Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I discovered the world of a cappella. A group of us from high school (and then into college) started listening to The Nylons, a doo-wop a cappella group that sang such classics as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," the "Duke of Earl," "Poison Ivy," and "(All I Have To Do Is) Dream." In those few years I think we saw them at least once a year, sometimes twice as they'd tour the Front Range of Colorado. A group singing "a cappella" means that they sing without instrumental accompaniment. No drums, no backing band, just raw, naked vocal talent. It takes more than simply having a great voice – you must also be able to hear the harmonies around you and keep to your part while the others are singing sometimes wildly different melodies or sounds.
So when I first heard Bobby McFerrin, I was already familiar with the concepts of a cappella. Yes, this is the man who sings "Don't Worry, Be Happy" – but don't let that throw you off. "Don't Worry" was a big hit back in the late '80s and inspired many to take the time to stop, slow down, and enjoy life for a while. When I bought the album Simple Pleasures on tape (yes, it was that long ago), I was stunned to discover that the man who sang the slacker anthem of my high school was one heck of a talented vocalist with a range that stuns me even today and the gift to create sounds that I still have no idea how human vocal cords can make.
Like I tend to be with many artists, I visited McFerrin's realm several times over the next few years, enjoying his albums Medicine Music and Bang! Zoom before his career faded a bit.
Fast forward to late 2009… I watched The Sing-Off with my family on NBC, which was a competition for amateur a cappella groups from around the world that lasted about a week. Though I'd listened to a few podcasts featuring some of the amazing college a cappella groups around the United States and beyond, it was great to see groups like Nota and the Beelzebubs sing their hearts out for a recording contract. And in the season finale, Bobby McFerrin walked on stage and sang "Drive" with the finalists. The chance to see him perform live with these younger artists, even on television, was enough to remind me of all of his amazing work I'd enjoyed 15-20 years ago.
Now in 2010, McFerrin has released his latest project – VOCAbuLarieS. Only a master of his own voice and singing with others would consider taking more than 1,400 vocal tracks from members of Voicestra, his singing ensemble, and fine vocalists from the worlds of jazz, opera, performance art, early music, cabaret, and rock and roll including Grammy-winning recording artists like R&B singer Lisa Fischer, Brazilian jazz innovator Luciana Souza, Janis Siegel of the Manhattan Transfer, and the stellar ensemble singers of New York Voices. This is truly a magnificent achievement.
The album starts off with the song "Baby," which first appeared on Medicine Music in 1990. But this version definitely isn't stuck in the 1990s. Somehow the layers and layers of voices and whistling not only add to the already rich melodies, but give a depth to the song that wasn't in the original. It provides a good bridge to the past and to what McFerrin and his singing companions will do throughout the rest of the album.
"Wailers," "The Garden," and "He Ran for the Train" all seem to have a tribal African feel to them. But "Messages" had a vaguely Indian or Asian feel with the tiny cymbals in the background. And "Brief Eternity" feels like a Gregorian Chant at times in its intricately woven harmonies. So you can tell McFerrin continues to defy categorization. You can't pin him to one musical style any more than you can trap the wind. And that remains yet another of his gifts.
Though I enjoyed the world-wide musical journey of VOCAbuLarieS, I almost feel that he's lost his connection to the kidlike wonder that made his early albums more accessible. Simple Pleasures with its incredible energy will always be in the back of my mind when I hear McFerrin's name. As Jon Bream said at the Star Tribune – “If Glee represents high school, the amazing vocalizing on this CD is a post-doctoral adventure.” I'm not typically one to go to the library to read someone's doctorate, but if this is to be Bobby McFerrin's magnum opus, it's easy on the ears.
I hope to see him appear more often on the national stage in shows like The Sing-Off to inspire new generations of singers in person and through the infinite reach of television. And I hope that he continues to release albums – but I wish he'd visit the past to gain back some of that energy.