In Germany they call him Stimmwunder or wonder voice. His meteoric career includes selling out Carnegie Hall; his "Simple Pleasures" album went platinum, and his "Don't Worry, Be Happy" hit became the first a capella single to make Billboard's No. 1 spot. "A capella" hardly does justice in describing the one-man chorus Bobby McFerrin created by overdubbing his voice accompanied by his orchestral body - thump, whack, hum and all.
After a two-year hiatus, McFerrin is back - but don't expect a reprise of "Simple Pleasures." There is an African word that describes McFerrin and his continuing accomplishments: Mzanghedwa, which means "one who dances to the music within." His new album "Medicine Music" comes from a deep well of creativity, and McFerrin fans will find new growth; those who thought he merely had a cute gimmick will be enchantedly surprised.Following through on a promise to develop a choral improvisational group, McFerrin presents Voicestra, a 10-member ensemble that performs under his direction on his album.
"Medicine Man" and "He Ran All the Way" offer African-inspired beats, while "The Garden" is a pure gospel rendering of the creation story. McFerrin's religious upbringing again comes to the fore with "Discipline," a revision of Hebrews 12:11-13. McFerrin told the Deseret News in a telephone interview earlier this month that the Bible lyrics were echoing through his head as he took them into the studio and improvised the melodies and harmonies. McFerrin makes "Discipline" a two-generation affirmation by including his father in the song. Robert McFerrin Sr., a former baritone with the Metropolitan Opera and the singer who dubbed Sidney Poitier's vocals for "Porgy and Bess," adds a rich note to the ever-timely biblical admonition to endure chastisement for the blessings that follow.
The upbeat "Yes, You" celebrates love in a committed relationship and is based on McFerrin's 15-year relationship with wife Debbie. Family again provides the theme in "Baby," as McFerrin experiments successfully with rhythm and repetition. "I wanted a simple thought that could be repeated in a way that would catch people's attention," he said.
McFerrin's world certainly recognizes injustice, and while the lyrics to "Angry" may not have a Bob Dylan-punch, the message comes through with conviction.
"Common Threads" is a hauntingly beautiful ballad that layers silky contrapuntal harmonies in one of the two tracks on the album with instrumentation other than voice. I listened to this without reading liner notes and felt a yearning, sorrowful message - discovering later that the music was accompaniment to the Oscar-winning documentary on the AIDS quilt. This song and "The 23rd Psalm" are worth double the price of the album. The 23rd Psalm is rewritten to say "she leadeth me" as a tribute to McFerrin's mother, celebrating the feminine aspect of God. McFerrin achieves pure, clear harmonies that reverently resound in sacred tones as if they were echoing from a vaulted sanctuary.
Indeed, McFerrin is dancing to the music within, and one hopes this well will never run dry.