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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

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Another musical legend has passed away. The sitar player Ravi Shankar died yesterday at the age of 92. A spiritual and musical guru to many Western seekers, most famously George Harrison of the Beatles, he was also a teacher and a father. I think I’d like to best remember him as just that. Here he is instructing, improvising, jamming with his daughter Anoushka Shankar.

Loved Krista’s interview with her way back in 2003!

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The Elemental Force of Music and the Human Voice: A Place Where Grace Can Come In with Bobby McFerrin

by Krista Tippett, host

Bobby McFerrin Chatting After InterviewYears ago, when my children were young, we danced around the house to Bobby McFerrin’s Hush album. I’ve followed his adventures with magnificent orchestras and with the jazz great Chick Corea. I’ve heard his setting of the 23rd Psalm, addressed to a female deity, played in churches. And I’ve watched him leading thousands of strangers in the “Ave Maria” — singing notes they did not know they knew to sing — to their own deep delight.

Bobby McFerrin is an explorer on frontiers of the human voice; he sings the territory between music and the human spirit. I knew this when I sat down to speak with him, but I couldn’t guess how beautifully he would be able to put it into words or how theologically he does so. As an interviewer, I’ve learned that words can be unfamiliar and blunt tools for people whose principal mode of expression is art.

As we first begin to speak, this famously hyperkinetic performer is very quiet. He tells me that as a teenager he considered becoming a monk, because of his love of quiet. He tilts his head upward, with a thoughtful smile, and says he was fascinated by the monastic rhythm of life that brought one, compulsively and predictably, back to an awareness of the presence of God.

Bobby McFerrin instead took up art as a measure of his days. His way of making music — “catching songs” as he describes it — points at the elemental force of music, especially the human voice, in what is human and what is sacred.

As I was preparing to interview him, I found an online review struggling with the spirituality that is never far from the surface in Bobby McFerrin’s music. “He may be spiritual,” the blogger wrote, “but he apparently knows the world of the flesh as well, and has a very wicked sense of humor.” Here’s the truth as I see it: spirit, body, and playfulness are of a piece in Bobby McFerrin’s music and his person, as they are in all of us when we’re getting the complexity of our being halfway right.

But he takes it a step further. He uses music, as he tells me, to lean into that place where flesh and spirit are in tension. He sings the Psalms, pacing back and forth for his morning prayer. He loves that they mine the sweep of human experience, from gratitude and delight to rage and self-pity. He even proposes singing in moments of temptation — singing, before saying a word or lodging a critique that you know is unkind, or that you know would be best kept for another moment. Singing as an ethical discipline.

I begin to wonder if this is a subtle part of the reason that we find music and musicality of wondrous variety at the very heart of our many religious traditions. As breath has a power to join body, mind, and spirit, so too and more passionately does music. Bobby McFerrin’s projects across the years — including his “instant opera” Bobble, inspired by the biblical Tower of Babel story — have incorporated Tibetan throat singing, Qur’anic recitation, and liturgical chant. He attends an African-American church sometimes, he tells me, and it cannot help but be soaked in energy and beauty, because the worship service is a kind of addendum to hours of singing together.

Bobby McFerrin - World Science FestivalIn recent years, Bobby McFerrin has taken the mysterious and life-giving delight of singing together to rooms full of strangers. On a stage with neuroscientists at the World Science Festival, he moved his body and the audience saw and sang the pentatonic scale. Science is now able to study what is happening in our brains in this kind of musical moment. And at the same time, we rediscover the primal joy and homecoming in the simple act of singing together with a bunch of other people. There’s a parable of our time in there, one that I like.

Near the end of our conversation, he tells a remarkable story of an ethnomusicology student who came to one of his concerts and approached him backstage with some urgency. She had been unearthing and cataloguing dead, extinct languages in Africa. How, she asked him, do you know some of these languages? He was, she said, singing their vocabulary and syntax when he was ostensibly improvising.

We are “embodied memories,” Bobby McFerrin says. Music may be one key (the only key?) to unlocking some of those. For me, this story also makes me wonder, “Is music older than language? Is song at least as elemental to what it means to be human as words?”

Bobby McFerrin says, “This is what I want everyone to experience at the end of my concert … this sense of rejoicing. I don’t want them to be blown away by what I do. I want them to have a sense of real, real joy from the depths of their being. Because I think when you take them to that place, then you open up a place where grace can come in.”

Grace came in to my conversation with Bobby McFerrin. And it’s left me humming.

Photo by Trent Gilliss.

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Bobby McFerrin’s Daily Singing Exercise

by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

Bobby McFerrin be HappyBobby McFerrin at TED2011. (photo: Steve Jurvetson/Flickr, cc by 2.0)

The musician Bobby McFerrin describes the art and act of improvisation as “simply motion, just the courage to keep moving.” In the audio above (from this week’s show "Catching Song"), he offers a three-week challenge for building improvisational muscles and describes how it works. Here are the steps:

  1. Set a timer for 10 minutes.
  2. Open up your mouth and sing.
  3. Don’t stop for 10 minutes.
  4. Do this every day for three weeks.

Sounds pretty simple, right? McFerrin, however, warns that every inch, atom, and molecule of your being will want to bail. Self-judgment will creep in. But don’t falter. Keep going. McFerrin holds open the tantalizing promise that, in a few short weeks, you’ll see a change.

So, who’s up for the challenge?

Once you’ve tried McFerrin’s improvisational workout, we’d love to hear what it was like. What surprised you? Delighted you? Share your reflections here in the comments section. You can even record yourself and send in your improvisational vocal creations here at (612) 326-4044. If enough people participate, we’ll produce an audio montage and post it to the blog.

Are you in?

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Tuesday Evening Melody: Bobby McFerrin + Esperanza Spalding Jam at the Grammys

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Next week we release our show with Bobby McFerrin for Father’s Day. I guarantee you’ll want to download it. It’s a magical, somewhat unexpected conversation. One of the ideas he and Krista dig into is the importance of improvisation — and how he finds great meaning in the mystery of the moment, even embracing the fear of unexpectedness.

This duet with Esperanza (yeah, we’re on a first-name basis) is out of this world. Take a few minutes to pay witness and enjoy.

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Bobby McFerrin Live Video with Krista Tippett

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Musician, conductor, composer Bobby McFerrin seems to have achieved two disparate levels of fame or infamy depending on who you ask.

Bobby McFerrin

One group of audiophiles I know marvel at his four-octave vocal range, improvisational skills, and musicianship, especially his conducting work with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and collaborations with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and jazz great Chick Corea. Another group remembers his popular culture contributions: that billboard-topping hit "Don’t Worry, Be Happy" or the The Cosby Show season 4 opener, and may recall those 10 Grammy awards he has accepted over the years.

When we saw Bobby “hacking your brain" with the pentatonic scale and taking an interest in neuroscience, we knew that he was after some of the same questions On Being loves to explore.

We hope you enjoy this live Web stream of his interview with Krista Tippett in the rehearsal room of Orchestra Hall just before his solo performance in Minneapolis.

Photo by Carol Friedman.

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