By Nia Hightower, DC Music Live
Afro Blue Vocal Band is out to prove that a band by any other name can be the same.
You may remember the jazzy a cappella ensemble that sang its way into the finals of last fall’s NBC talent show, The Sing-Off, with arrangements of the Fugees’ version of the Roberta Flack classic “Killing Me Softly.” That was back when they went by Afro Blue.
“Both groups are very similar, but very different at the same time,” says member Danielle Withers, who now lives in Los Angeles.
The version of Afro Blue that appeared on The Sing-Off included 10 members, current and former, of Howard University’s jazz vocal group that is led and was founded by music professor Connaitre Miller.
All have remained a part of Afro Blue Vocal Band.
“It does get confusing because we were birthed out of a class at Howard University, and the class does still exist there,” Withers says. “With the lineup of Afro Blue Vocal Band being people who are still at Howard and people who are doing different things and live in different places, we wanted to keep the name because that’s what everyone knows us as.”
The members first performed as Afro Blue Vocal Band in April during the album release show of Howard’s Afro Blue ensemble. Their professor and former music director, Miller, was there for the show as well.
“To hear her accolades [about our performance] made us feel really great,” says Cokely, native of Columbia, S.C., who now resides in Hyattsville, Md. “She’s a genius.”
The summer has been a busy one for the Afro Blue Vocal Band with performances at this year’s local Capital Jazz Festival and a more recently at B.B. King’s Blues Club and Grill in New York. The vocal jazz ensemble will perform again in the D.C. area July 14 at The Strathmore.
“We always do songs with a jazz twist to it,” says Cokely. “We want to do songs that people know, but we also want to introduce those unfamiliar with it to jazz.”
The members say each person brings a certain style and flavor to the group born out of their time in Afro Blue and their own solo experience.
For example, Withers, who performed with Afro Blue from 2002 to 2010, sang backup vocals for numerous artists such as Mario, Mya and Kim Burrell while pursuing her degree in music education.
“It was a good introduction to what the music industry was going to be like as an artist,” she says. “Being a background singer you get the opportunity to see how everybody operated – management, labels, etc.”
Berkon, an Afro Blue member from 2008-2010, pursued her graduate degree in music education while performing with the group.
“I had heard of Afro Blue on NPR, because they had been interviewed and performed on a show,” recalls Berkon, an Arizona native who now resides in Alexandria, Va. “I tried out for the vocal jazz choir never thinking I was going to get into Afro Blue.”
She did make the cut and today continues her musical pursuits as an educator in local theater and writing her own songs.
Cokely, who performed with Afro Blue from 2010 to 2011, is the only member who didn’t study music. He, instead, studied audio production.
“I’ve always had an interest in music technology and performing, [and] it’s always been a goal of mine to be a singer.”
World of A Cappella
Though there are many similarities to what Afro Blue is and what the Afro Blue Vocal Band is, Cokely explains one key difference. Howard’s Afro Blue is a jazz group that happens to sing some a cappella, but Afro Blue Vocal Band is strictly a cappella and performs jazz standards along with some arrangements of popular music.
“[Before The Sing-Off], I had no idea how big the world of a cappella was,” says Cokely. “It was great to gain respect from that community.”