It was a Sunday afternoon at Boston Symphony Hall and 10-time Grammy award winner Bobby McFerrin sat center-stage, tapping his chest and gently keeping rhythm with his feet.
Based on the sounds, one would think that an electric guitarist was playing in the wings. But it was the sound of a human beat box at play.
After performing a series of melodies, McFerrin walked to the edge of the stage and took a seat.
“I have a mic,” he said, “and anyone that wants to sing something, feel free to come up.”
More than a dozen people raced for the stage as if they were children running after an ice-cream truck. In response, McFerrin made a face and braced his body for the ensuing ambush.
“Okay, not everyone can do this,” he said before allowing only 10 of the wanna-be participants to stay.
One young woman, Katya, started off. She wanted to sing the blues while McFerrin played the bass.
The next volunteer did not know what she wanted to sing. McFerrin saw an opening for a joke. He folded his arms in front of his chest and tapped his feet — waiting. The audience was tickled.
“Okay, so let’s start something up,” he said and began with a rapid throbbing sound that the girl tried to match.
The third volunteer was greeted with a joke also. “Who are you and what are you doing here?” McFerrin asked in a Darth Vader-like voice.
The young man introduced himself, and then told the human beat box to put out anything he wanted and he would just follow along.
McFerrin started off with the sound of a faint whistle that led to an explosive bomb sound. Surprisingly, the young man followed. Before too long, McFerrin switched the tune to something bluesy and experimental while the young man continued to mimic him.
The fourth volunteer started off beat boxing with interceptions of turntable scratching. McFerrin appeared impressed. He wanted to find a way in, but started with a rap instead: “I gotta figure it out/gotta figure it out/when there’s no doubt/I gotta figure it out/I feel you man it’s cooI/but I think I gotta go back to school.”
McFerrin was wrong on that last line. He doesn’t need anymore schooling. His live performance demonstrated his wide range in voice as well as his unique ability to produce accompanying instrumentals that are all created with his mouth and chest thumping.
He gave an interactive performance that invited his audience to sing along on popular tunes like the theme song to the “Beverly Hillbillies,” “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt,” and even a 10-minute run-through of the original tunes of the television classic “The Wizard of Oz” that ended with him tossing the contents of his water bottle on his body before melting down and singing “Ding Dong The Wicked Witch Is Dead.”
At one point, McFerrin told the audience that it was time for him to sit and listen. He then introduced the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College. The choir’s youth section included about 100 vocalists. At one pojnt, McFerrin led the youth in an enigmatic performance of chants and harmonies.
It’s been eight years since McFerrin released a new CD, and on last month’s visit to Boston, he gave a sneak preview of some of the tunes on “VOCAbuLieS,” scheduled for release this week.
The CD is an amalgam of vocals in Latin, Italian, Sanskrit, Zulu, Spanish, Russian, Hebrew, Portuguese, Mandarin, Japanese, French, Arabic, German, English, Gaelic, and McFerrin’s own invented language — Bobby-talk.