Bobby McFerrin & Friends

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Bobby McFerrin (vocals)

Impure Thoughts:
Michael Wolff (keyboards)
Badal Roy (tablas)
Mike Clark (drums)
John B Williams (bass)

African Children’s Choir
Jemimah Nasanga (director)


Reviewed by: Rob Witts

Reviewed: 7 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Bobby McFerrin is the best music teacher you never had. Seated in front of the African Children’s Choir, he prompts its members to copy his vocal licks, and in seconds teaches them a harmonised riff that he scats effortlessly over. He reduces them to fits of giggles with outlandish sounds, communicating without need of earthbound spoken language.

But a music lesson, however artfully given, is not a concert. McFerrin’s return to the Proms, after his popular success in 2003, was a misguided and unsatisfying hotchpotch of elements, assembled under the tarnished banner of “Africa 05”. This is not to deny McFerrin’s charisma and virtuoso technique as an improviser; his freewheeling vocalising at the end of the first half was a high point. He mimicked the sound of the African mbira, striking his chest for percussive effects, and produced deep-throat harmonics to wow the crowd. He reprised his famous trick of scatting the piano accompaniment to the audience’s rendition of “Ave Maria” (carried mainly by some fulsome voices in the Arena) and set up a call-and-response during a lively rendition of Sonny Rollins’s “St Thomas”.

The African Children’s Choir sang less skilfully but no less energetically, with plenty of well-drilled choreography. There was a worryingly portentous American voice-over before the opening set of traditional songs, which did nothing to dispel the sense that the children were being applauded more as sentimental symbols of pure and uncorrupted nature than as performers. They were followed, awkwardly, by Michael Wolff and his group “Impure Thoughts”, who played some aimless jazz-fusion; Wolff’s smarmy patter, overburdened with superlatives for his band-mates, was equally out of place.

In the second half, McFerrin, the choir, and Impure Thoughts were laboriously combined in every possible permutation. Jemimah Nasanga, the choir director, sang a cloying Celine Dion ballad whose lyric (“You were my strength when I was weak/You were my voice when I couldn’t speak”) seemed in bizarrely bad taste when delivered to a prosperous Western audience. McFerrin clowned around to fill time, and later was pointlessly relegated to the sidelines for another tedious “Impure Thoughts” jam. There was rapturous applause throughout, but it seemed to be more for the patronising worthiness of the occasion rather than its rather thin musical rewards.

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