You would expect at a place like Yale that any musician with serious talent or motivation would be too wrapped up in a cappella, Yale Symphony Orchestra or the Yale Precision Marching Band — serious is a loose term — to be dreaming of a rock ‘n roll lifestyle or commercial superstardom.
You’d be surprised, then, to discover a committed and supportive network of bands, songwriters and independent musicians exists, many actively chasing the dream of professional careers. Unfortunately, the network can operate almost invisibly to those outside of it. However driven the participants, the wider Yale community is often oblivious.
“The Yale music scene sucks,” affirms Sam Grossman ’03, guitarist for Battle of the Bands finalist Gooden and a well-known solo artist.
These feelings probably reflect disappointment in the size of the community — small. New York City New Haven is not. While the city’s two main venues for local and “mid-sized” acts, Toad’s Place and The Tune Inn, occasionally host Yale bands, an East Village-like atmosphere of musical and artistic vibrancy is understandably absent.
Students most often perform on campus, whether in the Trumbull Buttery, the Women’s Center, the Calhoun Cabaret or GPSCY, the graduate school bar. Even if New Haven’s independent music scene is not a huge force on campus, a wide array of genres and styles have sprouted from the diverse eccentricities of musical Yalies.
From Grossman’s urban folk to the hip-hop duo The Flying Dutchmen, from Cabeza de Vaca’s energetic Latin imitation to the loud punk of Skin the Goat, Yale is home to all musical persuasions.
Besides the abundance of singing group concerts and classical recitals in Woolsey Hall, nearly every weekend features at least one “alternative” concert experience. Six Feet Under is an almost-weekly, multi-act musical festival that attempts to fill a near void in opportunities for student musicians to perform. The event is organized by a dedicated group of Calhoun juniors and goes up in the intimate Calhoun Cabaret. The Women’s Center in Durfee Hall also hosts frequent fund-raising events with Yale bands as the draw. Other than the few established institutions of music organizing, most shows are organized by the performers themselves.
The Tune Inn — known for featuring independent and up-and-coming acts from along the East Coast and abroad, and weekly Goth dance parties — hosted Battle of the Bands 2001. Ten acts competed for four spots to perform at Spring Fling and one opportunity to open for Ben Harper, this year’s headline act.
While rock and its mutations dominated the evening’s line-up, Nuts in Your Mouth mixed it up with their satirical adaptation of white hip-hop, and The Flying Dutchmen offered their own, more convincing take on the genre. Cat Stevens’ Macarena Band, a graduate student production, performed a vigorous assortment of styles in outfits as flamboyant as their singer’s vocals.
Conspicuously absent from the affair, and disturbingly consistent with the Yale “scene” in general, were women. Only one band member, Denali Dasgupta ’04 — the bassist for General Tso and the Tenderbites — was female.
The winners, Full Service, combined the best of ’80s hair metal with impressive musicianship and a topless guitarist. Feel-good jam band Milo, NIYM and Gooden completed the pre-Ben Harper program of Spring Fling.
Post-Yale, the music world beckons for many of these musicians. Matt Dunkel ’01 is relocating, along with the rest of Cabeza de Vaca, to New York City, where they plan to pursue the proverbial “break” into the recording industry. Grossman and others said they will likely do the same upon graduation.
Success is not alien to Yale musicians, as several graduates are currently in the process of recording or have contracts with major labels and can support themselves. This is not to say a promised land awaits all musicians with Yale degrees. Unlike in the business world, the “YALE” in big letters on your B.A. in English, computer science or history matters little in the “real” world of music.
The most telling observation on music at Yale can be made in the first few weeks of September. The bongo drummers on Old Campus, the incessant hum of a cappella concerts and the sitar music coming from your suitemate’s room represent the diversity of Yale itself, which is, in turn, the impetus for the swirling music scene of the University.