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Amherst College a cappella group to sing at Peterborough Unitarian Universalist Church Saturday

Since the group was first conceived in 1950, the Amherst College singing group, the Zumbyes, have been collecting a range of music from each decade to create a wide assortment of a cappella arrangements. Their repertoire includes everything from the Beatles’ “Blackbird” to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” to James Morrison’s “Nothing Ever Hurt Like You.”

They will be will be bringing their unique sound to the Peterborough Unitarian Universalist Church on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

In 1950, the year the ensemble was founded, its members were driving to their first-ever gig, and still struggling to come up with a name to call themselves, when their car was pulled over for speeding. The cop asked what they were doing “zooming by.” By the end of the traffic stop, the members had agreed to call themselves the Zumbyes, figuring they could always change it down the road, but the name stuck. More than 60 years later, they’re still know by the name that emerged after a run-in with the law, at least that’s the way one of their present members, a Sharon resident, tells it.

When the group first formed, it was rooted in jazz influences. While that remains part of their flavor, Matt Fernald of Sharon noted in a recent interview, the group has grown past the limitations of one musical style. Both music and the a cappella scene has transformed in the 63 years the group has been in existence, said Fernald. While the Zumbyes have changed with the times, the group has carried the best of the past with it through the years, including original arrangements of popular music from years past. That’s more than six decades of popular music to choose from, giving the Zumbyes a large range of songs and genres to chose from.

“I love that that’s ingrained into the culture of our group,” said Fernald in an interview Monday, referring to the eclectic collection of songs. “That we maintain an appreciation for all types of music and keep a diverse set of music. We can fit in at any event and most any kind of situation.”

And while most of the music performed by the group is familiar, the students work to take well-known classics and popular favorites and bring them to a new level. Fernald, who is now a senior at Amherst College in Amherst, Mass., has been in the group since he was a freshman, and has contributed several of the group’s original arrangements himself. Tackling songs everyone knows and can sing along with, and changing them up to make them his own, is a challenging experience, said Fernald. But when done right, the new arrangement can enhance even the most beloved song.

“You have to put a little of yourself into it,” said Fernald. “You think to yourself, ‘How would I write this,’ or pull out one little motive or emotion from the song that I can take and make it a new song. It’s an exercise in both composition and arrangement. There’s always a point when it stops being the old song and starts being a new creation.”

Aside from using its own arrangements, the group’s camaraderie goes a long way to making the performances work, said Fernald. In a cappella music, there is no instrumental accompaniment — the beat and background music is all provided by the singers themselves. And to do that, all 14 members of the group must be in perfect harmony, in more ways than one.

“The best groups learn to listen to each other and move together,” said Fernald. “It becomes like a subconscious sixth sense. It’s a mystical connection that people can make with each other, that they can anticipate each other. Do things in unison, move in unison, sing in unison.”

This is not the first time the group has performed in Peterborough. Last year, they performed at ConVal High School.

Admission to Saturday’s performance is $10 for adults and $5 for students and children. For more information on the group, visit www.zumbyes.com.

Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 235 or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter at @AshleySaari.

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