Friday, June 27, 2014

As the Spirit Moves You: Interview with Bobby McFerrin

Photo by Carol Friedman

Bobby McFerrin is performing at the TD Toronto Jazz Festival tonight (June 27) and what a gift that is. The singer of the hit single, "Don't Worry, Be Happy," has fans around the world. And justifiably so. McFerrin is a unique vocalist. He uses his voice to create its own music, using a range of octave-climbing sound to hit his audience where it matters most – way deep, in the verdant valley of the soul. Born in New York City in 1950, the son of classical singers, McFerrin, grew up surrounded by all types of music, from gospel to Sly and the Family Stone. But no matter the source, for McFerrin music uplifts. It inspires, bringing listeners closer to an understanding of what it means to be alive. It's a belief born of belief. A devout Christian, Even when whistling a happy tune McFerrin he thinks of music as a conduit to the spiritual life. That's the gift of song, he explains in an interview  one of the few he grants  touching on God and good vibrations. Here's more of that conversation:

dk: Let's start, not with your voice, as unique as that is, but with your spirit. All music is a prayer, you say. How so?

bm: See? This is why I'd rather communicate in music than in words. It's hard for me to find the right words to convey this. Like life, music is different moment to moment. You move through time. You can move through everything: wailing in pain, pleading for release, rejoicing in the rhythm pulsing through your body, losing yourself in deep communion with your neighbour, lifting your voice in gratitude, cracking yourself up. It's all prayer for me.

dk: Last year's release, spirityouall, was a long time coming. What was the impetus?

bm: I'd thought for a long time that I'd like to make a tribute to my dad, and one of the ideas I had was to record the spirituals. His only solo album, Deep River, was a recording of spirituals, and as a very little kid I got to overhear him working on those songs with the legendary Hall Johnson, whose grandmother was a slave. But I knew I couldn't sing the songs the way he sang them; he already did that better than I ever could. So I waited to see if I'd find inspiration, find my own way to that music. And completely separately I also fantasized about making an album that would acknowledge just how deep my roots go in folk/rock/blues; people always can hear that my ears are full of jazz and classical and African music, but Eric Clapton and Sly Stone were just as important. Both of those ideas had been around literally for decades. And then suddenly it became clear that the two ideas belonged together, and spirityouall came together pretty quickly.

dk: Your concerts at the upcoming Toronto and Ottawa jazz festivals will be, as you have described your concerts before, essentially a room full of strangers getting to know each other. How do you use music to create intimacy, break down barriers, dissolve reticence?

bm: That's just what happens. Come to the show and find out.

dk: Your musical background involves parents who were classically trained. Could you talk about their influence on you?

Photo courtesy of
bm: They influenced me in so many ways. Aside from having just the most incredible instrument, my father was profoundly disciplined. What he expected of himself and his students was sometimes rigid but always worthwhile. My mother sang beautifully too, and her influence was different; she really showed me how music could lift and transform the spirit. She played Mozart when I was sick, took me to sing Bach in the church choir. But the biggest influence they had on me was they way they filled the house with music, all kinds of music, with no boundaries or class distinctions between them. That's what shaped me the most.

dk: But you originally had not thought of going into music as a career. You wanted to be a monk. What happened? How did you resolve to be a singer?

bm: Actually I always thought I'd probably be a musician, though I did consider the alternative of monastic life. My life on the road is pretty monastic, as it turns out!! My parents were singers, and my sister always wanted to be a singer, so I thought I'd dare to be different and I was going to be an instrumentalists. I played the clarinet seriously as a kid, and then switched to the piano. I began my career as a pianist, and I worked pretty steadily from 14 to 27. Then one day I realized I'd been a singer all along.

dk: And yet you are not a singer in the traditional sense. Your voice is an instrument used for improvisational performances. Or how would you describe it?

bm: I like that, but I do think I'm a singer. Maybe not always in the tradition of our times, but think about tribal singing and folk singing and church singing and community singing and parents in the car with their kids and teenagers harmonizing with the stereo, all the different ways people sing, alone and together. I might not be the most ordinary example, but I still think I'm part of the human chain of people singing.

dk: "Don't Worry, Be Happy," your 1988 hit, gave you your first taste of fame, and yet you rarely perform it any more. Why?

bm: The version everyone wants to hear is a studio recording, seven layers of overdubbed voices. And it's already playing in their heads. For me, music is about staying in the moment, staying flexible. So I've never really performed the song, though I'm grateful that it helped me reach so many people.

dk: Who are your other influences, musically speaking?

bm: Everything I hear!! Some of the big footprints: Mozart, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock & The Mwandishi Band, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Eric Clapton, Sly Stone, The Beatles, Henry Mancini, a clip of a field recording of African singing I heard as a teenager, Chick Corea, The Yellowjackets, the spirityouall band.

dk: But your faith also guides you. How?

bm: I couldn't do anything without faith. I couldn't walk, I couldn't sing.

dk: When performing what, for you, is the objective?

bm: I try not to perform. I try to go onstage and be my everyday self, the same guy who makes up goofy songs in the kitchen. I try to invite audiences into the feeling of joy and freedom I get when I sing.

dk: How is music a balm, a universal healer?

bm: I dunno, but it is.

dk: Lastly, what is on the horizon for you? What's next?

bm: Lots of irons in the fire; wait and see!

 Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

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