As the doors to the Hollywood Cinema in Avondale open, the expectant crowd surges in and, within five minutes, it's standing-room-only in the 102-year-old building.

The duo next to me, probably late teens or early 20s, unfurl a banner and chat excitedly about what may be about to unfold. Then the music starts and they're on their feet, screaming at the top of their very able lungs.

For 10 years, in the late 1970s and 80s, the Hollywood held late-night screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show; if the building's neo-classical walls could talk, they may well say they haven't heard so much noise from an audience since then.

But this isn't a pop or rock concert; it's a cappella singing and it's one of the biggest things in New Zealand right now. We've got more a cappella singers per capita than anywhere else in the world and it's so big that last year a cappella singers from all over the world descended on Auckland for a brand new event, the Pan Pacific Harmony Festival for under-25-year-olds.


Perhaps, more significantly, it brought to town the man considered the godfather of contemporary a cappella singing, Deke Sharon. You may not have heard his name, but there's every chance you've seen the Pitch Perfect films, comedies about an all-female a cappella group, with Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson.

Sharon was the films' vocal producer. During his stay in New Zealand, he heaped praise on our singers, describing our a cappella scene as "unbelievable" and saying he was extremely impressed by the groups he'd heard.

Now comes a TVNZ1 series that could well put local a cappella in the spotlight where it belongs. Along with co-producers Warner Bros International Television Production, the network has been looking since late last year for the country's most entertaining a cappella performers for TV singing competition, The Naked Choir.

Why The Naked Choir? Because that's what this singing is - voices, pure but possibly not so simple, and no instruments or backing tracks allowed. Producer Aaron Dolbel travelled the country hunting for suitable groups and was floored by what he heard and saw.

"I went into the show with some preconceived ideas about what we were looking for, I suppose," Dolbel acknowledges. "I thought it would be choirs with lots of older people with spare time to spend singing in great big clusters.

"What I found was that a cappella singing's become a really cool thing to do and there are a lot of modern groups out there incorporating things like beat-boxing and vocal percussion. There was so much passion among the groups and every single one was very polished."

Mentors include Igelese Ete, who heads Pasifika Voices, who performed on the Moana movie soundtrack. The three judges are Lizzie Marvelly, John Rosser and Matt Gifford - the only qualified barbershop quartet adjudicator outside the US.

The Naked Choir host Jeff Hunkin is one of our most accomplished a cappella singers.
The Naked Choir host Jeff Hunkin is one of our most accomplished a cappella singers.

But Dolbel's real find was host Jeff Hunkin, who has lived and breathed a cappella singing pretty much since he could walk and talk.

Hunkin's father, Galumalemana Alfred, is a well-known NZ Pacific leader, a writer, broadcaster, researcher, cross-cultural adviser/consultant and academic. He's also a music-lover, who encouraged his children to sing three-part harmony.

"Dad would throw his guitar in the back of the station wagon and we'd be off to sing, well, everywhere," Hunkin recalls. "We recorded a message on the family answering phone where we sang and people would call and be disappointed when someone answered because they were ringing just to hear the singing."

At Wellington's Tawa College in 2002, Hunkin's music teacher asked if he wanted to try barbershop singing. Along with his brother, Will, and friends Marcellus (Lusa) Washburn and Matt Gifford, Hunkin found himself one quarter of the Musical Island Boys and, from 2004, singing in international competitions. What he really wanted to do was win the International Quartet Championships held by the US-based Barbershop Harmony Society.

"At school, we were asked to write down the most ridiculous goal or ambition we could think of and I wrote down, 'become world champions'."

After coming second three years in a row, The Musical Island Boys won the title in 2014.
Now a communications and community adviser at Trade Me, Hunkin still sings whenever the Musical Island Boys have time to get together. "I've loved being on the show and it's been a lot of fun because it's a really nice and positive kind of show aimed at letting our singers shine."

What: The Naked Choir
When and where: TVNZ 1, launches tomorrow at 8.30pm and available to stream on OnDemand.