“The Halo Vision: Reviving the African American Legacy of Barbershop Roots”
Hello, everyone! It’s been a very long time since we’ve shared our news with you. Since after the Area 3 contest with Harmony, Inc., our bass, Jasmine, graduated from Morgan State University and relocated to Texas. Preparing for our first International Contest and Convention was very challenging– imagine working through a long-distance 4-way relationship! Still, we did, indeed make our way to the stage as the very first African-American quartet to compete at an International Barbershop contest. And, once again, we were given the Novice Award! So we are super proud and also humbled that all of Halo’s firsts have left little scratches in history.
People have looked at and listened to the four of us– beautiful, musically gifted women of color with lots of experience in other genres, from opera to Motown– and asked, “Why barbershop?” Our first and only review to our knowledge from Harmony Sweepstakes asked that very question, wondering why young black women would be interested in singing the “whitest” music that’s out there. That very question underscored for all of us the significance of our coming together to form this quartet: to revive the connections to and awareness of the roots of this genre to the African American musical traditions of jazz and spirituals. There is such a unique opportunity for inclusion in the barbershop world, which has a sensitive history of race relations of its own.
Halo belongs to Harmony, Incorporated– an international women’s organization of barbershop singers. Now, women’s barbershop is less known and popular than the traditional men’s barbershop, as it is. The Barbershop Harmony Society is the men’s ultimate umbrella organization for all barbershop singing, reaching worldwide to bring quartets of the highest caliber to compete on big-time stages each year. And those who do know about the women’s side of the barbershop world are more likely to know about Sweet Adelines, also a worldwide women’s barbershop organization. Harmony, Inc. got its start by breaking away from the Sweet Adelines organization in 1959 because of its segregation rules, which were also held by the BHS.
Of course, those rules are long gone and everyone who comes onto the barbershop scene is embraced as part of a community with its own musical culture. Still, that time of segregation represented a much longer period of racism and dehumanization of African American culture and cultivated such dissociation from its cultural birthplace; such that the members of the modern barbershop community is something that I found disappointingly homogenized as a woman of color finding my own place in it.
So who is this “I” that’s talking to you? I’m Shana Oshiro, the tenor and sort of “president by default” of this quartet. My portal into the alternate universe that is barbershop was through my first quartet, Epic, which won the Harmony international championship in 2012. There is little that I enjoy more than my time with those women, who are like sisters to me. And of course, I never felt anything other than welcome and loved in their presence and among all the sisters of Harmony, Inc. I still couldn’t help but notice, as in truth many American people of color do in such cases, that I was practically the only one like me in the room when at these barbershop events. At our international conventions, I might be one of 5 in a thousand there– singing a musical style whose idioms I recognized as rooted in my own culture. I love, love, love that it lives on and develops in its current form and I love, love, love that people of all backgrounds enjoy listening to and performing it. But I saw an opportunity to open another portal that would invite more people with the same kind of kinship with this music that I personally felt– and ultimately people of a wider variety of ethnic backgrounds. I imagine that such a movement could serve as a model for our national culture wherein we are able to acknowledge the evils of our socio-political history and turn it into an opportunity for embracing the pieces of humanity that we share– in this case, the transcending and healing impact of community and music.
I stand in this picture with a man by the name of Mike Maino, whom I met at Epic’s most recent gig (and just after the weekend of Halo’s first international contest), and where I also learned that his mother was one of the women who led the motion to create another barbershop organization for women, where all were welcome and where all were free to impact its growth and evolution. Talk about serendipity! After our takeoff and renewed energy and refreshed vision for what this quartet could do for the barbershop community, even if it’s just a seedling that catalyzes greater things from other people way down the line, I couldn’t help but take this as a sign to devote energy to a bigger vision for Halo. To be the first quartet of all women of color to win a crown. To be the first to charter a chorus for Harmony, Inc. that actively recruits women of color to participate. To see that this gateway allows for more of us to join together as a unique voice that will inspire a much greater presence of diversity in all of the barbershop organizations– and to renew the presence of this music in the conscious mainstream of African American musical heritage for generations to come.
Thanks for reading… and stay tuned for the rest of the journey!