AMERICAN vocalist Bobby McFerrin is known for his versatility. Asked if there’s any music he doesn’t sing, he says: “I can’t sing what I don’t hear, but wouldn’t rule anything out!”
He defies categorization and labels because he has broken all the rules and blurred the distinctions between genres. His ability to improvise and create new singing vocabularies seemingly has no limits.
When McFerrin performs live, the go-with-the-flow music experience of the moment is always different. He may sing the same songs from his catalogue of albums, but does so with a new interpretation each time.
McFerrin and his band performed at Shanghai Oriental Art Center last Sunday, four days after he turned 65, performing songs from his 2013 album “Spirityouall,” which he created with the idea of honoring his father and spirituals, or religious songs.
During the concert, McFerrin took a second microphone and sat on the edge of the stage, inviting audience members to come up and sing with him. Three brave fans went up one by one, singing an excerpt from the song.
The 10-time Grammy winner is from a family of singers. His father, Robert McFerrin Sr, was a baritone and the first African-American male to perform solo at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
“I grew up in a house full of music. All kinds of music, symphonies and opera and jazz and pop and top 40 and blues, everything. And we sang together all the time,” he says. “I’m very grateful for the way my parents introduced me to music.
“My dad made an album called ‘Deep River’ in 1957, and my memories of listening to him prepare for that recording are vivid. He was coached by Hall Johnson, whose grandmother was a slave and who also coached Mahalia Jackson,” he says via an e-mail prior to the concert.
“Spirityouall” reflects his faith. And he sees spirituals as something universal, the way life is, full of struggle, pain and joy.
“I truly believe all music is prayer, and the spirituals bring that home for me,” he says.
The tricky part is finding his own way to sing the songs, the vocalist says. “I couldn’t sing them the way my father did, he already did that better than I ever could.”
McFerrin is best known for the catchy tune “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” The a cappella hit rocketed up to No. 1 on the charts in the United States and earned him four Grammys in 1988.
But he has long stopped singing it and has gone on to explore something more with his music, letting each song live its own life without him.
“My path was pretty well established before I wrote and recorded ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy,’ I never set out to have a hit song,” he says. “I was just having fun and making music, exploring all the things my voice could do. After the song became so popular I kept doing just that!”
After disappearing from the music scene for two years, McFerrin returned to perform with jazz pianist Chick Corea and assembled a vocal troupe he named Voicestra, taking the role of conductor.
“I try to help the orchestra sing the music through their instruments,” he says. “I try to sing with my hands.”
McFerrin creates music that’s virtuosic and appeals to people regardless of culture.
“I just try to make the music that I hear in my head. I was exposed to lots of different kinds of music early, and to a lot of virtuosity, so I hear all those things,” he says. “If it appeals to me, I sing it. If it appeals to other people, that’s great too.”
He also collaborates with different artists and groups like Yo-Yo Ma and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
“There are always lots of ideas and possibilities. Some I can’t talk about yet. I am excited that later this spring I get to tour with Chick Corea again!” says the American.