Whim'n Rhythm, the a cappella group from Yale University, on sticking to tradition, yet making its own stories

They survived Hula dancing in a Chinese restaurant in Japan, a killer wave in Hawaii that took with it their possessions, a 13-year-old admirer serenading them with The Beatles, and finally made it to India.

Whim 'n Rhythm, the leading a cappella group from Yale University, is on its annual international tour.

“Seven weeks of cushioning, before we step out into the real world!” laughs Jennie Nevin, one of the 14 — for they've just graduated. This year, the 29-year-old group will travel to eight countries with its music.

But each year, the group is entirely new. That is to say, they may have never sung together before, but will have to represent Yale's musical traditions all over the globe.

“It's a lot to accomplish in a short time, even though we come from strong musical backgrounds,” says Gussie Binns-Berkey. “We're entirely student-run, and finance ourselves for everything, including our world tours.”

Meet the newcomers

It all begins with their tradition of ‘tapping'. “On a designated night, all 14 outgoing Whims set out together, to visit the newly-chosen singers, armed with a silver chalice,” says Ashley Young.

“And what does the chalice contain?” we ask breathlessly. Some mystic potion handed down over the generations to anoint the chosen ones? “Gatorade.” Of course, that is a code word for the mystic potion, yes? “No. Blue Gatorade. We've to run around a lot, you see.”

So, then. They skip all over campus, asking each of them to join the Whim 'n Rhythm, and all 28 finally come together to sing their traditional closing number, ‘The Hammond Song'. And so it has been for three decades.

Women have not had it easy at Yale — in the University's 300 years of history, women were first admitted only 40 years ago. “We've had several women alumnae walk up to us after our performances, and say that this was the first time they really felt included at Yale,” says Caroline Minkus.

“And, we're conscious about this; the songs we choose reflect that, always. Our opening song is ‘Shakin' the Tree', a number about women seizing the day,” says Gussie.

And, they did. At their performance at the Taj Coromandel last week, Whim 'n Rhythm put together a series of songs with deeply interesting personalities — it included the defiant ‘The Lady is a Tramp'; a mournful elegy to their arch rival Harvard's football team that goes ‘No Hope for Harvard, they're preparing another grave at the cemetery' (which they sing regularly at matches); ‘Taylor the latte boy', whom the girl knows loves her, because he gives her a triple latte when she only asks for, shockingly, a double; and ‘Livin' on a Prayer', which sounded like there were hi-hats and snare drums and all manner of accompaniments, all brilliantly recreated vocally.

Motley group

Not a single one of them is a music major — there's Psychology, Molecular Biophysics, Art History, Biochemistry, Political Science, Religious Studies and more.

“On top of it all, our a cappella is a registered non-profit in the U.S, which means we must run our own show,” says Lita Tandon.

A cappella is about remembering your distinct part, when everyone around you is doing something else — but it is only then that something beautiful emerges. Much like life itself.

So have the 30 years of tradition given them plenty of stories, passed down over the years?

“While we do keep tradition at the back of our minds, we are also 14 women who had never sung together before,” says Jennie. “We are Whim 'n Rhythm 2010. We make our own stories.”