In the beginning, there were the Generics: a dozen guys whose traveling a cappella show--part beat-boxing, part harmonizing, part "Saturday Night Live"--became a cult hit across the University of Maryland campus.

Everybody wanted in on the act. In time, the Generics begot the Treble Makers, Faux Paz, PandemoniUM and the Earthtonz.

Wednesday at the campus Memorial Chapel, the five once-fractious groups will come together for the fifth annual "A Cappella at the Chapel Singfest."

Contemporary a cappella has taken off in new and exciting directions because of its popularity on college campuses, says Jeff Liebknecht, a Maryland ambassador for the Contemporary A Cappella Society. He says college groups such as the University of Maryland's have an edge and wit that distinguishes them from old-style barbershop quartets.

"Since it's a college-based phenomena that grew out of the glee clubs, a lot of college humor has gotten into it," he explains.

American college campuses have a long a cappella tradition (the Italian phrase means "in the style of the chapel"). Schools such as the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford and Brown have earned reputations for producing outstanding student a cappella singing groups.

On the American popular music scene, the reception of a cappella has alternated between hot and lukewarm, depending on the source.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the emergence of groups like Take 6, Boyz II Men and En Vogue, it seemed everyone and his cousin could be seen huddled on a street corner eschewing instruments for finger-popping and five-part harmonies.

Only a few college a cappella groups have broken into the mainstream. The quintet Rockapella, among the first to take credit for modernizing the genre, was founded by college buddies from Brown University in the mid-1980s--around the same time the success of performer Bobby McFerrin ignited a short-lived a cappella craze. Shai, a quartet of fraternity brothers from Howard University, had a hit in 1992 with "If I Ever Fall in Love."

By and large, though, college groups don't hunger for MTV videos or juicy record deals. It's a hobby. A way to ham it up around campus, meet a few people and maybe take a few road trips to gigs on other campuses.

And that's too bad, says Liebknecht. He sees in campus groups the potential for a return to a cappella grandeur on the national stage.

"If we can get them to get off campus a little . . ." he laments, noting that there are at least a couple of dozen very good a cappella groups in Maryland, mostly based on college campuses. The Ram's Head Tavern in Annapolis and the Birchmere in Alexandria are among the few local venues that regularly host live a cappella performances.

"Once you're out of college, there's nowhere to go . . ." Liebknecht says. "Around here it's a black hole."

The University of Maryland's a cappella history is less lengthy than it is piquant. Its story begins in 1987, when three male crooners decried a lack of a cappella groups on the University of Maryland's College Park campus.

Easy, they thought, they'd just start one. "I think it might be safe to say, if I had known how hard it would be, I might not have done it," recalls Richard Hsu, a Generics founder who is now a member of the Washington-based professional a cappella group, Da Vinci's Notebook.

"We were young."

At first, they chose a name, the 501 Blues--for the jeans. But Levi Strauss sicced its lawyers on the singers, and they substituted a name that would keep them out of court.

The Generics declared their logo the bar code for a 12-ounce can of Spam and honed a repertoire that combined popular songs with richly textured harmonies, song parodies and humorous interludes. (In one legendary skit, the group scandalized a campus sorority when they dropped their pants during a performance, revealing matching boxers.)

"We would sing anywhere, any time, any place," Hsu says. "We would sing to girls in the dining halls. Throw impromptu concerts. We tried to be enterprising and plug ourselves on the campus."

Soon word spread about the dozen male harmonizers who seemed blissfully shameless about making fools of themselves on stage. They toured other colleges and eventually recorded two independently distributed CDs, "Will Sing For Food" and, later, "The 'G' Spot." They also acquired a few groupies.

Two years after birth of the Generics, their girlfriends got together and formed another a cappella group, the all-female Treble Makers. The group says its repertoire of pop, rap, country and oldies sends messages of female empowerment.

But dissension soon followed. Creative differences led a group of disgruntled Treble Makers to spawn the co-ed Faux Paz. Around the same time, Hsu encouraged his little sister Amie to found another co-ed group, PandemoniUM.

Still another offshoot emerged two years ago, when a few former Generics broke away to form an all-Asian group, the Earthtonz.

All of the groups sing essentially the same mix of popular music, R&B, rap and oldies that you have probably heard on the radio. They all say the infighting, which occurred well before many of the current members arrived on campus, is over. In addition to sharing the marquee for the annual concert, they party together, sing together and critique each other's work.

"I was concerned that this little infighting could wreck the whole a cappella landscape for everyone," Hsu says.

He need not have worried. Despite the differences that spawned so many a cappella groups at the University of Maryland, the environment remains one in which they continue to thrive.

The fifth annual "A Cappella at the Chapel Singfest" will be Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the University of Maryland Memorial Chapel, University Boulevard and Adelphi Road, College Park. Admission is free. For more information, call 301-314-9893.

CAPTION: Rehearsing are Earthtonz members, from left, Gary Yang, Ming Liu, Director Deepak Ramapriyan, Vincent Estrella, Paul Kumar, John Ruiz and (with back to camera) Rajesh Rathnam.

CAPTION: University of Maryland students Paul Kumar, left, and John Ruiz try to keep the beat during an Earthtonz practice.