Bobby McFerrin — winner of 10 Grammy Awards and creator of the No. 1 global hit “Don’t Worry Be Happy” — will bring his musical creativity to the Merced Theatre this Saturday, Nov. 18, starting at 3 p.m.
This special concert was made possible by the UC Merced UpstART program, and it will feature local community choirs and music students who have the opportunity to perform alongside of famed singer.
McFerrin’s vocal ensemble, Gimme5, is his latest vehicle for channeling the spontaneous adventure and laughter that occurs when folks join together in song. Gimme5 is based on Circlesinging, a musical practice and philosophy that McFerrin has been honing since he began as a solo acapella performer, assigning vocal parts to his fans and transforming sold-out houses into impromptu choirs.
On Saturday, McFerrin will be joined by Merced College professor Alex Simon and the Merced College Community Chorus. The choir will be performing alongside other local choirs and music students from Merced College and UC Merced.
“Above all I love singing with other people,” McFerrin replied to the Times when asked about the collaboration. “When I create Circlesongs, I just open my mouth and go, and invent parts for everyone around me to sing. The spirit leads and I never know what is going to come out, I really enjoy the surprise that these improvisations bring.”
Simon, the Merced College professor, says he expects a magical and enthralling musical experience for those who attend.
“Choral music is all about creating a sense of unity, which is incredibly apparent in the music we will be singing for the concert,” he told the Times. “We will be showcasing singers of all ages, musical backgrounds, and experiences in this performance. For many of these singers, performing with McFerrin is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. These incredible musicians will perform some choral selections and improvise with McFerrin on-stage.”
Notably, this is not the first time Professor Simon has been able to perform with the renowned musician.
“I performed with Bobby McFerrin as a young musician in Oregon. It was by far the most impactful performance in my life. Our choir prepared selections written by McFerrin and also had the opportunity to improvise with him. I was in awe throughout the entire rehearsal process and specifically remember the audience’s lively reaction to the music that we sang. This concert is one of the primary reasons why I decided to go to school for music and ultimately pursue choral singing professionally.”
McFerrin says he was influenced by playing instruments and studying music as a child.
“I wanted to be an instrumentalist. I always loved to sing but everybody else in my family was a singer, and I wanted to be different, to have my own thing. First, I was really serious about the clarinet, then I was a pianist. I worked as a pianist from the time I was 14, and I was 27 before I suddenly realized I was a singer. It really was an epiphany, I was walking home from playing piano for a dance class, and suddenly I just knew.”
On the subject of his experiences with musical heritage, McFerrin reflected on what it was like to perform music that he saw his father (Robert McFerrin) sing as Porgy for Sidney Poitier in the 1959 film adaptation of Porgy and Bess.
“Not only did he sing the role of Porgy, he moved our family out to California to take the job. My dad’s work ethic is still deeply imprinted on my memory. Learning an opera role, or teaching his students, or getting ready to record his album of spirituals, I listened to him and learned a lifetime of lessons about preparation and discipline. So when he got the call to sing Porgy the music played in our house all the time, and so did all the rest of Gershwin’s work, everything. It became the soundtrack to a particular time in our lives.”
Throughout his career, as mentioned, McFerrin has done a number of truly monumental things along his pursuit of crafting music, yet his heart still remains fixed on the simple pleasures, and family.
When the Times asked about the accomplishments McFerrin is most proud of, he replied, “Singing with my family around the house, in the car, the whole time they were growing up, and still when they come to visit. I love it when I get to sing with them. Madison, Taylor, and Jevon all have careers of their own, and I am very proud of them.”
And, this deep love of music was explained further by his response to being asked about what he feels like being on stage, performing, and sharing his talents with the world.
“I want to bring audiences into the incredible feeling of joy and freedom I get when I sing. The truth is I don’t know why I feel so much freedom when I sing. It’s one of those mysterious gifts. But I don’t think it’s just me, I think singing has the power to make us all feel that way. I learned recently that the word that’s translated as ‘spirit’ in most of the versions of the Bible we use has a double meaning in the original language: it also simply means ‘breath.’ Our breath is our spirit. We just can’t help connecting to the spirit when we sing.”
General Admission to the performance are $10 and can be purchased at the Merced Theatre Box Office (301 W Main St. in downtown Merced), through Friday, 1 p.m. – 5 p.m. Students may pick up free tickets at the Multicultural Arts Center (645 W. Main St.), through Saturday, 2 p.m. – 6 p.m.) with valid student ID.