Beatbox pioneer gets music off his chest

29th January 2010 at 00:00
"Don't Worry, Be Happy" singer Bobby McFerrin is a seasoned performer, but he admits to an attack of nerves ahead of a Glasgow gig for schoolchildren

Bobby McFerrin will never forget his third grade teacher back in Los Angeles, who was prone to telling the class to down pencils and head outside to make music.

"He would go to the closet, pull out all these percussion instruments, march us outside and we'd sit on the grass under a tree and have a jam session. How fun is that?"

When McFerrin, who is best known for his 1988 hit song "Don't Worry, Be Happy", talks in his soft American drawl about how to engender a love of music in young people - fun, spontaneity and enthusiasm are words that pop up frequently.

"If you are enthusiastic, they will respond in kind," the 10-time Grammy Award winner tells The TESS. "If you create a demeanour that is studious, strict and demanding, they might learn, but it's never going to be fun or memorable."

McFerrin had some inspiring teachers who acted as "guides along the way", he says. But he also came from a musical family. His father was the late operatic baritone Robert McFerrin, who was the first African-American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and provided the vocals for Sydney Poitier's part in the film of the opera "Porgy amp; Bess".

McFerrin Jnr majored in composition at California State University and is a classically-trained pianist, but his voice is his principal instrument. In Germany, they call him "Stimmwunder", or "Wonder voice".

A pioneer of the beatbox technique, he has used his incredible vocal range to become something of a one-man band. But there is no drum strapped to his back or symbols tied to his feet; he creates percussion with his mouth and by tapping on his chest.

Before performing in front of more than 1,000 P4 to S6 pupils at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow for the Celtic Connections music festival, McFerrin, who generally plans nothing before a gig and improvises his whole set, admits he was nervous. He is no stranger to performing for young people, but he is more accustomed to working with teenagers than young children, playing games to help them learn about harmony and rhythm.

However, the point of concerts on the education programme at Celtic Connections is that they are just that - concerts, says Tom Dalzell, education and outreach manager. Instruction is reserved for the workshops, of which this year there will be 40 running in Glasgow schools.

"During the concerts we don't educate from the stage, there is nobody speaking at the kids," he explains. "For a lot of children, this will be their first time hearing live music, the first time they have heard traditional music, or the first time they have been in a venue like the Royal Concert Hall. These things are as important as instruction."

When McFerrin steps on stage wearing jeans and a T-shirt, he begins with some impressive vocal acrobatics. The children are overflowing with excitement, having just been encouraged to sing along and dance in their seats by The Hoose Band, which specialises in traditional Scottish music. They start to clap in time. But McFerrin raises his hand and silences them.

This was what lay at the root of his nerves. His music is "so delicate, small and quiet", he says, that the subtleties can get lost if people fail to listen.

He need not have worried. Although some audience members are just nine years old, their interest is such that the request is instantly obeyed and they participate only when encouraged to do so, which is frequently.

Old or young, McFerrin says, he likes to "hang out" with his audience. And it's not long before he has jumped off the stage to mingle, turning the names of pupils he meets into songs. They squeal in delight, as do their classmates.

Next, he fires sounds at the crowd and invites them to send them back, producing an echo-effect reminiscent of Cab Calloway singing "Minnie the Moocher". Then he divides the audience in two and gives each section a sound - using their voices and his own, he creates a song. But the highlight for this writer is when he encourages the youngsters to mimic birdsong and whistle with him after he sings the line "Blackbird singing in the dead of night". The result is magical.

It's a tough act to follow for Little Torch, which features members of The Treacherous Orchestra, some of Scotland's finest traditional musicians. But their feet-stomping, thigh-slapping brand of music holds a different appeal and the audience, from self-conscious teenagers to children happy to flail around with abandon, laps it up.

After the concert is over, Alfonso Sanchez Cruz, an S3 pupil at Wallace High in Stirling, says he has never heard "Don't Worry Be Happy", but McFerrin's voice was "awesome". Schoolmate Joe Fletcher agrees.

The boys listen mainly to rock and roll and metal, but the concert has inspired them to try something different and experiment with other genres, they say. Their previous experience of traditional Scottish music was confined to snippets heard during Scotland's televised Hogmanay celebrations. Now their eyes have been opened.

"I think it's probably changed the style of music we play," says Alfonso.

"We'll try and be a bit more lively and interact with each other, I think," adds Joe.

They will not be the only young people who have been inspired this morning, says Mr Dalzell: "I have no doubt that after today, children will take up music and singing as a result of this experience."

For Bobby McFerrin's part, his goal was to bring "joy, joy, joy", a mission that has clearly been accomplished.

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