Years ago, when my children were young, we danced around the house to Bobby McFerrin’s Hush album. I’ve followed his adventures with magnificent orchestras and with the jazz great Chick Corea. I’ve heard his setting of the 23rd Psalm, addressed to a female deity, played in churches. And I’ve watched him leading thousands of strangers in the “Ave Maria” — singing notes they did not know they knew to sing — to their own deep delight.
Bobby McFerrin is an explorer on frontiers of the human voice; he sings the territory between music and the human spirit. I knew this when I sat down to speak with him, but I couldn’t guess how beautifully he would be able to put it into words or how theologically he does so. As an interviewer, I’ve learned that words can be unfamiliar and blunt tools for people whose principal mode of expression is art.
As we first begin to speak, this famously hyperkinetic performer is very quiet. He tells me that as a teenager he considered becoming a monk, because of his love of quiet. He tilts his head upward, with a thoughtful smile, and says he was fascinated by the monastic rhythm of life that brought one, compulsively and predictably, back to an awareness of the presence of God.
Bobby McFerrin instead took up art as a measure of his days. His way of making music — “catching songs” as he describes it — points at the elemental force of music, especially the human voice, in what is human and what is sacred.
As I was preparing to interview him, I found an online review struggling with the spirituality that is never far from the surface in Bobby McFerrin’s music. “He may be spiritual,” the blogger wrote, “but he apparently knows the world of the flesh as well, and has a very wicked sense of humor.” Here’s the truth as I see it: spirit, body, and playfulness are of a piece in Bobby McFerrin’s music and his person, as they are in all of us when we’re getting the complexity of our being halfway right.
But he takes it a step further. He uses music, as he tells me, to lean into that place where flesh and spirit are in tension. He sings the Psalms, pacing back and forth for his morning prayer. He loves that they mine the sweep of human experience, from gratitude and delight to rage and self-pity. He even proposes singing in moments of temptation — singing, before saying a word or lodging a critique that you know is unkind, or that you know would be best kept for another moment. Singing as an ethical discipline.
I begin to wonder if this is a subtle part of the reason that we find music and musicality of wondrous variety at the very heart of our many religious traditions. As breath has a power to join body, mind, and spirit, so too and more passionately does music. Bobby McFerrin’s projects across the years — including his “instant opera” Bobble, inspired by the biblical Tower of Babel story — have incorporated Tibetan throat singing, Qur’anic recitation, and liturgical chant. He attends an African-American church sometimes, he tells me, and it cannot help but be soaked in energy and beauty, because the worship service is a kind of addendum to hours of singing together.
In recent years, Bobby McFerrin has taken the mysterious and life-giving delight of singing together to rooms full of strangers. On a stage with neuroscientists at the World Science Festival, he moved his body and the audience saw and sang the pentatonic scale. Science is now able to study what is happening in our brains in this kind of musical moment. And at the same time, we rediscover the primal joy and homecoming in the simple act of singing together with a bunch of other people. There’s a parable of our time in there, one that I like.
Near the end of our conversation, he tells a remarkable story of an ethnomusicology student who came to one of his concerts and approached him backstage with some urgency. She had been unearthing and cataloguing dead, extinct languages in Africa. How, she asked him, do you know some of these languages? He was, she said, singing their vocabulary and syntax when he was ostensibly improvising.
We are “embodied memories,” Bobby McFerrin says. Music may be one key (the only key?) to unlocking some of those. For me, this story also makes me wonder, “Is music older than language? Is song at least as elemental to what it means to be human as words?”
Bobby McFerrin says, “This is what I want everyone to experience at the end of my concert … this sense of rejoicing. I don’t want them to be blown away by what I do. I want them to have a sense of real, real joy from the depths of their being. Because I think when you take them to that place, then you open up a place where grace can come in.”
Grace came in to my conversation with Bobby McFerrin. And it’s left me humming.
Photo by Trent Gilliss.