On the first day of World Music, I was asked to think of a voice that I found captivating. I chose the lead voice in The Lion Sleeps Tonight by The Tokens. Throughout this course, I have cultivated a much more sophisticated understanding of what makes a voice captivating. I started by thinking about voices that are experimental, voices that venture into different registers, deviate from the everyday, the average, the norm and are brilliantly crafted. I knew I wanted a voice that not everyone can produce. Naturally, I was drawn to a cappella voices, which led me to Josh Kalejaye - the beatboxer for the Pitchforks. I have known Josh since we lived next door to one another in Wilson dorm freshman year. Over these last few years, I have attended a few Pitchfork arch sings and concerts and have never failed to be impressed and in awe of their vocal precision. My background in music, playing piano and alto, tenor, and baritone saxophone since third grade, allows me to enjoy these performances much more and understand the time and effort required to make a group sound seamless and cohesive.
Having been in the Duke University Marching Band (DUMB) for the last three and a half years, my ear has been trained to recognize different percussion instruments - in particular, snare and base drums and cymbals. In the quest to find my voice for this project, I was drawn to the one that mimics well the DUMB's percussion. How could a voice produce sounds that convince a listener he or she is hearing drums? What behind-the-scenes work does it take to acquire that level of vocal virtuosity? What techniques must one develop? These questions reflect my amazement with and curiosity about beatboxing and all that goes into making this most captivating voice.
In brainstorming ideas with Professor Meintjes, I came up with a creative outline that seeks to answer my inquiries in a clear but mulitdimensional manner. To support my primary recording of Josh beatboxing, I follow it with five other compelling clips - 1) beatboxing's four basic sounds; 2) a perc / no perc contrast; 3) No More Running Away percussion vs. beatboxer; 4) a Giant Steps scat, and 5) a beatboxing flute. These supplementary recordings only begin to help me understand the stylistic complexity of a beatboxing voice.
Improvisation is not entirely random. Josh improvizes often in a seemingly random fashion, but his voice actually stems from four core elements: a base drum, snare, high hat, and rim tap. Josh will walk us through the syllables he chooses to most precisely reproduce the sounds of the four core percussion instruments. These pitches are different lengths and are articulated with different amounts of air power. Additionally, he also works in filler noises where they sound good, which one can only become more comfortable with through practice.
To gel with the a cappella crowd, I picked up the lingo: with perc and without perc. This refers to songs with and without percussion. I knew to better understand Josh's talented voice that I had to bring it back to one of our earliest units in class - Singing Together. How does Josh's voice contribute to the Pitchfork's overall sound? What role does it play? He provides driving baseline beats. He dictates the tempo. That said, he knows his place; he sings with the group instead of over or under them. When I think of percussion instruments, I often think of them as taking the backseat in a song. This notion, by no means, suggests that the background accompaniment is passive. Josh's voice is active and of equal importance if not of more importance than the other voices. The contrast leaves the listener with a slightly uncomfortable feeling. When the Pitchforks sing the exact same excerpt from Lady Marmalade again, the no perc segment almost feels vulnerable and out in the open. The Pitchforks are skilled enough to not let the song fall apart, but the no perc portion revealed to me what I find so remarkably gripping about the Pitchfork gigs - the presence of a drumset or kit without the actual instruments on stage. The latter half of this clip gave me a far less satisfying listening experience. To alleviate this incompleteness, I add in my own attempt at percussive instruments every time I listen.
The No More Running Away (by Air Traffic) recording has a threefold purpose. It gives a snippet of a song that has been passed down from previous Pitchforks to Josh to help him build his voice by practicing imitating drums. The clip then shifts to his imitation, which mirrors in many ways (including tempo, tone quality, note length, inflection, and accents) the Air Traffic drum players. Lastly, Josh mentions the most important thing in an arrangement is the syllables he chooses and furthermore his ability to feel comfortable and teach others the syllables so they too feel comfortable. This syllabic decision-making is the behind-the-scenes work I was referring to that is crucial in crafting an appropriate percussive voice. Only by listening extensively to others before him can Josh formulate a syllabic repertoire that he can return to and draw from as needed in the future.
Josh taught me that people can mimic percussion instruments, which led me to wonder ... can people mimic other instruments? If so, how? And which ones? Professor Meintjes helped me find Camille Bertault - the gifted singer capable of keeping up with the fast tempo of John Coltrane's saxophone solo in Giant Steps. Both Josh and Camille are displaying forms of instrumental imitation, but Camille actually sings note-for-note the solo, while Josh picks his own consonants to reproduce the song he is mimicking. Beatboxing seems to require much more preparatory work, but it and Camille's clip demand a great deal of effort and vocal meticulousness.
I think it is only fair, since I have included beatboxing and instruments in previous clips, to explore their interaction when placed together by Greg Pattillo. His beatboxing flute demonstrates the ability to use one's mouth simultaneously to execute superb air control. The air flow that allows the flute to make a sound is the same air used to support percussive pitches. Greg illustrates the complexity of one's voice and how it can take on two forms at the same time. His clip helps us comprehend how different tones are expressed by engaging different parts of our throat, mouth, tongue, and vocal chords. Interestingly, in a video lesson that Greg Pattillo made available online, he describes the core beatboxing sounds he uses, and they are identical to Josh's basic four. Josh and Greg emphasize the efficacy of establishing a keen ear, which in turn helps one's voice master the intricacies of beatboxing.
