May 20th, 2009
Music and Evolution
Bobby McFerrin on Culture and Music

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.

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