Bobby McFerrin’s ‘Circlesongs’ and the Politics of Play
Written By Alexander Ullman for KQED Arts and Culture, May 2022
Do you remember the last thing you said aloud?
No? That’s ok. Try saying this: “Wow.” Pucker up. Let the lips widen and whip around a small ball of air before returning to their pursed shape. “W-O-W.” Now do it again. See that coworker looking at you strangely? Invite them to join you. “Wow.” Keep it up, until it loses all sense and becomes pure sound.
If you’re still with me, you’ve already enacted the core principle of Bobby McFerrin’s performance practice: playful repetition. For McFerrin, there’s a thin line between spoken word and song. A simple “wow” from the crowd becomes a bebop solo or a chorale in four-part harmony.
“As musicians,” McFerrin told me last week, “we say, ‘Okay, ready, set, play.’ And I take that literally. The stage is a platform for adventure…Everything is game.”
You might know McFerrin as the voice behind the 1988 hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” or even as one of the inspirations for Key and Peele’s “Kings of Mouth Noise” sketch. But scratch the surface of celebrity, and you’ll realize that McFerrin is one of the most inimitable musicians of the past 40 years: a virtuosic solo performer with a four-octave range, conductor of St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and 2020 NEA Jazz Master.
Now in his seventies, McFerrin has returned to the stage, performing his Circlesongs at Freight and Salvage each Monday through the end of May. It is the best kept secret in Berkeley right now. Playing the audience as his second instrument, McFerrin is clearly still an unparalleled creative force, a peaceful warrior of song.
A Communal Jam Session
McFerrin released Circlesongs as an album in 1997, but the term describes something much bigger: a completely improvised collective performance. The project began in the late 1980s, first as “Voicestra,” then “Hard Choral” in the nineties, and, until the pandemic, “Gimme 5.” The latest group, “Motion,” is aptly named.
“The simplest definition of improvisation is motion,” says McFerrin. “Play one note, then you play another one, and then another. And everyone can do that. It’s just like following words on a page.”
If improvising is like reading a book, it’s one we’re all writing. McFerrin leads Circlesongs, playing the microphone like a piccolo, his longtime soundman Dan Vicari adding just the right amount of reverb to turn the wooden paneled room into a European cathedral. But like any great improviser, McFerrin knows how to foreground others. Bryan Dyer sings a rubber-band bassline to every figure, accompanied by the uncanny realism of Dave Worm’s vocal percussion. Destani Wolf harmonizes above and below, while Tammi Brown takes us into heavens of the higher registers. If you’re a vocalist or instrumentalist, don’t forget your axe: you may find yourself onstage.
Circlesongs is a communal jam session, but it’s also a very personal affair. This is especially true for Dave Worm, who was a theology student in Berkeley in the 1980s when he discovered McFerrin’s music at Leopold’s Records. As Worm recalls, “I just thought, if I could ever sing like this guy … that would be the thing.”
Worm changed career trajectories, and later that year, when he was singing at a Christmas party at the Newman Center, in walked McFerrin. The chance encounter led to a series of auditions, and the two have now been performing together for nearly 30 years.
“I’ve done some concerts, and [beforehand] I felt physically lousy,” he explains. “And then I do the gig and find out that 90 minutes later, I feel so much better.”
Democratic Principles at Play
I’m usually wary, as a secular Jew in a Christain society, of any whiff of organized religion. But to become part of McFerrin’s communal canvas is to come as close to a religious experience as I’ve ever had. Circlesongs unsettles the distinction between the spiritual and the secular: it all comes full circle.
If you’re not “wow-ed” or easily moved, you’ll definitely learn something. McFerrin often tells stories about his father, Robert McFerrin Sr., who was the first African American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. As he tells it, “I used to hide under the piano as a kid. And so I heard some of his voice lessons.”
When he described these lessons to me, they sounded painstakingly detailed. But “Papa would take a mediocre singer and turn them into a really fine instrument.” With Circlesongs, McFerrin revises his father’s method by making play the most powerful pedagogy, teaching us that we are in fact our own best teachers.
Though singing collectively is an ancient practice, McFerrin’s Circlesongs gives it new meaning today. “I’ve been thinking a lot about musicians’ role during this time,” he told me, “the political unrest that’s going on in the world, on the planet. The threats to our everyday lives and the role that singing can have.”
Because we’ve spent the past five years fearing the rise of fascism, and the last two terrified of each other’s breath, Circlesongs is paean to the democratic principle of shared air. The performance reminded me of the etymological meaning of inspiration: to allow yourself to be breathed into. Even though the audience is vaccinated and masked, it’s still the first time—in a long time—where everyone laughing and singing around me felt less like a burden and more like a blessing.
Thus, McFerrin’s Circlesongs offers play as not just an aesthetics but a politics, a way not of escaping the problems of the world but a way of shaping them. “This might sound really naïve,” he says “but the first thing the politicians should do is sing. Talk later. They should first become acquainted with each other’s songs and dances and rituals.” Singing for him is not simply a celebration of victory nor a palliative for defeat, but a practice, something you do to instantiate change in the world everyday.
It’s no coincidence, then, that the show starts at 12pm. People are hungry for incorporating improvisation into their daily lives, and Circlesongs offers that nourishment weekly. If you can make it, but especially if you can’t, pay attention to the last thing you said—because every breath has the potential to take flight into song.
The improvisational singing technique called Circlesongs was created by Bobby McFerrin over a lifetime of groundbreaking vocal exploration. The spontaneously composed choral pieces we call Circlesongs invite the deepest listening and sensitivity, using all the vocabulary we know — call and response, global rhythms, soaring melodies, lush harmonies, funny noises, invented language, silence, prayers, and laughter. .
Circlesongs is an immersion in sound, creativity, and community. It challenges all participants to play, sing, invent, imagine, and explore. In the circle, we make music, build trust, take risks, and embrace life to the fullest. Every song, every voice has a place in the circle.
The Joy of Circlesongs
Sometimes on Wednesday’s, Bobby is joined by the Bay Area group Motion in a studio where they simply get together and “make stuff up,” creating music together.
Circlesongs creates what Bobby refers to as “Audience Art”, the audience comes in to the venue and we all play, we work with each other and listen to each other and join in as a community.
Making music on your own or together is, simply put, a joyful experience.
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