Bobby McFerrin, the vocalist responsible for the 1988 hit tune, Don’t Worry Be Happy, appeared Sunday at Symphony Hall alongside multi-instrumentalist Louise Cato, bass vocalist Joey Blake, human percussionist David Worm, The Singing Tribe, and special guest Meredith Monk. The performance’s 11 sections carried no specific titles or program notes explanations. Therefore, this review comments on the interactions among the performers and how their styles and methods adhere to specific musical traditions.
Ten-time Grammy-winning McFerrin and The Singing Tribe collaborated with extraordinary chemistry. The Singing Tribe, 16 members (four per each SATB), performing everything aurally, that is, dictating form the ear and not reading from music, with the exception of one prepared choir piece towards the end, sang back what McFerrin sang to them. He used hand gestures to signal the section he was addressing, then all four members of that group would repeat in unison. Once a fundamental groove settled, McFerrin would move on to the next part of the chorus and give them a countermelody on top of the original groove. This resulted in complex, multilayered compositions.
If the lead vocalist isn’t able to manipulate all five melodies simultaneously, constantly changing a part and improvising a solo over the groove, the music would become extremely stale and boring. McFerrin successfully avoided this by changing the patterns every few seconds, one voice at a time. As a result, when he cycled through the four parts, roughly every thirty seconds, music shifted from one place to another. The voice-by-voice shift created a “phasing” effect. With the term “phasing,” I don’t mean to mislead the readers into thinking that all four parts of the choir sang the same material all the way through with varied speeds. They did not, but the way that voices changed rapidly in succession created the illusion of phase shifting from one place to another. This was not an easy thing for The Singing Tribe to do, especially when a packed Symphony Hall stared down at them. These rhythms weren’t easy to imitate either. In the first section, for instance, The Singing Tribe imitated and rocked the 5/4 groove with ease.
McFerrin responded generously and whimsically to the audience. Often in an improvised concert, the performers concentrate so intently on their instruments that they fail to pay attention to their surrounding noise. McFerrin overcame that tendency to look only inward. During the first piece, one audience member made a “no” sound. Half a second later, McFerrin added “Yes” into his improvisation. Being the first intelligible word of the program made the word “Yes” unforgettable, but what followed was even more delightful. McFerrin, being the lead vocalist in this section, incorporated “yes” into his improvisation, so 10 seconds later, everyone on stage was singing “yes.” This created a wave of laughter: it is quite a spectacle to witness how a singular accidental noise becomes a prominent motive in the hands of a great improviser.
Speaking of interacting with the audience, McFerrin did not disappoint. In the third section, on top of an established groove, he did a call and response with the audience using unorthodox sound effects,“Choo! Bing! Ba! Bui…….,” showing off his natural sense of humor. Also, in the James Brown-inspired fifth section, the ensemble established a funky beat, and then the audience was asked to sing the Alphabet Song/Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on top. Although it is not difficult to create a funky beat that fits the Alphabet Song, the impact was refreshing and was very entertaining. He also used the famous James Brown line, “wait a minute,” to direct the last entrances. This had double meaning: on the one hand, it instructed, while on the other hand, it paid homage to the Godfather of Soul, invoking warm nostalgia.
In the sixth section, the award-winning vocalist and composer Meredith Monk joined the band, and began a bizarre interaction with the original cast. Initiated by McFerrin, the tune to Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ was meant to ignite a duet with Monk, but this first collaboration simply did not go anywhere in melody or form. It ended with McFerrin saying, “That’s enough of that,” after about twenty seconds. The following piece went quite elegantly, with Monk’s memorable C-A-A-A-A-A motive. However, here I felt again the eccentricity of this collaboration. After creating the wonderful, easily developable motive, Monk fell back into the shadows and blended in with the background sound-bed. I would think that when an improviser creates a memorable theme, she would want to carry the theme forward and lead the ensemble to the finish line, but Monk sort of tossed the baton back to McFerrin and became part of the background groove. Perhaps I am in the minority in thinking that it is more engaging from the audience’s point of view for an artist to finish what she started. The short duration and the lack of motivic development from the initial Ain’t Misbehavin’ false start became the norm for whenever Monk initiated the start of a piece. Monk’s second initiation, (the seventh piece in the show) included one of the two songs to embody lyrics. “I am a happy woman; I am a hungry woman; I am a sassy woman; I am a tender woman; I am a tired woman; I am a thinking woman…….,” she expressed. Although memorable and sweet, it lasted a little over a minute, leaving the motives undeveloped. In Monk’s third initiation, (ninth place in the event), she led with overtone-singing, manipulating the overtone series of a static lower pitch through a fascinating type of vocalization. The Mongolians refer to this as throat singing, and it can be powerful when employed by a master. But this one lasted only 40 seconds, leaving no room for this technique to take a consequential stand. This would have been one of the highlights of the program if developed. When Monk led for the fourth time, involving the audience in the “I Love You Bobby” song she courted the danger of being overbearing. Many members of the audience quit singing halfway because of the lack of active material. Monk’s fifth and final lead, (number 11 altogether) started in an atonal duet with McFerrin. It had tremendous potential in creating contrast with the rest of the concert. However, after 30 seconds, the material still lacked shape and direction. Their solution was to have everyone join Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
I am in no way trying to diminish Monk’s well-deserved success and her contributions to the contemporary music scene, and I take great inspiration from her Songs from the Hill, Book of Days, Turtle Dreams, Volcano Songs, and many others, but Sunday’s collaboration did her music no justice. It just didn’t work as it usually does for her. In records, Monk’s short songs often expresses one single idea, together they form recorded suites. If her contributions had come consecutively, perhaps we would have experienced them thus.
At the very end, the audience started requesting Don’t Worry Be Happy and Ave Maria, but to no avail.