Written by Walter Pierce
Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Being a vocal percussionist, otherwise known as a mouth drummer, has its advantages. First and foremost, you’re a member of an extraordinarily select group. A handful, mostly under the hip-hop umbrella, earns a living with their unique brand of noise making. Jeffrey Thomas Thacher is a card-carrying member of the fraternity. Thacher “plays” percussion with the quintet Rockapella, one of the most popular a capella pop groups in the world.

“Back in the ’70s people started doing mouth drums, beat boxing, with rap music,” the 42-year-old explains, “and between then and now there’s developed a profession where a guy can do this full time in a vocal band like Rockapella — a vocal band that does rock music. So, it’s gone from being kind of a special effect, and there are still people doing sort of hip-hop style solo acts with this stuff, to a full-time drummer position. For two hours I’m up there banging away.”

Banging away with his mouth and his throat, Thacher uses a discretely placed microphone — a guitar pick-up, actually — attached to his neck to help project his beats. The Berklee College of Music alumnus is so adept at his art form that he became the first mouth drummer to be professionally endorsed by a guitar pick-up company. Thacher transitioned early in his career from simply imitating drums — faithfully mimicking the sounds of the bass drum, the snare, the high hat symbols — to interpreting those percussion sounds while creating something uniquely human and “organic,” as it’s known within the profession. “I’m supposedly called the father of organic vocal percussion,” he admits sheepishly. “I started professionally back in ’91 or ’92, and then Rockapella was ’93, and back then there weren’t many guys doing it.” There still aren’t many guys doing it, and by all accounts Jeff Thacher still does it the best.

The members of Rockapella have changed over the years — none of the original members of the band, which grew out of an a capella group at Brown Univeristy who were “discovered” while busking New York City Streets in the mid ’80s, remains with the group. They’ve popped up in television specials and elsewhere in America’s pop consciousness over the years, but they hit it big with the kiddies in the early ’90s when they became regulars on the PBS children’s television gameshow, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? “People who grew up watching that — and their moms I guess — have been a constant source of audience for us,” Thacher says. “That sort of final generation of those kids, the youngest ones, are moving through high school and college right now.” If you’re of a certain age and demographic in the U.S., in other words, there’s a soft spot in your heart for Rockapella.

Yet after their run on the PBS series from 1991 to ’96, many in America still wondered, “Who in the world is Rockapella?” It took an extended stay in Japan, where a capella has long been a staple of popular music, to give Rockapella momentum and wider exposure. “In Japan, they tend to be a little more unrestrained there because a capella has never been on the sidelines,” Thacher explains. “They put it on Top 40 radio, they put it on television. They have college groups and professional groups, but those groups have been permitted to have major record deals.” Rockapella has released 10 albums in Japan and seven others in North America, where a capella pop music is finally getting a foothold. But the group remains a world traveller. “You gotta go where the work is,” Thacher says, “and a capella has sort of finally started to have its day, and I’m glad we’re still around.”

Rockapella performs at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 13 in the Heymann Performing Arts Center as the final mainstage performance of PASA’s 2009/2010 season. Tickets are on sale now and available through TicketMaster outlets, by phone at (877) 745-3000 or online at www.pasa-online.org.


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