Sporting Hawaiian shirts and a pitch pipe, a student barbershop quartet called the Fortissibros is serenading the Coastal Carolina University campus with nostalgic tunes.
Ben Southerland, a senior of Dalton, Ga.; Kaleb Jenkins, a sophomore of Concord, N.C.; Gavin Carnahan, a junior of McKeesport, Pa.; and Carson Matte, a sophomore of Duluth, Ga., met in the musical theatre program at CCU. The foursome started the group as a fun, innovative and creative way to hone their performance chops outside the class curriculum.
"We found something we all kind of liked,” says Carnahan, who sings bass for the group. Although the barbershop style provides an enjoyable diversion from the type of performing they do on stage as musical theatre majors, the Fortissibros believe it’s relevant to their studies because barbershop music is based on showmanship.
During their freshman and sophomore years, respectively, Carnahan and Southerland belonged to an earlier a cappella student group that performed informally on campus. Their involvement in this group, whose signature song was a complicated seven-minute medley from Disney’s “Aladdin,” gave them an appetite for quartet harmony and an appreciation for its demands.
The original group eventually disbanded due to graduations and study abroad trips, but Carnahan decided to form a new group last year and recruited his new musical theatre friends.
“We imagined a bunch of ‘gym bros’ in a barbershop quartet, and we joked that a group like that would be called the ‘Fortissibros’,” Carnahan said. “We thought it was such a funny idea that we kind of just stuck to the name.”
Southerland, who sings tenor, says that another characteristic of barbershop music that sets it apart from musical theatre is that its subject matter is generally lighter and more nostalgic.
“It’s not serious, but we, as a group, still take it seriously,” he said.
The group has a current set list of five songs: “I Love You Truly,” “Java Jive,” “Hello, Mary Lou,” “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and “Moments to Remember.”
“We really try to embrace the culture of street-corner harmony,” Carnahan said, “so we stick with songs that have turned into the standard barbershop repertoire.”
Matte, the baritone of the group, believes that these songs, which are associated primarily with the period from the 1930s through the 1960s, appeal to the demographics of South Carolina and Myrtle Beach.
“When we sang in Chauncey’s Choice Dining Hall for Valentine’s Day, it was really fun seeing the older staff members there sing the words along with us,” Carnahan said.
Jenkins, who sings lead, says barbershop music is an American musical tradition and pastime because the performances, highlighted by tight harmonies and cheerful camaraderie, are naturally fun.
“We like to do a performance that’s truly a spectacle,” he said.
Each performance involves creating a particular mood to engage the audience.
The Fortissibros have been busy performing around campus and at events in the Myrtle Beach area, including gigs at formal dinners and parties. The group performed at a dinner hosted by Robin W. Edwards, for whom CCU’s College of Humanities and Fine Arts is named, and has plans to perform at the Anderson Oaks Assisted Living facility later this month.
After graduation, all four members plan to pursue musical careers in large cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or Atlanta. However, the Fortissibros foresee singing at reunion events for Coastal further down the road.
For the near future, the “bros” have more immediate plans.
“Hopefully, the next step is matching outfits,” Southerland said.
A video of the Fortissibros performing "Hello, Mary Lou" is available for viewing below courtesy of Coastal Carolina University below: