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Archive for Wednesday, January 26, 1994

S RANGE WIDE OPEN

January 26, 1994

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Bobby McFerrin grew up absorbing styles ranging from baroque to jazz, and now he treats audiences to the same spectrum of music.

Bobby McFerrin tells a story -- a fairy tale of sorts -- about a man in rags who wanders into a village one day and begins granting wishes.

A violinist walks up and says, ``I wish that I could lose myself in my music.'' And as he plays, the violinist disappears, but the music remains in the air.

``That's what I'd like, to somehow be able to disappear ... in some way to be music,'' said the dreadlocked McFerrin, his wiry fingers fluttering.

``And you can't say that in this country -- people will point fingers at you,'' he said with a tight grin.

As McFerrin rehearsed with the Kansas City Symphony Tuesday afternoon at Kansas University's Lied Center, he seemed to almost pluck music out of the air.

As lanky as a marionette, McFerrin twisted and bounced as he steered the orchestra through classical compositions and sang several parts. And as he began improvising with his signature style of vocal gymnastics during a soundcheck, one could question even needing an orchestra.

His elastic voice morphed from African talking drum to flute to opera diva. Then as he segued into what sounded like an old blues standard, he sang parts for four or five instruments simultaneously -- sounding like an acoustic bass, snare drum, guitar and muted trumpet.

People ask him all the time how he develops these instrumental sounds, made famous in his 1988 hit ``Don't Worry, Be Happy'' and TV jeans commercials. But he says he isn't trying to mimic instruments.

``We need to define everything. If I sing something and it sounds like something, I'm not trying to imitate it. But if you think that sounds like, say, a cello that's cool. ... We're connecting on some level,'' he said.

``When I started, I wanted to see what kinds of sounds could come out of me. I think I have found most of them. I'm sure I have a broader palette than I had at the beginning,'' he said.

McFerrin's program of classical and baroque music Tuesday night at the Lied Center may have come as a surprise to those familiar only with his vocalese. For the singer, it was like a trip back home.

``My father sang in the Metropolitan Opera. My earliest memories were of being in a classical house, even though it was interspersed with Joe Henderson, Count Basie, Billie Holiday. ... In some ways it feels like a return to my roots,'' he said.

McFerrin, 43, began studying music theory at age 6. He played keyboards in a myriad of groups until 1977, when a voice inside him told him to be a singer.

``Besides getting an immense amount of pleasure from singing, it's like being on sacred ground,'' he said. ``Singing reminds me of beginnings, of simplicity and sincerity. ... It's a good way of moving energy through your body. It's a good way to say things that couldn't be said otherwise.''

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