HomeRecording Review: Bobby McFerrin, "VOCAbuLarieS"

Marisa's picture

"take away the words, letting all the sounds just play" --"Say Ladeo", VOCAbuLarieS

When an incredibly gifted artist devotes seven years to creating a magnum opus, it is worth perking up one's ears.  Bobby McFerrin's VOCAbuLarieS is indeed a great work: a collection of sonic poems, born of his incredibly creative improvisations and embracing the full range of his voice and the broadest possible range of styles.  The record is aptly named: he uses vocals---his own voice and those of many talented guests---and many of the earth's languages to create an aural vocabulary.

And what vocabulary is that?  The words themselves are in English, Latin, Sanskrit, Spanish, Italian, Zulu, Russian, Hebrew, Portuguese, Mandarin, Japanese, French, Arabic, German and Gaelic.  The musical vocabulary calls on R&B, gospel, sacred choral music, Gregorian chant, African tribal music.  The poetry in the writing  could be classified as the vocabulary of 'sacred music': it is spiritual, and it weaves in the traditions and stories of many major religions, old and young.  And some of the words are simply of Bobby McFerrin's own invention: it is truly a vocabulary all his own.

The sound and feel is world music, albeit easily palatable to western ears.  It's far from pop music: there are seven songs, the shortest track clocking in at 6'13" and the others between 8' and 12'.  It recalls Paul Winter's "Concert for the Earth," at times combined with the energy of "Fela" and at other times stylistically similar to Imogen Heap.  (In fact, the opening of the second track, "Say Ladeo", reminds me very much of the opening of Imogen Heap's "Earth.")

The record stands up very well to intense listening: the singers (all 50+ of them!) are exquisite; Bobby McFerrin's emotive leads and resonant bass shine; the music nerds among us will have a field day with Roger Treece's arrangements.  The production is silky-smooth (listen to the opening track, "Baby", and marvel!).  Try it in a distraction-free zone with your best pair of headphones.

I want to do a social experiment with this record (How often do you say that?): let's play VOCAbuLarieS at a dinner party and see what people do.  It shifts through many moods -- driving, cheerful, peaceful, contemplative, playful, hopeful.  At times, we'll be on our feet dancing; at other times, sitting quietly and reflecting.  It seems that this record was built to keep the listener on her toes, so I think it'll be the life of the party!  And in fact, I propose a second experiment: I would love to see seven modern dance pieces choreographed to accompany this work.  (Again, how often can you say that about a record?)

You would expect the level of level of technical proficiency and the engineering on this record to be unsurpassed; they are.  And you may rest assured that VOCAbuLarieS bears no resemblance to the auto-tuned monsters of today's poorly-written popular songs.  Best of all, Bobby McFerrin's work is both deeply creative and deeply inspiring.  It will make your heart sing.


About the author:
Marisa Debowsky learned to love singing contemporary a cappella in days of yore (namely sixth grade), and sang her way through college and grad school (in the UVM Cat's Meow).  While in the Northeast, she co-founded and co-produced the Vermont A Cappella Summit.  She continues to be active in the community, both as a singer and an event organizer (and arranger and sometimes booking agent).