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Chiefs of Staff Continue Making Music Together

The all-male a capella group, Chiefs of Staff, has been a musical fixture at East Chapel Hill High School (ECHHS) for more than 20 years. Navigating the difficulties of practicing and recording remotely has led many a capella groups to go silent this year, but the Chiefs are undaunted. They are still creating and releasing videos on YouTube, and one of the latest, an arrangement of MTKO’s “Classic,” can be seen here.

Without having a way to know when they might perform, or even practice live again, the Chiefs could hardly be faulted if they chose to take time off this fall. But the co-directors, seniors Nicholas Min and Imani Chabikuli, are maintaining a sharp focus and creative energy as they keep the group on track. They admit the amount of time required to mentor younger members of the group, as well as organizing and leading rehearsals, can be significant throughout the year.

But Chabikuli said, “When we get down to singing, the actual mixing songs and releasing songs, it’s a breath of fresh air. It’s so much fun.”

Chiefs of Staff is a student-run school club, without formal ties to the ECHHS choral program, although Choral Director, Desiree Davis-Omburo is their adviser. She also advises the all-female group, the Alley Cats, as well as the co-ed Scattertones. “I am very, very proud of ALL my student-run a cappella groups,” Davis-Omburo said. “Being given the opportunity to lead themselves is so empowering and produces inspiring results. This video is just one example! Remote learning has been challenging in so many ways for all students.”

Although Chapel Hill-Carrboro has long been known as a music-rich community, the success of high school a capella groups ebbs and flows, and the pandemic has certainly made every aspect of their operation more challenging. But Min also believes it's tough to recruit new members, because a capella is so time-consuming and students must divide their time among so many other academic and extracurricular commitments. He also noted, “The stigma for boys can be hard to overcome when we recruit. Some of this year’s recruits backed out, saying they’re not so much a capella types as sports types.”

Each song they perform is arranged by Min, Chabikuli or occasionally other members. Min has spent the past five months working on new arrangements, so the group has been able to rehearse more than a half dozen songs.

Chabikuli said of the art and skill necessary for song arrangement, “It’s passed down with the leadership through the years. You mess up a lot at first. You’re never going to start off with a good arrangement but you just have to practice. It takes a lot of time.” Both Min and Chabikuli credit the strong mentoring they received from last year’s Chiefs co-leaders, Hayden Young and Joe Smith.

Although the co-leaders would be very happy to host their traditional Valentine's Day Jam live in February, Min said he had become resigned to the likelihood of remaining a virtual-only group for the school year. "With the news about the vaccine, I'm getting optimistic we might have a concert before the end of the year. But I don't know what we're going to do. Some of our guys don't know how to perform live."

CHCCS Arts Coordinator, Brenda Whiteman, said, “The Chiefs of Staff are the perfect combination of talent, hard work, and commitment.  I find it remarkable that they are able to do their own arranging, in addition to performing and video editing.  They represent the best of the things happening in our schools. Kudos to them for making the most of the situation, and continuing with virtual performances.”