Ultimately, in working with Josh, I have found the answers to my initial questions and come away with a much improved understanding of the strategies, techniques, practice methods, and stylistic choices involved in constructing a beatboxer's voice. That said, there is a lot I can still learn. Given more time, I would want to further develop my project by listening to other beatboxers to compare their approaches with Josh's, reading more about the history of the beatboxing culture, and experimenting with the versatility of own voice in an attempt to beatbox myself.
Josh's sample of beatboxing here serves as the launchpad from which the rest of the project takes form. The uninterrupted rhythms illuminate Josh's brilliant ability to smoothly and sneakily incorporate breaths into his work. His vocal flexibility and wide range of sounds reflect Josh's seemingly flawless shifts from engaging different parts of his mouth. Each time this clip is played the listener could selectively hear different elements and pay attention to different details. With that in mind, the text coupled with the other clips aims to breakdown the elaborateness of this primary recording.
To provide consistency to the structure of his beatboxing, Josh builds around four basic sounds - that of a base drum, a snare, a high hat, and a rim tap. The deep base drum sound is roughly 50-80% of any given song. Stylistically, Josh said he aggressively says the letter "b" to produce the base drum sound. He produces a "pff" sound to mimic the snare drum, but prefers the sharper, brighter "pfsh" sound. To copy a high hat, Josh articulates a repetitive "ts" pattern. It's challenging to describe the strategy in generating a rim tap, but he suggests it might be helpful to think of a glottal stop combined with a click (as if you are trying to clear your throat). The rim tap is the X-factor; it can either sound really good or really bad, and Josh said it is the hardest one for him to control. As far as the order of the core four sounds, tempo, volume, and rhythms, it is up to Josh. Each performance is another opportunity for improvisation.
The first half of this recording features the Pitchfork's with Josh singing their rendition of Labelle's Lady Marmalade; the second half has the Pitchfork's singing the same part of the song but without Josh. Besides the lead singer snapping his fingers, Josh's role is integral in the group's dynamic because it places a baseline on which the other singers can situate their own voices. With Josh, the song sounds full and grounded with identifiable down beats. He makes use of his four basic sounds and helps dictate the group's tempo. To get into the song, the first three seconds seem to build but then at 0:04s, the tempo slows. At 0:13s, he vibrates his lips. His part occupies a register that blends well and does not overpower the other singers. The Pitchforks are able to maintain their vocal integrity in the second half of the clip without Josh, but their singing is naked and exposed. If the Pitchforks were not as vocally talented, the group's control, balance, and organization may be compromised in Josh's absence.
The first six seconds of the clip opens with Air Traffic playing percussion instruments immediatley followed by Josh's percussive impression. He breaks his sounds down into syllables - making the sounds that correspond with the letters "d" and "b". The rapid base drum rhythm at the very beginning is best recreated with a rapid alternation between "d" and "b". Josh suggests that had he chosen other syllables or said "d" and "b" in a different order, it would not have worked. Another element he has to take into account is the speed with which the consonants are delivered. When thinking about speed, he gives the example of being able to say "duh, duh, duh, duh" more quickly than "bah, bah, bah, bah" because of the way his lips make shapes. While his part is often improvised, that does not mean it is entirely random; there is structure, strategy, and a keen ear behind his syllabic decisions. In contrast to my previous understanding of a cappella, Josh is not merely handed a part to sing; he designs his own part through an intricate, personalized arrangement process.
At first, I thought Camille Bertault singing John Coltrane's tenor saxophone solo in Giant Steps was a similar concept to Josh's singing percussive instruments, but he provided some insight into how they are actually two different processes. The big difference is that Camille is still singing as opposed to Josh is using vocal percussion. Whereas vocal percussion just uses consonants and harsher sounds to mimic drums, she is still singing notes but using the syllables she sings them on to mimic an instrument. This is actually a big thing in modern a capella. While things started off with a focus on harmonizing on lyrics and very simple backgrounds (Doo-wop for example with nonsense syllables, simple beats and lyrics, and little to no instrumentation), nowadays groups experiment with syllables. A lot of times, certain syllables are chosen to mimic an instrument sound. A good example might be the Pitchforks' version of Hysteria where a "jeh" sound is used as a stand in for electric guitar.
Greg Pattillo's playing of the Inspector Gadget Theme song on the flute actually lends itself to beatboxing simultaneously quite easily. The way you blow into a flute is less restricting than say a saxophone or a trumpet, so he is essentially beatboxing normally while playing the notes - beatboxing is pretty much just pushing out air with different positions of the mouth/tongue/lips. The two-in-one (instrumentalist-vocalist hybrid) technique is manageable and works well on the flute. This clip reminds me of our class discussion where we talked about engaging different parts of our mouth and throat in order to produce different sounds. Each sound was characterized by a different location - front, middle, back - of our mouths/tongues. In Pattillo's case, his tone comes from all three locations based on which percussive instrument he decides to mimic while the flute's tone comes from the tip of his tongue; he is exhaling and directing a constant flow of air and his beatboxing sounds (the same as Josh's four basic sounds) toward the flute's embouchure hole. To be successful, Josh and Greg emphasize the importance of practice and repetition with air and breath control.