Bobby McFerrin is Still the Voice Shaman

6 May 2019, 1:00
Bobby McFerrin is Still the Voice Shaman

As part of this year’s European Tour, Bobby McFerrin visited Brno’s Sono Centre, where he managed to perfectly use the brilliant acoustics and the close contact with the audience. The legend is back. Indeed, he comes back regularly, and not just to Brno.

Probably because of her indisposition, the performance couldn’t include singer Judi Vinar, so the expected project Gimme5 suddenly flipped into another, the no-less tested concert variant Bobby McFerrin & WeBe3. However, nobody thought of informing the audience why it happened. Of course, they were not deprived of the traditional course of the performance. Though Bobby is no longer so dominant at the stage, he hasn’t lost his charisma, voice and expressive skills.

His fans already know everything about him: a singer with a huge range and vocal technique, arranger, composer, vocal teacher and conductor. Each of these skills was put to good use in the fully packed auditorium of the Sono Centre. But this time, he also used his three colleagues with whom he has worked since 1986. All are founding members of the a capella group Voicestra, with whom McFerrin travelled the world and recorded the album Circlesongs (1997). He recently returned to this project with a narrower line-up (even though Voicestra was supplemented for part of this performance by the Liberec vocal ensemble Akcent, thinned down to a dozen voices on the occasion), where his close suite – Rhiannon, Joey Blake and David Worm – leads the tunes and ostinato motifs for the choir and alone. This trio is, as they showed in the mini-recital in the performance, well-coordinated in WeBe3, which they founded as a side project parallel with Voicestra in 1986. Rhiannon is the closest to McFerrin in age and nature, a jazz singer with an artistic name referencing the character from the Welsh myth, the Mabinogion. She is a devotee and long-term active lecturer of the style “sharing of song” and vocal improvisation. This former student and later teacher of jazz singing at the University of Berkeley has bought a working farm on Hawaii. Here, apart from breeding ducks, geese and growing vegetables, she has built an art centre where she holds lectures, meetings and musical festivals.

Joey Blake (who supplements the bass in the group) says of himself: “I am the one responsible for the setting of the musical style, harmonic structure, rhythm and timing, so that the others don’t have to watch it.” His passion is improvisation in all possible styles, ranging from Latino, blues, funk and hip-hop to jazz and gospel (as he showed on stage in Brno).

His buddy David Worm, who takes care of vocal percussion and beatbox in the group, is also a brilliant tenor vocalist. And his credo shows his similarity to McFerrin’s musical philosophy: “Working with different techniques of vocal percussion, with tongue, lips, chest and breath is a great way to get to know many cultural and musical identities from around the world and through their rhythm to connect to the beat of their communities.” The accompanying choir Akcent has, through more permanent cooperation with top improvisers, profiled itself as a malleable musical body, with which Bobby McFerrin enthusiastically works. This is because he needs not only a choir able to sing a quartet, but a flexible, richly structured tool for very specifically-tuned improvisations.

 

The Brno performance didn’t really have a solid framework (though it was in no way just a natural improvisation). The scheme stayed, where every track works under the lead of one of the four vocalists. They “teach” the others the main ostinato motif, which then runs throughout the entire song and into which the leader or one of the other three improvises in a certain style (the duo of sidemen Blake and Worm play an important role, logically supplementing the bass and drums). A plus of such a concert is the symbolic lecture of a set of musical styles (often several in a single song), which the listener gets: from the African cultural songs of the Zulu, Sufi carols and Indian ragas to ecstatic gospel choir prayers. In the best moments it was, thanks in part to the immediate proximity to the audience an almost mystical experience, a celebration of musical solidarity and spontaneity.

At other times, Bobby McFerrin held back and watched the concert almost from a distance, like a demiurge watching his own creation. The usual main theme repeated in the tracks evoked a common prayer, to which the lead singer adds improvised statements in a mysterious language (musicians call it Swahili), sometimes including a few words in English. This is then repeated as a mantra. The urgency and a certain manipulation resemble a cult invocation or a cleansing ritual, especially when the audience joined in. Right from the first track, sung as a dialogue between Bobby and Rhiannon, coloured by the bass and drums, McFerrin showed the range of his skills, from a beautiful falsetto with bass additions evoking a duo, to using his own chest as an enclosure for the accompanying drum, made to sound by rhythmically beating his chest. The next, this time wordless, passionate, almost arguing dialogue with Rhiannon ended with a whimpering cacophony before rapidly calming and turning into the intelligibly sung mantra Here We Are together with the choir. Immediately after, McFerrin fell back to the role of observer and let others perform. In a show of gospel rehearsal, Joey Blake got the choir to sing in sections and graded his own solo with a choir ostinato up to an ecstatic finish in the style of the film Sister Act. A rather differently modified gospel was offered by David Worm, who got the audience clapping in rhythm and his mantra was Life in Peace. The choir Akcent also got a chance to present themselves in a beautiful harmonic quartet – followed by WeBe3 in a show from their own repertoire. Rhiannon showed her unique vocal range in a wordless solo, accompanied by the bass and beatbox of Joey and David, culminating in the group mantras Don´t Go Alone, Try to Find A Way and (together with Bobby) Eyes Open Wide.

In several final songs, Bobby McFerrin returned to the foreground to show his range of vocal skills in a dialogue with the auditorium. This time however, the main protagonist was sparing with the expected tricks, which used to be the main programme of the concert. We did see a simulation of the rhythm of a train in motion, by alternating two melodical tunes that he taught the audience. By playing with the melody and rhythm, he created a feeling of coexistence with everyone in the auditorium who was willing and able to at least hum. He got a larger area playing with the Old Testament tale of a man who isn’t able to make a choice – Double Minded Man, this time with a proper text, story and message in the style of old country recitatives. A similarly mystical atmosphere was induced by the next gospel, Who’s Riding My Car. Then came the sung thank you to the audience and co-players – and after long and enthusiastic standing ovations came the traditional (like eight years ago at JazzFest) subtly heartfelt good night addition: Somewhere Over the Rainbow. For those, who appreciate the philosophical dimension of McFerrin’s projects, the concert was a true experience.

Photo by Helena Bretfeldová

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