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Sing Off’s Afro Blue experience some Panorama Blues

The conflict of art and competition

Global - On last night’s (11.21) episode of NBC’s THE SING-OFF, Afro-Blue became the most recent group to be eliminated from the competition. On numerous occasions these judges essentially said that this group, Afro Blue, was operating above their [the judges’] heads musically.  And last night the female judge admitted they “maybe  confused” the group along the way (go to 4:01 in the video clip).

The groups are competing for the grand prize of a Sony recording contract and $200,000 in cash.

Let’s be clear - Afro Blue is a major talent. There are only a hand-full of people who can do what they can musically. So how are they not in the finals?  It seems like Afro Blue got eliminated for following the judges’ directions - who openly admitted more than once they couldn’t really judge them. Ah, meaning ‘your best is too good and progressive for the competition.’

Exodus Steel Orchestra on stage for Trinidad panorama

In this regard there were many similarities to the Trinidad and Tobago panorama competition. If you’ve ever been eliminated from a panorama competition in the late rounds, you can relate to the pain and disappointment.  Afro Blue must be a little confused as to did they ever really have a chance?

All the groups at this level are awesome, but it was Afro Blue more so than all the others that challenged the other groups, the audience and even the judges to grow musically.

There appear to be many things to be learned from this competition for future panorama competitions.

Sing Off still remains - in the eyes of this writer - the finest music performance show on the broadcast medium - internet or cable hands down.  And I say this after watching the American Music Awards live broadcast the night before featuring the so-called best of the professionals. After two seasons and a  third one to be completed next week, Sing Off has remained above the gimmicks and sometime fraudulent behavior that has plagued the other so-called reality talent shows.

The music talent has been spectacular.  In fact, “Sing Off” may be singularly responsible for raising the music “IQ” of America.

But alas, this season we have begun to see a crack in the egg.  Astonishingly some of the same questions and issues that have plagued the steelpan music competitions, have surprisingly entered the “Sing Off” mix. The similarities between the Sing Off and Panorama competitions are striking.  The Sing Off is an all voice genre and Panorama is an all steelpan contest.

Have the show’s producers succumbed to the pressures of:  to be or not to be politically correct?  I’m sure it hasn’t escaped folks that no “woman” has been in the past two winners’ groups. And then there are the questions that similarly are always lurking in the background. 

  • Is this solely a music competition?

  • How much does the visual performance sway and impact the judges?

  • Do the economics make sense? - National exposure aside, USD $200,000  split across 5 people like the group Pentatonix or worse, 16, as in the case of Dartmouth Aires, seems a bit on the low side.

  • What happens when the contestants are musically superior to judges and can go places they can’t comprehend?

Afro Blue

To be fair the judges are not musical dummies or slouches, particularly this season with judges Ben Folds, Shawn Stockman (of the R&B vocal group Boyz II Men), and originally Nicole Scherzinger, this season replaced by Sara Bareilles. They are all students of music. But honestly, they can’t really judge Afro Blue musically. It was embarrassing that the judges seemed to be asking Afro Blue to dumb the music down for the audience, and indirectly (and sometimes very directly) - them.

Without bias if you close your eyes and listen to all the groups, the competition was over before it began.  Afro Blue is that good and superior musically to the other performers in spite of the great talent overall in the competition.

Afro Blue hails from Howard University as music majors whose specialty is jazz.

Quite frankly the fact that Afro Blue was relegated by the judges to the ‘bottom two’ for several weeks is an insult to our musical intelligence.

Jazz is the oldest original American musical art form and is the basis for all popular music (rock, rap, soul, R&B, blues), or has significantly influenced others. Even the early calypsonians were heavily jazz influenced. Yet on this show - the word ‘Jazz’ was sometimes portrayed as a bad word that needed apology. At times the Afro Blue arrangements and vocal performances seem to intimidate the judges, even while they heaped praises on their performances. When judge Ben Folds says: “You look at us like ‘we know and you don’t’” - was he praising Afro Blue or subconsciously admitting to his musical insecurities?

The late great jazz musician, the legendary drummer Max Roach, was very impressed with the musical abilities of panist standout Len “Boogsie” Sharpe.  As he told this writer personally, “Boogsie has Charlie “Bird” Parker qualities.”  Max was talking about Boogsie’s jazz abilities and sensibilities. It is these same sensibilities that have allowed “Boogsie” to be one of the best players and panorama arrangers on the planet.

Jazz calls for a fair amount of risk-taking. The ‘reining in’ of Afro Blues’ Jazz influences brought them back into ‘the pack’ and moreover made them “judgeable” - but at what cost?  What were we, the audience, robbed of musically?

Ultimately, like Panorama, it came down to taste, show’s producer directives, and what the judges think they know. For example, on Afro Blues rendition of “American Boy,”  Ben Folds thought it left something to be desired, while Shawn Stockman said it was “perfect.”

Remember it was Bradley (Panorama arranger extraordinaire) who always said he pays judges no attention, and that they could not judge him.  Clive Bradley had an enormous ego and wanted to win every time he took the stage.  But winning was not the defining motivator. Given the wealth of musical gems Bradley left the world with, imagine how much poorer we would be if he did - sacrifice his genius in his craft.

Related article:
Pentatonix wins NBC’s Sing Off - We’re singing the “Afro Blues” - the Lowering of America’s Music IQ

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