The Okayplayer Interview: Bobby McFerrin Speaks On Human Orchestras, Hip-Hop + Collaborating w/ Questlove
This Friday June 13th Bobby McFerrin will join our own Questlove onstage at NYC's Town Hall for a special live collaboration called Mumbo Jumbo curated by Jill Newman productions as part the Blue Note Jazz Festival. It is not clear at all what will transpire when the reigning master of drums meets the inventor of the Voicestra--probably not even to the select few who've seen them mess around before--but it is guaranteed to be amazing. If you are not familiar with the vocal virtuosity of Mr. McFerrin (perhaps you thought he was just the "Don't Worry Be Happy" Guy?) he is an incredibly versatile composer and improviser who has collaborated with everyone from Pharoah Sanders, Herbie Hancock & Grover Washington, Jr on the one hand, to Gal Costa and Bela Fleck on the other...to En Vogue on the third hand (because, musically speaking, Bobby McFerrin has at least three hands). We couldn't resist the opportunity to pick the mind of McFerrin on the hip-hop aspects of his human orchestrations, his musical progeny and his recent tour of Brazil. Read below and be sure to check out the one-of-a-kind show on Friday--who knows? Bobby may even select you as his instrument.
OKP: What exactly can we expect from you live collaboration with Questlove on Friday? Specifically what will the onstage setup to look like, as contrasted with your other performances?
Bobby McFerrin: I'm pretty sure at least there will be a drum kit for him and a microphone for me. This will be a full-on adventure, more like what I do in my solo shows [than the current Spirityouall tour, which incorporates a full band]--where I never know what's gonna happen next.
OKP: What was the duet with Jimmy Fallon on your recent Tonight Show appearance like?
BMF: Silly and fun. He's really musical and game.
OKP: You have worked with a pretty insane range of collaborators over your career--is there a secret to successful collaboration?
BMF: Listen to each other and have fun. Listen for the surprises.
OKP: You are well known for using an electro-acoustic approach to vocals, essentially accompanying yourself by building up multi-tracked or sampled layers as suggested by the term 'Voicestra'. Have any of the younger musicians working in that vein (Tune-Yards; Tanya Auclair, MosesSumney) caught your ear?
BMF: Interesting that you brought up Voicestra, which is a live performance ensemble featuring 12 voices, no electronics or multi-tracking, all improvised. That's very different from multi-tracking in a studio situation. For me multi-tracking has been a great way to get what's in my head to happen in real time. I confess that though I'm an open-minded type and love to interact with other musicians, I'm so focused on trying to get the music I hear in my head out where other people can hear it that I don't listen to a lot of new music, and I haven't heard of these new artists. I'm pretty introspective, but I'm not the analyzing, musicological type.
OKP: On a related note: what do you think of beatboxing, another type of 'human orchestra'?
BMF: For me melody, harmony and rhythm are all wrapped up together, so I think of myself more as a singer who uses some percussion sounds and techniques than as a beatboxer. It's been fun to see that community grow, so many people have great skills. When I meet them I encourage them all to sing too.
OKP: Have you and Chuck D ever had the chance to clear the air over his lyric (rapped on Public Enemy's "Fight The Power") which ran "'Don't Worry Be Happy' was the #1 jam / Damn, if I say it, you can slap me right here…"? Did that experience sour you in any way towards hip-hop in general?
BMF: You should ask my son Taylor about me and hip-hop! I'm a pretty conservative guy in some ways, I don't like cursing or violent talk in music--and I had a few things to say about a lot of what he was listening to as a teenager. But in the end I respect what shaped Taylor as a musician. I want my kids and all the young musicians out there to have the chance I had -- to absorb a lot of influences and let them play together in my head.
OKP: We imagine you must be very proud of your kids' musical endeavors, namely Cosmodrome in Madison's case and Taylor's new LP Early Riser on Brainfeeder. We understand Madison has joined you on tour…can we look forward to any other cross-generational McFerrin collaborations in the near future?
BMF: My kids!! I'm so proud of my incredibly talented and wonderful kids. So happy for Taylor with the success of his new album, thrilled to get to tour with Maddie in the spirityouall band and to watch her graduate from Berklee--and you didn't mention Jevon who's in the cast of Motown: The Musical on Broadway. I mean honestly, it's all pretty sweet. I love it when we get to work together and I also want them each to find their own way, and they are doing a fantastic job.
OKP: Speaking of kids, musical education seems to be a big part of your practice, what does reaching kids mean to you--and can you tell us about your music camp upstate?
BMF: I don't have a music camp! I think what you're referring to is the week-long late-summer workshop I often teach -- with a lot of help from some of my favorite vocal improvisers - at the Omega Institute in upstate New York. We focus on Circlesinging; that's what I call the improvised tribal/choral music I create with Voicestra and with audiences everywhere. Singers of all levels are welcome, we usually have professional touring musicians and beginners and artists of all disciplines. You can learn more about it at the Omega website.
OKP: How did you develop your technique of 'playing the audience' (as demonstrated in the much-watched ted talk segment above) ?
BMF: It developed very naturally over time. Sometimes during solo shows I'd hear things I couldn't do without help, without extra voices, and I'd ask the audience to sing. And I started to notice how that worked, what was natural for them, what was intuitive and what wasn't, what cracked them up, what sounded amazing. I'm still playing around with all of that.
OKP: How has the spirityouall tour been generally--and how has the music or the message evolved as you perform the material live?
BMF: It's freer and more flexible. The highs are higher and the depths are deeper. It's been a long time since I toured with a band, and we've become a family. I love playing with these musicians: Gil Goldstein, Dave Mansfield, Armand Hirsch, Louis Cato and Madison McFerrin. It's a pleasure to bring all that mutual enjoymnet onstage and let the audience watch us play around.
OKP: You're just finishing up a run of dates in Brazil (just as World Cup mania hits fever pitch) before coming back for the Blue Note show—what has the experience been like? have you been to Brazil before?
BMF: Our concerts in Brazil were glorious, the audiences were fantastic--but the tour schedule was brutal. I hardly noticed anything happening outside of the daily routine of travel, soundcheck, performance. When I'm on tour--and especially when the physical demands are great--I'm practically a hermit. It takes a lot of focus to meet the audience wholeheartedly, and that's what I'm there to do.
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