us that if we put the right work in, we could do it.”
As for the concert this weekend, Jacob said you can expect another one of those “best performances.”
“No matter where people come from or how old they are or how they were raised,” he said, “they can still come and have an awesome a capella experience.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)