ARTIST PROFILE: THE BELLS

Maddie Inskeep is a fourth year English student fascinated by story and storytellers of all kinds, forms, backgrounds, messages and mediums. She loves to learn and write about art - especially about the artists that make it, forever intrigued by the mysterious, myriad things that drive humans to create. If you have a story to tell, or would like your story told, you can find her in the corner of Aikmans on Bell Street, St. Andrews. Preferably with a whisky.


Artistic passion runs deep and wide in the St. Andrews community, disproportionate to the three, deceptively quiet, old streets to which we are confined. Any given week of the year is studded with myriad visual, musical, literary and dramatic events, and each creation is due its audience. But art starts with people - both its makers and takers - and I’ve long wondered what it might be like to explore the people behind our community’s creations. I want to hear their stories, their goals, and their reasons for making what they make – I want to know the artists, behind the art. Welcome to the Artist Profiles.  

We all know that acapella is a uniquely special facet of the St. Andrews music scene. In fact, it tends to be a uniquely special facet of most university campuses – the worldwide popularity of groups like the Pentatonix and the Pitch Perfect films have made sure of that.

Our odd and old little town has held the honor of hosting the Scottish Acapella Championships year after year, and for this edition of the Label Artist Profiles, I had the privilege of being able to experience a rehearsal for just that event.

The BELLS walked away from the 2016 Championships with the title, after performing a soulful set that somehow magically combined Destiny’s Child, Alt-J, Hozier, Amber Run and …a bit of French rap? Their performance was emotionally layered and musically complex, and though this year’s competition showcased different winners (the wonderful Alleycats), I wanted to peek behind the curtain and see what kind of work the BELLS put in to the construction of a set.

Composed of 5 men and 8 women, and directed by Yaz El-Ashmawi, the BELLS comprise a unique crew of beautiful voices, each with varying levels of experience and pronounced vocal style. Upon entry to Younger Hall’s cavernous, subterranean Stewart Room, I immediately felt party to a kind of family meeting, welcomed into a group of friendly individuals who, when not melding their voices, tossed jokes and snatches of laughter back and forth with an infectious ease - a band of vocal artisans that love each other; each one quietly confident in their various roles as parts of a well-oiled musical machine. 

That’s not to say that the rehearsal process was clean cut; to the contrary, it was very organic – full songs, pieces of songs, and tonal phrases were repeated and looped back and back again, each repetition an effort to mold pieces of harmony into a collective, layered sound. That final collective “sound” existed as a musical idea that had crystallized, from what I could tell, most clearly in the BELLS’ musical director’s mind.

As the director, and as the primary arranger of the musical piece at work, it was no surprise to find Yaz at the center of the Belle’s rehearsal circle. He took on the role of the group’s human-tuning-fork – stopping to adjust or correct an individual Belle’s tone or pitch; withholding no enthusiasm in that process (literally roaring “MORE!” if the group’s sound was approaching a clearer representation of the musical idea he’d arranged).

In this case, that idea was a heavily harmonized, down-tempo choral piece, somehow incorporating strains of Kanye’s “No Church in the Wild” in a deeply soulful segment of music that melded almost seamlessly into their final competition set (which you can listen to below).

As kinetic as Yaz’s leadership might have been, and while he may have guided the group from note to note, there was a spirit of creativity underlying the songs that belied a process that was far more collaborative. Post rehearsal, I asked him a few questions about how the BELLS develop an acapella song, and learned a few surprising elements about their group’s process

“First and foremost are always the chords,” he insists, “They’ll come as I put myself in front of a piano for hours and improvise until something floats up and shouts to be performed. Then I take that thing and bring it to the rehearsal later that week and (mostly) improvise an arrangement of those chords … But the sounds we make as we find a way to sing those chords come from the whole group. Everyone will be coming up with ideas and my job is to sift through all these ideas and choose which ones will go where… I haven’t even decided what songs we’re going to even use.”

I was surprised to learn that the sets are arranged in such a collaborative, unstructured, and unplanned manner; the idea that a few chords could spawn something as whole and complex as a championship acappella arrangement in impressive testimony to the power of creative collaboration.

Indeed, the rehearsal I witnessed that night in the Stewart room represented that symbiotic process beautifully; the group functioned as a kind of organic, self-actualized Rubix cube of sound. Everyone seemed to care deeply about the kind of sound they were producing, both as a whole and individually, and that care fired their ability to freely give input, all while honing their unique voices into one collective sound.

“Most sets… are created by the musical director sitting down in front of a piano or some notation software and arranging a piece with a start, middle and end… then they might teach that to the rest of the group. But we do it in a really weird way,” Yaz notes, “We’ll improvise songs and piece over our chords and try and find the ‘right’ song for the set… lyrics are really, really important and will often be changed and edited a little to suit the mash of music we sew together… It’s always about telling a story/feeling and touching on moments in other songs… The group has to have so much faith that the set will make itself, and it always does!”

The nature of acapella is inherently collaborative, and to hear and see, in depth, how clearly the BELLS supported and cared for one another during the process of developing their sound gave me an encouraging insight into the fruits of teamwork. The confidence and freedom each member had to speak up gave them the freedom and confidence to sing out; subsequently, their musical ideas flourished and took on a noticeable depth. It was, frankly, a life-giving creative environment – one from which any group necessitating rehearsals could benefit!

If you’d like to hear more, the BELLS have a show, titled GOSPEL, coming to the Edinburgh Fringe in August, 2017. Like their Facebook page and catch more details!