Holli Dawson is a freelance writer who works in both fiction and non-fiction, with a particular focus on the arts and real estate. Her most recent work has been on behalf of a leading moving company.
A cappella music, or the art of oral music, has had a long history and spans multiple cultures, styles, and peoples. Humans have been singing without instrumentation since they could talk, so it has always struck me as odd that a cappella music is not more popular in the mainstream. While college students the world over flock to a cappella concerts, and music aficionados pay large sums to hear a cappella chorals, most people do not drop everything to buy the next great a cappella album, like they do to download Kanye West or Adele’s latest offering. A cappella music still exists on some strange fringe of the popular music sphere. This lesser popularity is not a devastating thing by any means, as there is clearly still a large sector of the population who does enjoy and support the music. There are, however, a few instances when a cappella’s recognition by a wider audience would be very justly deserved. Such is the case with Bobby McFerrin’s 1996 album, Circlesongs.
Bobby McFerrin is most widely known as the writer and singer of the 80’s hit, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, a catchy reggae-influenced confection that dares you not to hum it incessantly for the rest of the day after hearing it. Unfortunately, while the track provided a steady income, it also defined Mr. McFerrin in a way from which he was never quite able to break free. With a four octave range, the ability to sing polyphonically, and a level of performance creativity and charisma that is almost unmatched, Bobby McFerrin was already a multi-award winning jazz vocalist before his pop hit took over his life. His concerts, which always involve audience participation in improvised choral tapestries, are musically mind-bending experiences, and more than one person has cited their Bobby McFerrin concert experience as the best concert of their lives. So why did Circlesongs fly under the radar?
Like most a cappella music, the album is hard to define, and music reviewers and marketers like nothing more than to define the sound of a group or artist. Whether they are relating the music to the sound of another group, or are referencing the influence of another artist’s album, most musical publications like to display their encyclopedic knowledge of what came before. When an album is created that is not at least passing-ly derivative of another work, or is not easily categorized, it often ends being ignored. Circlesongs, with its largely improved musical tapestries sung in the style of a round, was released on a classical label, but is by no means traditional classical music. In fact, it is not jazz, rock, pop, or alternative either. It might best be defined as an album from that musical grab bag called “world music”, but that would not approach the heart of it either. Circlesongs is simply an a cappella album that pushes boundaries and causes one to rethink what is possible within the a cappella realm. It is Bobby McFerrin at his virtuosic best. Rather than taking pop hits and rearranging them, or revisiting classical music vocally, Circlesongs seems to re-inscribe the lines that define a cappella. Though one could say that the album has aged like fine wine that would imply that there were other albums like it. This is not the case. Circlesongs is still a groundbreaking album 15 years after its initially release, and it is still very much deserving of recognition by both the a cappella and mainstream musical communities.