Meeting in the moment

Bobby McFerrin discusses his musical journey, love of collaboration

Bobby McFerrin has worked with some of the music world’s premier talent in a variety of genres, from Chick Corea to Questlove to the Vienna Philharmonic. But this weekend he will take the stage flanked not by giants of music, but by a healthy crop of artists raised and nurtured in Michigan.

The 10-time Grammy winning vocalist, perhaps best known for his 1988 hit, “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” brings “Bobby Meets Michigan” to the Wharton Center Saturday. The show is the latest in McFerrin’s collaborative “Bobby Meets … ” series, where the singer brings local artists on stage to create a unique program of music and dance.

McFerrin will be joined on stage by a variety of Michigan artists, including jazz and world musicians and a contemporary dancer. The roster includes two Lansing-based artists: violinist/vocalist Tia Imani Hanna and Igor Houwat, who plays an Arabic lute known as an oud. The artists will meet with McFerrin for the first time Saturday, just hours before the show, to lay out a plan for the mostly-improvised stage show.

City Pulse caught up with McFerrin to discuss his career, how he got started in music and his love of collaboration.

What are your earliest musical memories? When did you start playing/performing music?

I have a vivid memory of standing in my crib and singing to my sister, who was singing back to me through the wall that separated our bedrooms. And I remember conducting our living room stereo in a rousing performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, probably when I was around 3. Both my parents were singers, and the house was always full of music, all kinds of music. I can't remember a time when we didn't sing together, and I sang in the church choir, too — lots of Bach. But I thought I'd be different and be the instrumentalist in the family. I played clarinet very seriously, then switched to the piano, and I started my career as a pianist. I've never really imagined a life without music. But I always try not to perform. I just make music, and invite people to watch and listen — and sometimes sing along.

I’ve read that early in your career you didn’t listen to any other singers for a few years so you could develop your own vocal style. Is this true? Where did you look for inspiration?

I didn't realize I was a singer until I was 27, and in a way, I was lucky. I could hear it in my head, the sound I wanted to make. Then I just had to put in hours and hours and hours of practice so I could actually do it. But whenever I listen to a singer I like, I start imitating them, without even realizing it. I always tell developing singers to try and listen to instrumentalists while they are finding their own sound.

You’ve collaborated with some of the great jazz and classical artists of our time — Chick Corea, Joseph Zawinul and Yo- Yo Ma, just to name a few. What have you learned from these collaborations? How does collaborating change your approach to singing?

Making music with anyone changes my whole approach. Whether it's one of those incredibly great players or somebody from the audience who is really scared. It's always inspiring to make music with people. It's always inspiring to just listen.

Can you describe your approach to improvising? Do you have a plan before you start singing?

I just listen for the music and go where it leads me.

Tell me about the “Bobby Meets … ” concerts you have been putting together. What was the inspiration for this series?

Many years ago, my manager, Linda Goldstein, figured out that I love surprises. I love the moment of figuring out what to do next. So she started to arrange surprise guests during my shows. I'd be onstage and all of a sudden Wayne Shorter would appear out of nowhere in the audience and we'd make something happen. The album — I think there's a DVD too — called “Spontaneous Inventions” is a record of some of those incredible meetings. Then we realized that traveling all around the world, it would be fun to meet the local artists. Whether it's a monkey-chant ensemble in Indonesia or a fiddle band in Kentucky, it's really been amazing. Truth is, there's so much immigration and cross pollination in the world today, there are all kinds of wonderful artists everywhere. So in Russia we had an Afro-Cuban dancer who ran a school in St. Petersburg, and I think in East Lansing we've invited an oud player. But the whole idea is spontaneity. We don't rehearse beforehand. We try to let the audience in on the adventure of discovery. I love meeting people in the moment and seeing what happens.

I noticed that your son, Taylor McFerrin, is a budding music producer. His music is very electronic oriented, while your style has always felt very organic. Do you see a split there, or does it come from the same place?

Taylor is a very talented artist. You know, my father, who was the first African American to perform under contract at the Metropolitan Opera, was an incredibly disciplined musician who worked very hard not only to remain at the top of his craft, but to polish everything he presented. His influence on me was huge, and I both emulated him and rebelled. I've always loved spontaneity. At this point in his career, Taylor is planning things out, making careful arrangements of his songs. But I think he's inherited the family sense of responsibility to the music. You follow the music forward. Whether you make it up in the moment or craft it in the studio, the music tells you where to go.

Education has become an important facet of your career. What is the state of music programs in the U.S.?

You know, it's a misconception that I'm an expert on this. I'm in a very privileged position. I've been a guest artist and a clinician and a marquee name, and I love the bits of real teaching that I get to do. I did an episode of HBO's “Masterclass” that was great fun, and every summer we do a week-long vocal improvisation workshop at the Omega Institute in upstate New York. But my hat is off to the music teachers who are in the trenches every day, doing the best they can with limited resources. They are my heroes. I think music changes everything for kids. I think it's good for your brain.

You’ve made so many amazing recordings, but many people still know you as the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” guy. Does that ever frustrate you?

For me, making music — whether it's live or recorded — is always about joy and play and spontaneity. So I admit there were times I was frustrated that people wanted to hear that one song. But I've made peace with it. Truth is that I've gotten to reach a lot of people because of that song. And I'm very grateful.

"Bobby Meets Michigan"

Bobby McFerrin and guests 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 6 Tickets start at $38/$15 students Wharton Center 750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing (517) 432-2000,


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