Soul to Soul
Sacramento Bee
January 27, 2004
By David Burton
To his legion of Grobanites, singer Josh Groban connects with a heartfelt intensity.

Leyla Bikul, second from left, shows off a Josh Groban T-shirt to fellow Groban fans, from left, Claire Karoly, Dana Duffy, Jeanne Nakanishi and Janice Castanho. Sacramento Bee/John Decker Jeanne Nakanishi bounces around Mountain Mike's pizza parlor like an excited teenager, giggling and chatting with friends, smiling as though her cheeks are about to burst.

The man in her life, husband Alfred Sisneros, watches her with a warm glow in his eyes.

"It's nice to see a 40-year-old stay-at-home mom passionate about something," he says, laughing. "I've never seen her this excited since she had the boys.

"I think he's like an ideal for her," Sisneros adds.

"He" is the other man in Nakanishi's life, the man who has inspired this unexpected, explosive enthusiasm: singer Josh Groban.

Groban, who will play a sold-out Memorial Auditorium in Sacra- mento tonight, may be a distant stranger -- and, at 22, nearly young enough to be Nakanishi's son -- but his warm voice has awakened something inside her. "His music soothes my soul," she says.

Groban's second album, "Closer," knocked Outkast and Alicia Keys off the top of Billboard's album chart last week. He'll sing during the pregame festivities at the Super Bowl on Sunday. Among the thousands who will fill the auditorium tonight, and the millions who have bought his two albums since his debut in November 2001, there is a hard core -- or, given their love-struck nature, a soft core -- of fans who proudly obsess over everything Josh.

And they call themselves Grobanites.

While their name sounds like that of some forgotten Old Testament tribe, the Grobanites are very much of the modern world. Though they tend to be overwhelmingly female, they range widely in age and background. But they are brought together by their common love for their uncommon idol.

One recent weekday morning, some Grobanites have come together to celebrate Josh at Mountain Mike's off Howe Avenue, bringing with them friends, family, a cake with Josh's photo on it and enough buttons, T-shirts, autographs, refrigerator magnets and other Groban paraphernalia to start their own store.

They've been brought together in the most modern of manners: connecting over the Internet, in chat rooms and on electronic bulletin boards that have sprung up to glorify Groban and his music.

At Mountain Mike's, two dozen of them have appeared from around the area -- Sisneros, Nakanishi and their boys have driven up from Concord -- and the noise level, as they discover new friends and share common opinions, is nearly deafening.

"I see old clips of girls when the Beatles were playing," Sisneros says, "and I see my wife doing the same thing, just going crazy and crying when she hears him. I think it's her escape, maybe, an escape into her own world.

"But if that's her worst habit," he adds, "that's OK."

While all of the women assembled are passionate about Groban, Sacramentan Lynda Clarke, 47 and the mother of seven, says she experiences Groban's music on a spiritual level.

"He speaks soul to soul," she says. "From the first time I heard him, he reached into my heart and soul, tore it open, spilled every pain and fear I'd ever had."

She tears up as she speaks, and laughs when it's pointed out.

"It was three months before I could listen to any of his music without crying," she confesses. "So I really had to ration myself. I'd be taking the kids to their lessons, listening to Josh, and I'd be crying. I'd have to explain that they were happy tears.

"The kids'd finally get to the point that they'd say, 'Oh, Mom's crying, she must be listening to Josh.' "

Growing more serious, she says, "I'm a religious person, and I told Josh when I met him, 'The day that I meet the Savior, I hope he has warm, kind eyes like yours.' "

While this sort of devotion seems over the top to outsiders, it is common among Grobanites. Some have even reported healings of physical ailments, attributing them to Groban's music.

Make no mistake: These women know their music. Nearly everyone at the party mentions having grown up in a musical family, having musician parents or taking music lessons.

And while they are mostly female and Groban is a young man, they don't dwell on how "cute" he is. Says Clarke matter-of-factly, "Depending on what light you get him in, he can be pretty photogenic or pretty dorky-looking."

Instead, they focus on the music, what it says about Groban and what it draws out of them.

Says Clarke, "He sings not just with clarity, but with simplicity. I don't like vocalists who go through vocal gymnastics; it's just a showy thing, whereas Josh makes each word, each syllable, each note like a precious gem."

Janice Castanho of Walnut Grove organized the party and has the most impressive cache of memorabilia. After the gathering, she's leaving to see Groban perform in Boise, Idaho; Seattle; Portland, Ore.; and then Sacramento. Next month, she'll fly to see him perform in Boston and Miami.

Castanho, 61, says her mother was a professional opera singer, and she listens carefully to singers. She was surprised, having seen Groban before she heard him, by his warm, full-bodied voice.

"I couldn't believe that a voice like that was coming from that skinny little kid on the album cover," she says. "But that skinny little kid can really sing. And he was singing correctly, he wasn't all tensed up, and that was such a refreshing thing to hear."

Dorenda Hamarlund, 28, of Folsom says it was Groban's looks that first caught her attention when she saw him on "Good Morning America." But, says the lifelong piano and violin player, while she thought he "has a cute baby face," it wasn't until she heard him sing that she became "mesmerized."

"I thought, 'Wow, where is that coming from?' "

Among the youngest of the fans is Leyla Bikul, 16, a singer whose performances moved from her upstairs bedroom into public as a response to hearing Groban.

"I spend a lot of time in my room, harmonizing with him," says Bikul, speaking from under a riot of blond curls. "It is just a rush to sing along with him."

And what she's learning with Groban, she's sharing with the world.

"There are quite a few guys at my school who sing well; they just don't think they can, or that it's not cool," she says, noting that rap and hip-hop music dominate the culture of Natomas High School, where she's a junior. "So, I encourage them. If you have a voice, you must let people hear it."

Bikul's father, Kamil, watches his daughter talking with her new friends with a mixture of pride and bemusement. He says his daughter's passion for Groban "opened her up" and helped smooth the transition to a new school, when the family moved from Manteca to Natomas a couple of years ago.

While some Grobanites have family members who don't share their love of Groban -- Hamar-lund's 13-year-old daughter prefers hard rock, and her husband, Mark, calls her friends "Grobandorks" -- Kamil Bikul has nothing but praise for Groban and what his music has brought into his daughter's life.

"It's brought us closer as father and daughter. We sit and listen to him together," he says. "She designs shirts with his name and picture on them. It's really made a change in her as a person. It's a good character builder for her.

"She used to be shy. She wouldn't sing in front of people," he says. "Now, she'll pick up a mike and sing. Her grandmother died recently, and she sang at her service, and there wasn't a dry eye in the house. She sang at her high school, too."

Leyla Bikul's love of Groban's music also has made her bolder. When she couldn't get tickets to the sold-out Sacramento or Oakland shows, she called the manager of the Paramount Theatre in Oakland to ask how she could get in. He told her that, if she volunteered to usher for eight shows, she could usher at the Groban show. From the front of the hall.

So, every other week, Kamil Bikul has driven his daughter to Oakland, sleeping in his car or going to a movie while she works her way one event closer to seeing her hero up close.

"I'm very grateful for my dad," she says quietly.

These stories are not unusual among Grobanites. And while it's easy to be cynical about the enthusiasm of some for the latest flavor of the month, Groban's appeal may prove to be as enduring as it is strong.

Says Sisneros, "I like what Groban is doing for my family. My wife is happy and my boys are getting cultured listening to him.

"And I'm kinda starting to like him."