Artist Profile: Maize Mirchi
While it’s pretty much impossible to talk about collegiate a cappella without at least some mention of 2012’s “Pitch Perfect” and the subsequent series that ensued, real-world competitive a cappella requires hours of meticulous rehearsal and thought — not just a miraculous cut from one scene to the next. The competition featured in “Pitch Perfect” — The International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA) — was first founded in 1996, and currently has around 450 groups competing in nine regions all over the country. The ICCA operates in a bracket-style setup, with competitors progressing through quarterfinals, semifinals and finals.
What can you do in a 12-minute performance? In a trend that’s gradually growing in the a cappella sphere, South Asian inspired campus group Maize Mirchi goes further than mere coordinated dance moves; they tell stories. Mirchi’s South Asian twist takes shape in their performances through a repertoire of several languages — including, but not limited to, Hindi. Their overarching goal is to fuse South Asian culture with pop music, creating a new style of sounds that people may not have heard before. Onstage, the 15-person group harnesses the delicately blended magic of their voices along with expressive face and body motions for truly chilling, magnetic performances.
“When you’ve got 16 people on a stage doing them all at the same time and trying to show the audience a specific emotion or a specific part of a story that’s occurring, then it has a pretty big impact,” said LSA Sophomore Swathi Sampath, one of Mirchi’s performance directors, in an interview with The Daily.
The group’s most recent performance storyline from last year’s competition cycle — which, for Mirchi, meant competing not only at the ICCAs but also at Awaazein (a competition similar to the ICCAs, except half of the 12 minute performance must be South Asian, and performers must portray a story) — conveyed two separate stories of two characters, one who was facing inner demons and one dealing with outer conflict from an abusive relationship. However, the narratives in each set change depending on what songs Mirchi decides on and what the members feel come out of the music.
Sampath is responsible for everything, from figuring out what to wear to events to choreographing the 12-minute set — including the movements, facial expressions and emotions the group conveys during performances. Her experience with music goes back 13 years, when she was five years old and first started singing the Indian classical genre.
“I came here and knew I wanted to try a cappella as a different type of music that I hadn’t done before,” Sampath said. “I’m really into Indian music, since that’s a lot of my background, but also Western music as well, and when I found a group that did both of them together I realized that was the only one I really wanted to do.”
Mirchi’s members come from all different experience levels. Engineering Sophomore Prakash Kumar, one of the group’s music directors, had plenty of classical training in piano and trumpet, but only really started singing his senior year of high school.
“In high school, I started a band,” Kumar said. “We performed at our high school talent show, and we ended up winning by playing sort of a mashup of songs by Coldplay — that was the first time I’d actually sang in front of people in my life. I was terrified. But it went well! And so I was like, ‘Hey, I can maybe sing!’”
Since the group first formed 11 years ago, Maize Mirchi has released two full studio albums and two EPs. Silent Call, the group’s most recent release, was actually recorded in a member’s basement with the help of Liquid 5th — a North Carolina-based production company that specializes in a range of services for a cappella singing, including producing albums, mastering tracks, running live performances or merely giving constructive criticism for a group.
“What we do is set up these mics and we have an air horn and we have to make everything super quiet. If there are any birds outside, we take the air horn and scare them away because otherwise, you’ll hear the birds in the recording,” Kumar said.
Recording is a seemingly straightforward process, but a cappella recording is far more complex than it lets on. Unlike choral recordings, a cappella recordings must be done individually, and usually more than once so that there’s a backup of every part. What’s more, mixing a cappella requires both precision and balance, due to the natural variations of voices and how different vocal parts go together. If not blended perfectly, the piece won’t sound right.
“You have a bass and you have someone doing vocal percussion, and those things will be equalized differently than the rest of the group, so you need to have those on their separate mics,” Kumar said. “And then sometimes you’ll have these weird moving parts in a song or an arrangement that you’ll want to bring out more — if you have just one mic sitting there, you can’t say ‘Bring out the altos!’ because they’re in the mix, they’re in the whole song.”
Liquid 5th’s clients are often award-winning groups, and Maize Mirchi is no exception. The group won last year’s ICCA quarterfinals and ended up competing at semifinals in Chicago.
This year, Mirchi isn’t competing at the ICCA because they’ll be hosting the competition on Feb. 10th at the Power Center. However, they are still training to compete in Awaazein and currently hold three two-hour-long rehearsals per week.
“Closer to competition, we increase that, and sometimes we even have a rehearsal that lasts forever until we feel satisfied. It’s named the ‘Infinity’ rehearsal, and it usually happens closer to the actual day where we need to be performing it,” Kumar said. “It’s hard because you have to remember not only your notes but also your choreography and to sing well while you’re doing it, which is a lot harder because you have to breathe.”
Maize Mirchi is one of 16 a cappella groups affiliated with the Michigan A Cappella Council, which, according to their website, means that the University is home to the largest a cappella community in the entire country. But as the University’s only South Asian themed group, Maize Mirchi is faced with a unique challenge when it comes to fitting into the University’s greater culture.
“It’s always been a problem for us, actually, because as a group that is a South Asian inspired a cappella group that actually does a lot of other stuff, it’s kind of hard to find an audience that is into all of that, that we do,” Kumar said. “For us, we really fit in by going to a lot of cultural gigs, but we also get to perform on stages like the ICCAs, and as of late we’ve been doing well enough to be recognized by at least the other a cappella groups on campus.”
In the end, what Mirchi’s members love most is the harmony that grows out of time, effort and a shared appreciation for the art.
“It’s great to be surrounded by people who share the same passion for creating the type of music you want to create, and with Mirchi’s specialty — which I think is the emotional connection to what we do — it becomes a lot of fun,” Sampath said. “It’s just something you do because you love it and you love the people you’re doing it with.”