The audience of high school students, giggling tenth and eleventh graders dressed in school sweatshirts and sneakers, at first resisted the charms of Quinta and a Half.
The Israeli a cappella group was onstage at Ashkelon’s Ironi Aleph high school auditorium, finishing up the second song of the morning, “Shnei Shoshanim” by Mordechai Zeira, before launching into Mashina’s “She Argued With Him For Hours.”
Little reaction from the students. (The teachers, however, were swaying in their seats.)
Yet when the band segued into “Diamonds” by Rihanna, a current Top 40 favorite on Army Radio, even the aloof teenagers started to pay attention, elbowing their friends and humming along as if to say, “Hey, they’re not completely dorky.”
The ultimate compliment came when many lifted smartphones to record videos of the troupe.
The singers hadn’t been all that worried.
“They really want us to sing things they hear on the radio, but we like to bring them to our world,” said soprano Ayala Fossfeld. “We do things that are more pop-y, but our audiences appreciate hearing new things too.”
Hence the rest of the songs on the list, “Kilafti Tapuz” by Yoni Rechter\Arik Einstein, Toto’s “Africa” and “Sympatia” by Shlomo Gronich.
During a show for school-age kids, Quinta and a Half also adds educational, experiential elements, teaching the audience how they make different sounds (they got the crowd to rub their hands together and blow through pursed lips to mimic the sound of rain used in “Africa”) and showing them how they use their different voices and octaves to arrange a piece.
“There’s a balance between being relevant and interesting and chasing what’s on the radio,” added director Doron Ben-Ami. “You want to interest people and take that to somewhere totally different.”
“We’ll take something from the radio, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and do it jazzy,” said soprano Yarden Cohen.
That’s what this shifting troupe of singers has done for the last ten years, since it was first founded within the music track of Kfar Saba’s Katznelson high school (where singer Idan Raichel also attended).
Fossfeld, Ben-Ami and Cohen were all part of the original troupe; Fossfeld and Cohen were students at the time, and Ben-Ami had recently returned as a kind of school counselor. He now works at Katznelson, teaching history as well as directing other choirs and troupes in his spare time.
A cappella is a familiar concept in the post-“Glee” era, and in Israel harmonizing groups have been singing together for the last 30 years, said Ben-Ami. Yet this particular group of singers, many originally hailing from Kfar Saba, has been able to take it beyond the school and university stage.
All five members — named Quinta and a Half because they are more than the sum of their parts, as tenor Oz Weiss likes to tell audiences — are singers with at least a decade of experience, and some have taken to the professional stage as well. (There are occasional shifts in singers, and Galit Mor, currently featured in many of the videos and photos, is not singing with the group any longer.)
Director Ben-Ami, 32, teaches history and music at Katznelson, his alma mater; Ayala Fossfeld, 25, is completing a degree at the Rimon Music School after singing in the IDF Navy band for her army service. Long-timer Oz Weiss 29, works at Britannica Knowledge Systems, Yarden Cohen, 26, works in a high-tech company, and newest member, American immigrant Micah Hendler, 26, founded and directs the YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus, an Arab-Jewish choir of high schoolers.
Singing, said Cohen, is what pushes all of them.
“I mimicked sounds from a young age,” said Weiss, as his fellow singers erupted in a cacophany of street sounds, including the grinding sound of a garbage truck and the revving of a car’s engine.
A cappella is particularly challenging, said Ben-Ami, providing great satisfaction when it’s done well, and it doesn’t require anything more than a collection of voices. Good voices, of course.
“There’s no backup, it’s just the five of us onstage,” he said. “It’s a greater challenge than singing with instruments.”
“It feels natural,” added Hendler, who sang with the Yale Whiffenpoofs as an undergraduate. “It’s the expression of human voices that doesn’t need to be supported by other things. Each person brings what they bring, and you don’t need a piano or guitar.”
Of course, they all favor different genres of music. Weiss is more into classical, while director Ben-Ami likes soulful Israeli music. Fossfeld now appreciates the more contemporary pieces, but sang religious vocal music for many years.
“It’s the beauty of a cappella,” said Ben-Ami. “Everyone can bring their own flavor.”
For now, the troupe makes the rounds of Israeli school auditoriums — they’re part of the Ministry of Culture’s educational program, bringing plays and performances to school-age kids. It travels abroad occasionally, and sometimes get invited by local celebrities to perform.
Comedian and television host Guri Alfi recently recorded an Elton John medley with Quinta and a Half for his wife on her 40th birthday.
“We didn’t make it easy for him, and he nailed it,” said Ben-Ami. “It was only one rehearsal.”
Uploaded to YouTube, it actually isn’t their most widely viewed video, with a little over 13,200 views. Their most popular is the cover of the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” with some 24,000 views.
As for where Quinta and a Half is going, it’s hard to say at this point, said Cohen.
“We’ll see what happens,” she said.