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Slap Happy

November 28, 2008

I don't often devote blog posts to highlighting upcoming events. But the other day my eyes alighted upon a flyer in a cafe promoting an intriguing Festival that's happening next week in the Bay Area. So I went online to find out more about it and decided I had to spread the word.

The non-profit arts organization Crosspulse is hosting what may be the world's first Body Music Festival. Here's the scoop from the event's media release. (Again, I don't normally regurgitate press releases in blog posts. But this one is very well-written and provides a lot of pretty interesting, in-depth information about the Festival and its artists. So I decided to bend the rules on this occasion and include it here in full):

Hambone. Gumboot. Palmas. Kecak. From the tundra to the tropics, people can't resist the urge to snap, clap, step, slap, holler, and sing artful music. This universal resonator--our bodies--and its myriad global sounds will ignite audiences at the First International Body Music Festival in San Francisco and Oakland (December 2-7, 2008), featuring body musicians performing traditional and contemporary pieces from the U.S., Brazil, Indonesia, Turkey, Canada's Arctic, and other popping, stomping, humming corners of the world.

Along with presenting world-premiere pieces and USA debuts, the Festival will reach out to educators and young people via workshops; to families with a kid-friendly matinee; and to aspiring body musicians with what might just be the world's first body music open mic.

Body music pioneer and Festival director Keith Terry's vision of a global musical shindig goes beyond trading rhythms or belly-slap techniques. It's about a cross-cultural conversation touching that visceral place that only the world's oldest instrument can reach, as Terry was reminded recently while directing a workshop. "I was teaching a rhythm that involved touching the chest and then snapping, stepping, and singing. I wasn't looking at the class; I was just listening," says Terry, who won a Guggenheim Fellowship for his body music work. "It was beautiful so I let it go on for a while and when I turned around I saw most of the room in tears. There was something about the act of touching the chest that moved everyone. It was about the heart."

Until recently, body music's global adventure in deep connections and corporeal rhythm was unfolding independently across the globe, its pop culture presence ebbing and waning as interest in hambone or Stomp came and went. Then came YouTube.

Terry was surfing for body music videos on the Internet when he came across the eye-opening work of a São Paulo ensemble called Barbatuques. "We were on parallel paths, but with obviously different end results," Terry explains. Eager to find out more, Terry got in touch with director Fernando Barba, one of Brazil's body music trailblazers, only to discover that Barba had just been planning to shoot Terry an email himself. This "blind connection," as Terry calls it, was the beginning of a great online friendship.

Barba and Terry's virtual connection lies at the heart of the Festival, in the form of a long-awaited, world-debut collaboration between the two body musicians' groups--Slammin All Body Band and Barbatuques. Oakland-based Slammin brings together globally inspired beatboxing and Terry's masterful, graceful body music with four soul-stirring vocalists. Barbatuques has been developing their unique "circle orchestra" of twelve musicians who rock out stunning versions of samba and maracatu classics by moving and vocalizing. Rather than focusing on body rhythms or vocals, the two groups use both. Although the two are from radically different cultural perspectives, they both emphasize groove and there are unexplainable parallels in the ways that they transpose instrumental music onto their bodies.

Yet the ties that bind body musicians are about more than psychic connections, streaming video, and stomping choruses. Many body musicians first fall in love with their instrument through childlike play, in lighthearted contexts. Barbatuques' Barba first discovered that his body was "a toy with sound" as a teenager: "When I walked, I daydreamed, imagining melodies and putting rhythm to my steps. Without noticing, the hands followed, looking for a drumming sound, mixing sounds on my chest, hands, and snapping. It was a new game," Barba recalls. In the same spirit, Terry's body music was influenced by his work as the co-founder and drummer for the Jazz Tap Ensemble and sound effects guy for the Pickle Family Circus.

Musical exchange, the Festival's bread and butter, helps unlock a whole range of human perspectives that Terry feels are often overlooked. "Rhythm and body movement across cultures reveal not only a sonic diversity but a breadth of world views, allowing us all to break out of our everyday perspectives, to understand each other at a more meaningful level," says Terry. "If I listen carefully and find your timing, your rhythm, it accelerates our relationship. When you walk in step with someone, you breathe together. And the conversation can go much deeper."

The language of body music varies from culture to culture, but the core impulse is rooted in a deep artistic expression through the human body. Moroccans have their own way of clapping, producing pops with fingers spread. Sumatrans slap their bellies just so, in a way unheard elsewhere. In the crevices and curves of human existence, in the resonating chambers of the human body and soul, discoveries are made and brought to aural and visual awareness for audiences and celebrants worldwide.

In Balinese kecak, the interlocking monkey chant associated with the epic Ramayana (and as popularized in the film Baraka), a large ensemble of vocalists resounds with the same rhythmic complexity heard on the gamelan. Body Tjak, a collaborative project Terry has been co-directing for twenty years, weaves body music and kecak into a seamless blend of movement and sound. The Kecak Project, the joint effort of extraordinary young Balinese composer Dewa Putu Barata and two Oakland-based gamelan ensembles, Gamelan Sekar Jaya and Gamelan X, will create a new kecak piece specifically for the Festival.

A very different conversation unfolds in the work of Turkish body musicians KeKeÇa. The duo, with backgrounds in theater and folk music, transform Turkish traditional songs into gentle pieces for the body with a flowing subtlety--an elegant departure from the athletic prowess sometimes associated with body music.

In a more traditional tête-à-tête, Celina Kalluk and partner sing Inuit vocal games from Canada's arctic territory of Nunavut. To play, two partners sing into each other's mouths, only a few inches apart, and interweave breath and voice until one of them gets tripped up or hyperventilates. The sound simultaneously evokes ancient history and futuristic sonics of electronic music. Terry recalls the first time he heard Inuit throat games live, "Every tune would end in laughter, because of the hyperventilation. The audience would anticipate the end, and then the entire room would break into laughter. It was contagious. It's such a playful form."

One local tradition highlighted at the festival and stretching far into the African-American past is hambone, which uses high-speed slaps to the thighs and chest as its musical palette. Perfected on the plantation when drums were prohibited, and later performed in vaudeville, hambone hit the airwaves and the white mainstream in the 1950s, with the Hambone Kids' hit "Hambone Hambone." Sam McGrier is one of those original Hambone Kids, and one of the few older artists still performing. Sam has been invited to perform with Derique McGee, whose youthful fascination with hambone has helped to keep this lightning-fast African-American tradition alive and clapping. Derique is an accomplished clown, proving that the serious art of Body Music can be hilariously joyful. Festival goers will have the unprecedented privilege of seeing these two hambone greats of different generations performing together.

On the experimental side, Montreal-based percussive dancer Sandy Silva blends the hard-hitting passion of Celtic step-dancing and flamenco with modern dance techniques, for a solo performance that blurs the boundary between body percussion and movement. Her musical versatility has taken her from jazz festival stages playing with Bobby McFerrin to "A Prairie Home Companion."

Beyond the compelling history, musical variety, and physical artistry of body music, "It's really about being human. It's a very visceral connection with all these different people. We're all playing our bodies," Terry reflects. "I'm excited about all these styles going on around the world, and I'd like more people to see them and enjoy them. It's a reminder of our humanity on a very basic level."

Ticket information for the Festival is available at


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