UC Men’s Octet members’ voices ring with tradition, spirit

Benton Cheung/Staff

The halls of the Cesar Chavez Student Center’s basement are quiet and empty. In the distance, from a room in the student musical activities department, the sound of singing leaks through the thin walls. The tenor and bass voices of eight men break the eerie silence. The tune is strikingly familiar … “On our rugged eastern foothills (foothills) … stands our symbol clear and bold (bold bold bold) … Big C means to fight and strive and win for blue and gold!”

The room is dark and cramped. A single, brown grand piano sits in a corner. The space is barren, save for a few chairs and a bookshelf from which pages of sheet music are overflowing. Most of the little light that penetrates the room filters in through a few opened windows. Despite the seemingly hostile and unhomely nature of this closet-sized rehearsal room, it is home to one of the UC Berkeley campus’s most cherished traditions — the organization that is the focus of this week’s Campus Spotlight, the University of California Men’s Octet.

These eight men emerge from Cesar Chavez Student Center, leaving the solemn practice space behind. Even before the Campanile strikes 1 p.m., a crowd has gathered on Sproul Plaza, eager for their performance. The show begins with the famous and traditional campus fight songs, “Big C,” “Sons of California” and “Fight for Cal.” After each song, the crowd grows larger. Passers-by stop to watch a tune or two while on the way to their next class.

The UC Men’s Octet continues its show, singing pop chart hits of the 20th century. Dion’s “Runaround Sue” and Counting Crows’ “Accidentally in Love” among them, the group puts its own unique twist on these tunes, adding creative lyrics and even serenading the members of their constantly growing audience. Their sound is a unique blend between a 1920s barbershop quartet and contemporary R&B.

The UC Men’s Octet is a campus tradition that has been in existence for more than 65 years. This all-male a cappella group has been a major presence on campus and throughout the country since it was founded in 1948. The organization is entirely student run, and its eight members manage everything themselves.  

“What I love most about the Octet is that we get to be a part of the entire a cappella community here at Cal,” said senior and former “American Idol” contestant Kyle Crews. “We spend so much time together, and getting to interact with students and the alumni circuit lets us all be part of this tradition.”

When asked what makes the Men’s Octet a unique and important part of the UC Berkeley campus, the group responded, “It’s nice to remember that there’s more to college than academics alone … The Octet gives us another outlet … We want to make our shows fun for everyone watching them.”

Since the Men’s Octet’s founding, the group has gone on to perform for the chancellor’s inauguration, at the new student convocation in Memorial Stadium and during Cal football games in the fall. Its prominence as a performance ensemble does not stop at the campus boundary, however. The Octet also holds the prestigious title of being the only two-time champion at the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella and has made appearances overseas in Australia, Europe and, most recently, China.

When reflecting on everything this group has achieved, it seems impossible to imagine that such a proud tradition and successful product of the university could all emerge from this secluded hovel.  But to the UC Men’s Octet, this small room is more than a rehearsal space — it is a laboratory of creativity.

Contact Nick Cotter at [email protected].