McFerrin, the a cappella legend who describes his music simply as “improvisation, spontaneity, motion and making stuff up,” is headed to İstanbul this week for a concert Wednesday evening at İş Sanat in Maslak.
McFerrin grew up in a house full of music. “Both of my parents were singers. My father was the first African American to sign a contract with the Metropolitan Opera Company, and he was also an incredible voice teacher, very strict and serious. I used to sit under the piano while he taught lessons. My mother was the soprano soloist in our church choir and she taught voice at the university level. There was always music playing in the house, jazz and opera, all styles. I always knew I’d grow up to be a musician but at first I wanted to be an instrumentalist. I started working as a musician when I was about 14, as a piano player. I was 27 before I realized I was really a singer,” McFerrin said in a recent interview with Today’s Zaman.
McFerrin was inspired by Keith Jarrett’s solo piano performances before he decided to pursue a career as a singer. “In performance he could bring the whole audience into his own private world, his own way of hearing the music. I wanted to do that with my voice. It took me about six years of practicing to figure out how to do it,” McFerrin says. “I started by mapping out harmonies, using my low, chest register for bass notes and my higher head tones for the melody. Then one day I started tapping my chest to keep time, and that was the missing piece, the rhythm.”
McFerrin is almost always identified with his song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” “That was a very interesting time,” says McFerrin. “I knew how lucky I was to have all that attention. But suddenly the song was everywhere and everybody wanted to talk about it, people sang it to me wherever I went. And for me, it was already part of the past. I was interested in what was next, I wanted to move on. It felt like the world wanted to hold me back, to freeze me in that moment in time. And so I turned down some wonderful opportunities to be in the public eye and instead I used my unexpected success to make some of my crazy artistic dreams come to life,” he recalled.
McFerrin formed Voicestra and rehearsed and studied together for almost a year before they started touring and recording. “I did solo shows, just me on stage with a microphone. Back then that was still a big risk for concert presenters. I’m so grateful they let me do it! But now I like the song [‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’]. I remember how much fun I had making it and I’m glad it means so much to so many people. I love it when people tell me it’s made a difference in their lives or that their kids love to dance around to it. And because of that song audiences were willing to give me a chance to do the kind of creative work I really wanted to do. Still, I don’t sing it in concert. It was recorded in the studio; there are seven separate vocal parts and in my solo shows I don’t use any loop machines or background recordings. And it’s not the kind of piece I really like to perform; it’s more of a set piece than a springboard for improvisation.”
Other musical projects took priority in McFerrin’s life, such as Voicestra. “By the time ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ became a hit song I was already deep down the rabbit-hole of figuring out just how much my voice could do,” explains McFerrin. “I started leading improv sessions with groups of singers and I had lots of auditions. Finally I chose 12 singers and we started to work every day. One day we’d sing Latin rhythms, the next day we’d practice modal scales, the day after that we’d sing spirituals. We tried to build every skill we might need to successfully sing whatever came into our heads at any given moment! And then we went on tour.”
An album in eight years
In 2010, while many thought McFerrin had taken a break from making music, he released “VOCAbuLarieS,” an album that presented his efforts over eight long years. “I didn’t take a long break!” he exclaimed. “It took eight long, hard years to make that record. And it wasn’t just me who worked on it; my manager/producer Linda Goldstein had the idea and served as a kind of musical director the whole time. Roger Treece did the lion’s share of the composing and all of the arranging. Over 50 singers came in to record tracks and Roger and Linda spent countless hours mixing and molding the music.”
“VOCAbuLarieS” reflects the idea that music is universal and can surpass any language barrier. The album’s title was chosen by Goldstein. “We wanted to document the new language I was inventing in my solo singing and my work with Voicestra. We wanted to figure out how to notate the sounds I was using -- syllables that sound like someone talking, but aren’t any one language. So it becomes a universal language, a new vocabulary that choirs all over the world can sing. We kept coming back to that idea, a universal language beyond words. So it took a lot of time to get it right!”
Having worked with more than 50 singers for “VOCAbuLarieS” alone, McFerrin has collaborated with thousands of musicians throughout his career. “At every concert I invite audience members to sing with me; I teach clinics for 200-plus singers at a time, leading them in improvisations. Last year I led a stadium full of 60,000 people, all members of different choirs, in a giant improvised choral piece at the Day of Song in Ruhr, Germany. I think it’s instinctive, built in to us all; we love to sing and we love to sing together.”
McFerrin has even more extraordinary projects. “One of the craziest and most wonderful projects I’ve done over the past few years was the improvised opera, ‘Bobble’,” noted McFerrin. “It’s a staged piece with a big cast of singers. The idea was to act out the story of the people of Babel without using words, using only pure improvisation and invented language. God punished the people in the Biblical story by giving them different languages, making it difficult for them to communicate, to really hear each other. And of course really hearing each other is the key to making music together. So when we do this ‘opera,’ we always find a cast of singers from many traditions and many countries. Our first show was at Carnegie Hall in New York City and the cast included the Turkish singer Nihan Devecioğlu, who now lives in Munich. When we did the piece at the Stimmen festival in 2009, the cast included the Turkish jazz singer Saadet Türköz. And for the production in Moscow in 2010, our cast included Brenna MacCrimmon, who I think is Canadian but is a great singer of Turkish folk music.”
McFerrin says he is often asked by people whether he sees himself as a jazz singer, an “instrumentalist” or a classical singer. “I still don’t have a perfect answer, but the best one I’ve come up with is that I’m a folk singer. All music is made by folks for other folks.”