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May 20th, 2009
Music and Evolution
Bobby McFerrin on Culture and Music
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Bobby McFerrin: My friend Yo-Yo Ma, when we first met, we were very, very interested in each other’s music. I was starting to work on conducting, and he was very interested in improvisation. So we had many, many conversations about this. And he knew that he had to do something for his music-making, that had something that would take him to a deeper place in himself. And so after a few years of talking about this, he went to Africa and he went to Botswana, he went to not a town but sort of out in a village somewhere. Lots and lots and lots of music-making and what have you. But in the beginning, there’s two stories that defined and shaped my musical life ever since I had heard them. “Well,” I thought “I have to make music like that.”

The first story is where when he arrived in this village, there was an interpreter who was trying to explain to the villagers that Yo-Yo Ma was going to play a concert at 7:30 at this place somewhere. And they had a hard time comprehending this for two reasons. One, they didn’t understand why they had to wait to hear music. Why did we have to wait to hear him play? And why do we have to leave where we are to go somewhere else to hear it. Because music was so integrated in their life. They had no concept of performance because music was so much a part of their lives, that there was no such thing as it. People were simply getting together and playing and they were celebrating everything. They were celebrating life, birth, harvest, hunting, you know, everything. So this I thought, “Okay I want to be the kind of musician where music is with me whether I’m on stage or not.” And when I’m on stage there’s nothing different except maybe the space. But what I’ve taken on stage with me is the same, it’s not different, it’s just being myself, the same self that I am just when I’m just getting out of bed in the morning, It’s the same musical self that I take with me on stage.

The second story is this: when Yo-Yo wanted to leave, when it was time to go—he’d been there for a couple of weeks, I think—he wanted to take some music with him to remind him about the experience. And the village shaman shared one of the village songs, and Yo Yo took out his manuscript so he could write it down. And the shaman is saying (singing notes) and Yo-Yo said, “Stop, I need to write this down.” So he writes it down. And he says, “Play it again, I want to make sure I got this right.” And the shaman sings (sings notes). And Yo Yo is saying But that’s not the piece you sang before. The shaman laughed and said “The first time I sang it there was a herd of antelope in the distance and a cloud was passing over the sun.” So this is the part that we lost. Every time a piece of music is played, one time there is a herd of antelope, and one time there’s not. And we turn in these cookie-cutter performances. Everything is so laid down and regimented and locked-in and so rehearsed, that they squeeze the life out of it. It no longer has any life in it because no one is open to surprise, no one is open to any spontaneous event that can happen. Everything is just dictated, and this is the way it’s gonna be. I think that’s the part that we’ve lost.

  • tracycentral

    This has the wheels in my mind turning.

  • Justaguy

    Very, very interesting.

  • Mookie

    Amazing for sure. I spent a number of years with the band Fishbone and I always thought the same way. I never heard the same “song” twice.

    Thanks for this.

  • Sharon Burch

    Love it! It verbalizes what you sense every time Bobby sings and shares the music emanating from within. Thanks for sharing this piece of your musical journey, Bobby. You inspire everyone around you.

  • joel

    this reminds me of the ideals of phish, and bands like that. music is freedom, and every time they play live they try to make it a different experience; not “cookie cutter” each time a song is played, there is a difference from the last time they played it. very nice, i like this ideal of music.

  • bob y.

    It was so easy for you to say what I’ve been trying to say for so long. I know , however, that having a spontaneous performance with OTHERS, although attainable, would probably not make a performance appreciated by others. That kind of trust, in our world, would take more between people than our egos might allow. Too bad, huh? But you answered something I had trouble understanding…that is , why we lose our right brain abilities upon waking. Thanks.

  • Carla Moreno

    Preach it Bobby! this is why I do what I do. Thank you!

  • senfeskotes

    I’m a huge fan of all kinds of music (most kinds even) and a musician myself. I’ve performed in the improvisational/unregimented music of jazz/fusion/funk, to the “cookie cutter” performances of classical and metal. Why, just because metal and classical are regimented, does it mean that they lack any meaning? Why have we “lost” something by playing those kinds? Just because you’re playing the same thing twice, doesn’t mean each time you play it, it will yield the same feeling. Metal and classical are two of the most technically difficult genres of music to play, and many musicians love that, because it takes a high degree of musicianship to play like that.

    As listeners, we crave familiarity AND changes. Unfortunately, familiarity has prevailed for some reason, which I don’t necessarily agree with. Kids hear songs on the radio 5, 10, 15 times in a row, know all the words and therefore its their favorite song (mere exposure effect). If it changed every time, I’m not sure people would understand or like it as much. There’s a difference between free music (COMPLETE improvisation) and structured improvisation. Yeah, Phish improvises a lot, but they have STRUCTURE. That’s why they have certain songs, with certain parts, certain grooves. We need familiarity and something constant as well as change.

  • Valerie

    EXACTLY — It’s a feeling of the present expressed at that moment!! Let there be songs to fill the air!!

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  • Keith

    If you apply what’s said here to your life experiences it begins to provide an understanding as to how music helps to burn images and places into your memory. When the setting and the music resonate with you as an individual being, the memories last a lifetime (i.e “I remember hearing this when I was…”). I’ve met a few people in my life who claim that they “don’t listen to music.” I always am surprised and saddened but such statements. How can something that gives such pleasure to so many do “nothing” for others?

  • story

    so true.
    whats sad is how our society doesn’t see that, but instead thinks its good when its “precise” and in the lifeless form.

  • Hugh

    V.Interesting; Sounds like an idyll I’d like to create for myself when making music. I always try recording a first take with total improvisation on melody and music, with and without existing lyrics e.g. http://hughdoolan.bandcamp.com/track/call-me-a-scarecrow
    Makes it more interesting – Shamen know best it would seem!

  • Marilyn “T-gress” Haley-Jones

    The first time I heard your song “Don’t worry, be happy” helped me through many situations as a single mother and helped me discover that I can stop and see the moment to produce my art work.

  • childmilestar

    people who listen to phish dont realize they got their sound from people who came before, blue and jazz artists. go listen to some of herbie hancock’s fusion stuff, sounds just like phish. not really applicable to this. sorry bud but you missed the point.

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  • LukeSr

    Music evolves… the only reason a thought needs to be frozen in time is because it has to be explained and learned so who ever is on the receiving end understands it. We have done the same with music. But I fear it’s more because the industry or the label won’t make any money if we don’t. Bobby is right. We freeze music in time so it can be replayed the same way over and over. So, the question remains is why or should we allow it to evolve?

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