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May 21, 2013

Bobby McFerrin: Spirituals As Sung Prayers


Listen to Bobby McFerrin — onstage, warming up with his band — and it's like you're listening to an entire orchestra bubbling up through one man's body. He becomes a flute, a violin, a muted trumpet, a percussion instrument, a bird, you name it.

Spirityouall is an album McFerrin says he's wanted to make for many years, as he performs classic black spirituals with roots in enslaved communities, as well as songs he composed himself. Through the record, he says he hears the influence of his father, Robert McFerrin Sr., a renowned operatic baritone.

McFerrin says he remembers visits to the family's New York apartment from Hall Johnson, the great African-American musician, composer and choir director who devoted himself to preserving and elevating the spiritual as an art form.

"Hall Johnson, his grandmother was a slave," McFerrin tells NPR's Melissa Block. "And his grandmother would sing these pieces to him, so when she was teaching my father how to sing them, he knew exactly what he was talking about. He knew how to stretch a phrase, how to pronounce a word. You know, my father was very exact in his pronunciations. I grew up around two parents who insisted on correct grammar and correct pronunciations of the words that we spoke."

McFerrin says his father's voice is ever-present in his mind, especially when he conducts and works with a choir: "I insist on his round, warm tone when I'm working with a choir," he says. His father was very studious, making notes on scores with a pencil — something Bobby McFerrin now does himself.

"But when I was working on this record, it was very loose," McFerrin says. "I'm a quick study. I go for the understanding first. I might not get the notes right, but if I hear a piece once or twice and come to know what it's about –- to understand a piece -– then after that, everything just comes very easily for me, very quickly."
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Posted by acapnews at May 21, 2013 12:00 AM