Elevate Difference

1st International Body Music Festival (12/05/2008)

San Francisco, California

I love step teams, hand-clapping games, and beat-boxing. I even once had a plan to create a band out of fat people playing drumbeats on our stomachs (it was going to be called “Bongo Jam”), but I never thought of this as falling into a specific category of music. Body music, of course. I was lucky enough to attend the opening night performance of the first International Body Music Festival, an extravaganza of performances and workshops, which took place over a weekend in the Bay Area. The event covered a wide range of musical and dance styles and traditions, and was truly international with performers from the US, Brazil, Turkey, Bali, and Canada.

The immediacy of the body as an instrument means there is nothing to hide behind, for performers or audience members. The whole event was so visceral. I loved the way it interrupted the tendency of audience members to resign themselves to simply being spectators; the audience became involved, sometimes being called upon to breathe or snap in time, erupting into whoops and thunderous foot-stomping at the end of acts that moved us to really feel ourselves and our connection to our environment.

The soft, watery movements of the Turkish duo Kekeca played out over long cycles that don’t fit into 4/4 or other recognizable time signatures, offering a sinking in rather than a showing. The solid beats and goofy antics of French clowning duo Loop It, who made the kids in the audience shriek with laughter, elicited my delight when showcasing the various sounds made by hitting belly fat (Bongo Jam!). The Hambone tradition was revived and revitalized by Derique McGee. His hands moved so fast they were literally a blur, but never missed a beat. Interweaving melodies, jungle sounds, warrior games, and dazzling visual patterns were highlighted in a piece created specifically for this show by Dewa Putu Berata, a Balinese artist. And these are just some of the possibilities of body-as-instrument.

“How do you figure out that you are good at this?” my girlfriend wondered to me at intermission. My guess is you just start doing it, and you get obsessed. I remember spending hours playing “see-see-oh-playmate” with my sister when we were kids, perfecting our timing, going as fast as possible. I could see myself on this stage if my life had gone in another direction.

The MC, Diane Ferlatte, spoke about her ancestors being brought here from Africa, having everything taken from them—their names, their languages, even their drums. ("They thought they were using them to communicate. And we were!") But they still had their bodies, and they used them to make rhythms. This, she said, is what we have when everything else is taken away.

I was touched by the stunning intimacy of Inuit throat-singers Celine Kalluk and Lucie Idlout, cousins who stood face to face, grasping each other’s elbows and singing into each other’s mouths, using their throats as echo chambers. Their songs reflected sounds from their environment: melting ice on the rivers, a saw cutting down a tree. The songs had no endings; they would go as long as they could, a kind of contest, pushing each other until they would burst into laughter. It made me miss my sister.

I was mesmerized and lulled by tai chi master Dr. Alex Feng, who flowed around the stage in shimmering white fabric that caught the light and deflected sound. I kept waiting for music to come in. I could hear chirpings from backstage, so low I almost believed I was imagining them. Afterward, the MC commented on the need for silence in order to recognize music.

The whole show was great, but the truly spectacular moment of the evening was Barbatuques, a Brazilian ensemble who were making their North American debut. Their beats were powerful, the dancing playful and ecstatic, weaving contemporary and traditional influences. And the singing! Strong voices, more open and immediate than the sound of most trained American singers. Loud, joyful, childlike, and expressive. Music that plays through your whole body. They utilized a jaw harp, rapped in Portuguese, and wore super cute outfits. I went home and looked them up on YouTube, posted about them on Facebook, and watched their video over and over again. But nothing could let me relive the stampeding feet, whoops, and hollers of an audience entranced and engulfed in the power of their presence.

Written by: Nomy Lamm, December 30th 2008