Talisman: Stories Through Song

TALISMAN IS NOT your typical acapella group. You might recognize them by their colorful scarves or unique song choices, often in foreign languages and from areas all around the globe. While they may not be singing a recognizable, top 40 song, the passion and depth they show through their music keeps the audience just as engaged as if they were singing and dancing to your favorite new Beyonce single.

PULSE sat down with Elle Ota, a senior and member of Talisman, to hear what the group is all about and what it means to her.

PULSE: So, what is Talisman?

Elle Ota: Talisman is one of the a cappella groups on Stanford’s campus, founded in 1990. They felt that there wasn’t an a cappella group that was able to share...cultural stories from around the world. This was taking place during the height of the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. Around campus, people were holding protests. So at the time, a lot of the music that we started with came out of South Africa and Africa in general. But in the 25 years that have elapsed since then, we have branched out to other regions of the world, such as America, Asia, and South America.

PULSE: You talked a little bit about how Talisman focuses on sharing stories through music. How is that done? How does one share a story through music?

EO: It’s definitely a challenge to try and capture a historical event or a particular culture within just one song that’s only probably two or three minutes long. Before we learn each song, we [research] a bunch of background information on what is the song about, who it was written by, what was going on in the world at the time, what inspired the author to write it, or [who] this song belongs to. 

We really do our best to do justice to the song by trying to capture what it means for a particular culture or community. This is why before every song we sing in performances we usually give an introduction, so that they can understand the historical context of what we are trying to sing.

PULSE: Besides learning a lot about the history and culture behind each song, what can you tell us about Talisman’s creative process?

EO: I think compared to a lot of the other acapella groups on campus, we are really touchy-feely. We try to go along with the sort of emotion that the song is conveying, rather than learning it note by note. Because oftentimes when you experiment with music, and you sing what feels right, you can create something much more beautiful than what was originally written down on the page. 

It’s cool—I think Talisman is unique because we sing the same songs year by year, but every year it changes a little bit. [We] add people doing new solos and trying new stuff, so the style is constantly changing according to what emotion and what story we are trying to get across to the audience at the time.

PULSE: How would you describe the Talisman community? What is the energy or feel that it has for you?

EO: Everybody really loves each other in the group. Talisman has really become my core community that I’ve had over my four years here. It’s also a really diverse group of people. People are studying everything in the group, we have people of all different ethnicities, from all different parts of the country, all different religions and cultures. But what ties us all together is that we’re all interested in learning music and making music together.

PULSE: What’s up with the scarves?

EO: I don’t actually know why we started wearing scarves. But I do think Talisman is a really colorful group, both emotionally and also physically. We try to carry that through in our uniform and make it fun. And also South Africa is the ‘Rainbow Nation,’ so I’m not sure if it came from that and us trying to replicate the really colorful feeling.

PULSE: Do you know where the name Talisman came from?

EO: It’s a noun that means an object that protects, or a charm. We do now have these necklaces, actually. One of our members who’s really into using clay has made these clay, little sun symbols, because our symbol is the sun, and so we call those our own personal Talisman now that we have with us.

PULSE: What exciting things are happening right now for Talisman and what’s coming up?

EO: During Spring Break, we usually go to a particular place for a week to learn about [the] cultural history or people, and try to better understand the music that we’re singing and our relationship with the culture. This year we’re going to Hawaii, which is really exciting. It will be our first tour on API (Asian-Pacific Islander) culture. 

We’ve done a lot of tours to South Africa, and my freshman year we went to the Deep South to learn about Black and African-American experiences. Last year they went to the Southwest to learn about Hispanic and Latino and Native American experiences there. So this year we kind of wanted to branch into Asian-American and Pacific Islander culture. We’re going to be doing lots of tour prep, both intellectually and also fundraising.

PULSE: What does being a member of Talisman entail, in terms of practice and time with the group?

EO: It’s kind of a lot. We usually meet 3 times [weekly] and have a 2 hour rehearsal [each time]. Sometimes we will also have a sectional, where [for example] all the sopranos would meet for an hour to go over just their parts. And on top of that we’re occasionally asked to perform at different venues. 

Today we were at a school in East Palo Alto that was having a college fair. They were all excited about attending college and hearing from admissions officers. They had us representing the extracurriculars that college can offer people. It was really gratifying to have an audience that was excited to hear us.

By: Katharine Rubin

Photographed by: Cathy Wang

PULSE thanks Talisman for their time spent speaking with us.

Their spring show is May 18th.