Pitchforks Beatboxer ~ Josh Kalejaye

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.   

[William Anthony Laursen Sperduto]