Sankofa: A Ghanaian word meaning to go forward while facing backward, learning from the lessons of the past. Talisman’s 20th reunion concert struck that chord last night in a nearly packed Memorial Auditorium, with the a cappella group finding a perfect harmony of old and new.
Current members joined more than 100 Talisman alumni who flooded back onto campus for the concert. Talisman brought their history to life in word and song, encouraging the audience to grapple with questions of identity and purpose as they move into the future.
“Is it OK that we sing stories that may not directly be our own?” director Scott Frank ‘10 asked the audience. “Is it OK that we sing of struggle in one of the most affluent regions of the world? We can no longer pass this conversation onto the next year, this is not sustainable.”
With these questions, Frank explored Talisman’s history, defined by some of the conflicts that arise in singing songs from other cultures and finding passion in others’ words. By sharing stories of struggle in a respectful way and blending specifics with universalities, Talisman hopes to let the voices of the past ring into the future. Sankofa, indeed.
Joseph Pigato ‘92 founded Talisman in 1990 as an alternative to what he saw as the relatively homogenous a cappella scene at Stanford at the time. After he spent months mapping out small steps in his head, a friend finally pushed him to take the plunge and start his own group. At the ASSU student group registry, a fortuitous naming mistake defined the group’s identity as now know it.
“They asked me for a name, and Talisman came to mind,” Pigato recalled. “I thought — I’m not sure why — that it meant an African storyteller. Then I found out it didn’t mean that at all.”
“It was the right name for the wrong reason,” he added. “I don’t think it’s a complete coincidence that the meaning still fits for our group.”
For Alicia Easley ‘92, one of Talisman’s first members, the lure of a meaningful musical experience made Talisman a perfect fit for her.
“I didn’t go back for the callbacks [of the other a cappella groups],” she said. “I didn’t feel like they were right for me. Talisman was just different from all the other groups trying to compete against each other with the same songs.”
Talisman’s repertoire combines African folk songs, African-American spirituals and music of indigenous peoples from all over the world. The singers hope the music will speak to others’ emotions and stir up the strong reactions they believe music should inspire.
“We’re singing music that was meant to be sung,” Pigato said. “College a cappella is just peppy and pippy and fun, which is great when you just want an upbeat show, [but] Stanford has a very diverse student body, very cerebral, so it’s a credit to the student body that they gave world music a chance.”
From its first concert at Chi Theta Chi, in which the group had to decline requests for an encore because they had already sung every song they knew, Talisman’s reach has spread beyond campus, stretching across the world. After the group almost disintegrated in 1993 under the pressures of recruiting singers and publicizing the emerging group, Talisman now has an entrenched presence.
Within two years — between 1996 and 1997 — Talisman performed at the Olympics, sang for Bill Clinton in the White House on a personal invitation, and became the 1997 National a cappella champions.
Despite their impressive vocal achievements, members of Talisman have always felt a deep connection to the group that extends beyond the music. In addition to music, Talisman also puts an emphasis on community service. Talisman’s service aspect began soon after its inception, with visits to East Palo Alto and local nursing homes. In 1993, Talisman became connected with the Amy Biehl Foundation — an organization started by the parents of Amy Biehl ‘89, a Stanford graduate who was murdered in a township outside South Africa.
Supported by the Amy Biehl Foundation, Talisman traveled to South Africa for the first time in 2000 and has made the trip several times since. The group helps programs supporting school children through music and has sung at churches, schools, restaurants and a textile factory. While at first Talisman was nervous about performing to different cultural groups in their own local dialect, the reactions of the South Africans more than reassured them.
“South Africa was absolutely the most ridiculous highlight — it was life-changing,” said Grace Chen ‘04. “We saw a different Africa than a lot of tourists see. I don’t know how many times I cried seeing [the elementary school children’s] reactions to us singing their language, showing that we respect their music.”
In their future concerts, Talisman hopes to bring back the African cultural response to music.
“Music is so engrained in the culture [in Africa] so if they know a song, they won’t just nudge each other, they’ll join right in,” Pigato said. “Usually the audience gets involved real fast.”
Sankofa’s finale yesterday, which brought together all 100 singers for the final four songs, certainly stirred up the audience. The strong bonds evident between the singers of all ages also added meaning to the music.
“It’s like coming back with your family,” said Ron Ragin ‘05 of reuniting with the group.
As Talisman prepares for another trip to South Africa this spring, they plan to build off of the inspiration of past voices and surpass Pigato’s 20-year-old-dream.
“[Talisman] has really become what we always thought it would be, what we always wanted it to be,” Easley said.