SPANISH FORK - Here in the Cadet family's living room, music rehearsal has stretched on for several hours. Long enough, that is, that the flame of a purple candle on the coffee table is nearly burned out.
The oldest sister, Natalie, sits on a bench, her back leaning against a keyboard, her head cocked. While she sings, she's also listening to her sisters' voices blending in her five-part arrangement of the gospel hymn "I Can Tell the World."
I can tell the nations I am blessed. Tell 'em that Jesus made me whole. And he brought joy, joy joy - joy - to my soul.
"Who lost it?" Natalie asks at the end of a phrase.
"I did," Michaelle quickly confesses from a piano bench at the south end of the room.
Natalie picks out a few parts on the keyboard, reminders for her sisters, playing each from memory. "I think the entire thing needs to be faster," she says.
"I agree," says Michaelle, addressing four more sisters (and two visiting cousins) lined up on the couch. "With a lot more energy."
The five Cadet Sisters (pronounced ca-DAY) have performed their gospel songs all over the country, their music regularly featured on Christian radio and TV broadcasts, including Hope Channel, Kids Time, 3ABN Presents and Safe TV.
But the group isn't yet well-known in Utah, where the family, members of the Seventh-Day Adventist faith, has lived since 1993. Tonight the sisters are rehearsing for a concert at Utah Valley State College, where the three eldest are enrolled and actively involved in such extracurricular activities as Bible Club and the Black Student Union. Their father, Eddy, is a professor of environmental management in the college's Earth science department.
Heaven. Everybody talking about heaven ain't going there, voices blend, rising, separating and swelling, filling the room with the words of the well-loved spiritual. If you want to go to heaven - I do - you've got to do more than talk about it.
'What angels sound like': "Lovely" is how UVSC music professor Larry Johnson summarizes the Cadet Sisters' signature rich harmonies, describing their arrangements as complicated and rhythmically sophisticated.
"Impeccably pure" is how fan Al Brown, a Florida airplane mechanic, describes the sound of their blended voices. After Brown heard one of the group's CDs, he passed the music through his large Catholic family. Later, he invited the group to sing a private concert for his family while the sisters were on a Miami tour.
"Uplifting, very angelic, if you knew what angels sound like" is how Esther Davis, the group's booking agent, describes the sisters' tightly stacked harmonies, which she says are missing the dissonance of jazz or blues chords. Davis, of Longview, Texas, is a musical educator who works for the North American division of the Seventh-Day Adventists' youth ministries.
In addition to their sound, what makes the story of their sisterly harmony so distinctive, Davis says, is that they haven't received much professional musical training. They don't pattern their sounds after famous a cappella groups such as the Christian sextet Take 6 or the jazz-swing Manhattan Transfer.
Fact is, they've hardly heard that music; they are home schooled and grew up speaking their Haitian-born parents' native French, don't own a TV or listen to Christian or contemporary radio stations. "We don't have time for that," says Eddy, describing the family's spirited morning and evening worship sessions, in addition to daily music rehearsals.
And they aren't descended from musicians. Instead, their mother Ketty claims her musical skills stop at pushing the button on the CD player. Eddy describes his guitar playing, the instrument that launched the family's musical journey, as "very basic."
Perfect pitch: Some families hope to give birth to a basketball team. What the Cadets got was a choir, six girls who seem to have been born with perfect pitch.
Natalie, 21, sings second soprano and arranges all the group's songs, while Tatiana, 19, sings soprano. Nadege, 18, sings first alto; Michaelle, 16, always has had the lowest voice, now singing second alto. "She started singing at age 2, 'tee-ta-toe,' " her father says. "Everything started with a 't,' but she could do harmony at that age." Mellissa, 14, sings across the range.
And at practice, the youngest sister, 7-year-old Gianna, sits in an armchair, engaged and attentive, appearing to be anxiously awaiting her chance to join her big sisters as a full-time member of the group.
Eddy started Natalie and Tatiana singing in church, accompanied by his guitar, when they were 4 and 3. He quickly learned he could tune his instrument to Natalie's voice, and by the age of 8 or 9, "she was teaching me some chords that sounded a lot better than what I knew." That's when he gave her the assignment to write harmonies for her sisters as each girl's voice matured enough to sing and hold parts.
"We say this is God's gift," their mother says, "because we cannot trace it through our families."
A gift, but one that got the Cadets into some trouble in the early days. "In church they would hear people singing and they would put their fingers in their ears like it was painful," recalls Ketty, laughing.
For God's glory: Even if the Cadet Sisters had ever watched the reality show "American Idol," they wouldn't dream of entering. Being idolized isn't their motivation. "We don't compete," Eddy says. "We don't like it. We don't like the idea that we're better than you."
All the work isn't about fame, but about being used by God, Natalie explains in a conversation that's equal parts light-hearted and serious. "As far as the pop world is concerned, that is not our interest. It is a ministry, after all. My whole purpose in arranging is to please God, and to try to get from him the music that would please him."
She says she hears notes in her head when she's still, lying in bed or cleaning the house, once even writing an entirely new arrangement of a song while at the recording studio. In the theory classes she has taken as a music major at UVSC, she's learned a new technical language. "I'm like 'Whoa, I know this, but now I have a name for it,' " she says.
In the studio, the sisters display a delightful maturity and spirit of cooperation beyond their years, says Guy Randle of Provo's Rosewood Recording Company. "They're very oriented toward perfection," says the longtime sound engineer. "Lots of times, I'll think it's pretty close to being there, and they're not satisfied at all. They'll do it five times, and then say, 'That's not quite it,' and then do it another five times."
Eddy Cadet says his daughters love traveling and performing, but as a family, they aren't interested in making money beyond covering expenses. The whole family is looking forward to another summer of performances at churches, conventions and universities across the country, as well as singing through Greece on a "Steps of Paul & The Revelation Alive" themed cruise. Long-term, they all want to be doctors.
As for Natalie, while she says she likes singing with the college's choral group, she wouldn't trade the unity and harmony of working with her sisters for anything. "We go through different struggles, but we always settle it," she says. "We made a pact that we wouldn't let anything separate us, because we know that's what the devil wants."
Not just a song: "OK, guys, have fun with this one," Natalie says as the girls choose "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" to end tonight's rehearsal. It's 7:30, the girls have been singing for a couple of hours, and there's still homework and the family's prayer meeting before the night is through.
O-o-o-o-h. Chariot. Swing low.
Singing spirituals is a new passion, which has prompted the older girls to research the history of codes embedded in the slave songs.
"Knowing the background, the history behind it, it's not just a song," says Tatiana, a wide smile illuminating her long face.
"You can't not be happy when you're singing," says Nadege, as the sisterly harmony fades into the night.