Interview a few members of the Stanford University world-music a cappella group Talisman, and you hear the word "soulful" a lot. The student singers say they feel a profound connection with the songs, many of which come from the apartheid era in South Africa.
Interestingly, their passion for the music sometimes leads them to wonder whether they should be singing it.
"We grapple with this: Do we have the right to sing these songs? We weren't there. We can't know what they went through," freshman Mia Divecha says at a recent rehearsal.
"But," she adds, "we're acknowledging their history."
The history and stories behind the songs are what draws many of the singers to choose the group. Stanford vocalists have plenty of options; as at many colleges, there are numerous a cappella ensembles on campus. But while other groups may focus on pop songs or Christian or South Asian music, Talisman's repertoire of mostly music from Africa and the African diaspora gives the group a different niche.
Songs like "Soweto Blues" drew in Scott Frank, a Stanford senior and the ensemble's musical director. He describes a vivid version sung by the late South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba, saying that the song recalls the 1976 deaths of hundreds of South African schoolchildren who were protesting a law forbidding them from learning in their local dialects.
"When we sing that song, it's a hard step to take," he says. "But we need to respect these stories. ... When you put your soul into this conversation that happens through music, it really changes you."
Overall, Frank says of Talisman: "We don't think of it as a cappella. Our mission is the subject matter." He turns less serious, adding with a smirk, "And it attracts the best singers on campus."
Talisman draws alumni back, too. About 100 former members are expected to join the 23 current singers at Memorial Auditorium on Feb. 15, when the ensemble holds a 20th-anniversary concert. Graduates will sing in groups from the various years and then together with the current students, with songs including the traditional spiritual "Soon Ah Will Be Done"; "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," often called the African-American national anthem; and "Babethandaza," Talisman's signature opening piece, sung in Zulu.
A big part of being in Talisman is learning how to sing in various African languages. Singers study hard to stay true to the pronunciation, and often there is someone in the group who has studied a language and can help.
Before rehearsal, senior Shantelle Williams, Talisman's assistant director, demonstrates the clicks she's learned to make while singing in Zulu. "I sing best in English," she says, grinning, "but I also like Xhosa, a South African language. It has soft vowels. It's just soothing to listen to."
Williams, a self-described "proud alto," joined as a freshman after hearing Talisman on a visit to the campus before she started college. "I thought, 'If I wasn't convinced about coming to Stanford, I was now,'" she recalls. "They sounded like one voice, one soulful voice."
Williams grew up singing and appreciates that in Talisman she gets to use a jazzy, expressionistic style. Solos are typically descants, sung above the choir, giving the soloist freedom to express individuality and emotion.
A Talisman song with special meaning to Williams is "Wanting Memories," written by Ysaye Maria Barnwell of the African-American a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock. It's about grieving for a loved one, learning to focus on the beautiful memories rather than the pain.
Williams worked on that song with Talisman shortly after her father died. In one rehearsal, she was in tears, and other members sympathetically told her she should go home. But she stayed, saying that was where she wanted to be.
Also memorable to Williams were the two trips she made to South Africa with Talisman. With a wide smile, she recalls singing "Be Like Him," a piece with a gospel flavor, in Zulu in a retirement home there. Suddenly one woman got up, and then the room was filled with elderly people dancing. Several told Talisman how amazed they were that the students had come so far, across an ocean, "to sing our songs in our language," Williams says.
During the last two decades, Talisman has made several trips to Capetown, performing in schools, churches, senior homes, music centers and other venues in partnership with the Amy Biehl Foundation. The foundation was named after a Stanford graduate killed by South African township violence in 1993. Talisman performed at Biehl's memorial service.
Over the years, other meaningful highlights have included performances at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and at the White House, Talisman founder Joseph Pigato said. Bill Clinton heard the singers on campus during daughter Chelsea's freshman orientation, and invited them to sing at the White House Christmas party.
Pigato, who now lives in San Francisco after stints in India and Singapore, founded Talisman as a Stanford sophomore in 1990. He had a choral background and wanted to keep singing, but found the a cappella scene too pop-oriented.
"I wanted a group that was open to singing folk songs from around the world. They just have a lot of meaning," he said in an interview. "Great melodies, harmonies, rhythms."
It wasn't always easy getting a new group to thrive, especially when Talisman was competing for singers with more established groups, Pigato said. He recalled long nights of auditions and callbacks, and being disappointed when top singers opted for other ensembles. In fact, Talisman nearly disbanded in 1993.
"That's just a problem of being a new group. But then you get enough good people, and then success breeds success," he said.
In 1997, Talisman won the National Championship of Collegiate A Cappella and performed at Carnegie Hall. A 10-year anniversary concert in 2000 drew more than 100 alumni, and this year the group releases its eighth album, a two-disc album called "Twenty."
These days, the group is gearing up for the anniversary concert. On a recent evening, the singers gather in the lounge at Lagunita Court, where a large piano awaits Frank's starting note. The singers warm up, their tones echoing off the high wooden ceiling. Then they prepare to launch into "One By One," a resistance song in Xhosa. Williams translates the lyrics, which read in part: "Hold on tightly, my people. Do not lose your strength. Do not get weary."
It's pulsing music, with changing dynamics; there are sections of energetic clapping, and slow, almost mournful parts. Singers hum, then sing out. Soloists trade off as the music moves in swells. Divecha beams at another singer across the circle from her, then sings with her eyes closed.
Frank then runs some mini-auditions, in which various singers try out different solo lines and duets. Williams stands out, her voice round and poignant. She gives each word its time and place, and listeners can feel the truth even if they don't understand the language. There's a pause afterward, and Frank says simply, "That's beautiful."
What: "Sankofa," a 20th-anniversary concert put on by members and alumni of the Stanford a cappella group Talisman
Where: Memorial Auditorium, Stanford University
When: 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 15
Cost: Tickets are $8-$26. A $43 VIP ticket includes the album "Twenty."